Jean-Michel Basquiat - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips


    In Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat delves into "America's Favorite Pastime," juxtaposing symbols of the quintessentially all-American sport with his depiction of a central Black figure, as well as his iconic text and crown motifs. Created during a transformative period for Basquiat, marked by his increasing visibility in the art world, this painting epitomizes the essential traits of his early canvases; it blends the immediacy and gestural freedom of graffiti writing with fine art traditions to explore themes of race, selfhood, and national identity through the lens of the artist's signature iconography. The work was showcased in historic exhibitions such as Annina Nosei’s Jean-Michel Basquiat Memorial Exhibition, which opened in December 1988 shortly after the artist's passing and coinciding with what would have been his 28th birthday. Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer) was formerly in the collection of the renowned historian and collector Francesco Pellizzi, who acquired it in the early 1980s directly from Nosei, Basquiat's primary dealer at the time. Having remained in the same collection for decades, this significant work will now be offered publicly for the first time.



    Jean-Michel Basquiat Wearing an American Football Helmet, 1981 by Edo Bertoglio. Image: © Edo Bertoglio, Courtesy of Maripol, Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York


    1981 was a decisive year for Basquiat as it marked a significant turning point in his career, following his inclusion in The Times Square Show (September-December 1980), a collaborative self-curated exhibition, which the Village Voice hailed as being “The First Radical Art Show of the ‘80s.” During this time, Basquiat transitioned from graffiti art to the gallery scene, where he quickly garnered recognition for his distinctive style and powerful imagery. In 1981, having gained the attention of Italian gallerist Emilio Mazzoli at the group show New York / New Wave curated by Diego Cortez at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in Long Island City, Basquiat traveled to Europe for the first time in May of that year. There he staged his first one-artist exhibition at the Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena, Italy, showing the work under the pseudonym “SAMO,” pronounced Same-Oh for “Same Old Shit.” Originating from his collaboration with fellow graffiti artist Al Diaz, Basquiat adopted the “SAMO©” tag during his teenage years, spraying it across the streets of downtown Manhattan alongside succinct phrases serving as poetic and satirical advertising slogans. Throughout 1980 and 1981, Basquiat continued to operate under this alias, with many of his early canvas works, including the present painting, signed accordingly.


    Verso of the present work (detail)


    Following his solo debut abroad and amidst Basquiat's rising prominence, gallerist Annina Nosei provided him with a space in New York to cultivate his vision setting him up with a studio at her Prince Street gallery. It was within this environment that Basquiat produced some of his most significant works. This period resulted in the some of the most exciting and innovative paintings in Basquiat’s oeuvre, as he channeled his artistic prowess into paintings that spoke directly to both his own personal experiences and to a wider audience searching for a new artistic voice.

    “Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes…I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous”
    —Jean-Michel Basquiati

    Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer) provides a window into Basquiat’s anxieties and aspirations during this critical juncture. While brimming with optimism for his burgeoning career, he remained acutely aware of the various ways he might be perceived, tokenized, and potentially exploited by the predominantly white art establishment. With a focus on themes of "royalty, heroism, and the streets," Basquiat positioned the human figure as the central motif in his art, using it as a canvas to intertwine elements of autobiography, Black history, and popular culture.ii His early exposure to art history, including visits to the Brooklyn Museum of Art near his childhood home, sparked a realization about the lack of representation of Black individuals on those walls. This awareness fueled his desire to portray Black figures as protagonists in his own work, marking a deliberate departure from conventional artistic narratives. “I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with Black people in them,” he recalled, adding that “the Black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings.”iii


    One of Basquiat’s earliest and only paintings to feature the culturally loaded phrase “Famous Negro Athletes” (with “Negro Athletes” notably crossed out), Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer) serves as a potent commentary on race, identity, and representation. It also reflects Basquiat's own experience as a Black artist navigating a predominantly white art world. Through the intentional crossing out of text, Basquiat underscores the theme of exclusion while drawing attention to the obscured words beneath. Basquiat’s use of written language, both legible and obfuscated, serves as a reflection of his inner dialogue and becomes a vehicle for conveying multiple layers of meaning. Through this juxtaposition of words and imagery, Basquiat engages viewers in a complex interplay of language, identity, and societal critique, inviting interpretation and challenging traditional notions of communication and expression. In Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), Basquiat inscribes one of his soon-to-be-signature slogans—"FAMOUS NEGRO ATHLETES"—yet, while the word “FAMOUS” remains legible, the rest of the expression is intentionally concealed by a thick stripe of black spray paint. The act of crossing out text underscores the theme of exclusion, paradoxically drawing attention to the words beneath while suggesting their suppression. As Basquiat famously remarked, “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”iv

     “One day I walked by the tire store near my apartment and there was a huge mural with three angry black faces and the legend ‘FAMOUS NEGRO ATHLETES.’ When I saw [Basquiat] later, I said: ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.’ The next day he brought me one on paper.” v
    —Glenn O’Brien

    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Famous Negro Athletes, 1981. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Formerly in the collection of Glenn O’Brien. Image: Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Nelly Bly, B.A. 1994 and Michael Arougheti, B.A. 1993, Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York


    Basquiat’s inclusion of his signature crown motif above the floating heads and oversized baseballs in Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer) speaks to the majesty of these groundbreaking athletes as kings of their craft. Simultaneously, he reveals his admiration for the lone figure, the unsung hero at the center, whose crown is notably absent. In its place, Basquiat renders the head of his “FAMOUS NEGRO ATHLETE” in metallic gold, visually asserting the subject's divinity and enduring significance, while evoking the grandeur of Byzantine icons portraying saints and religious figures adorned in gold leaf. In religious icons of Christian art history, gold was frequently used to symbolize transcendent, divine light embodying the invisible, spiritual world, and could be found in the background of icons, mosaics, panel paintings, and architectural settings. Basquiat plays with this visual history, using gold in the present work not only to pay homage to the athlete’s unparalleled skill but also to suggest a spiritual reverence for their contribution to the cultural landscape, where great human achievements are still most often rewarded with gold, in the form of gold statues and other decorations, and sportsmen are usually awarded gold medals or trophies to signify their victories.

    “He had to live up to being a young prodigy, which is a kind of false sainthood”
    —Keith Haring

    Icon of the archangel Michael, Constantinople, first half of 14th century. Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens. Image: The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo 


    Moreover, by choosing not to name a specific “Ballplayer”, Basquiat elevates them to the status of a symbol, an archetype rather than an individual. Echoing Andy Warhol's iconic Gold Marilyn Monroe from 1962, in Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), Basquiat further underscores the transformative power of celebrity and the intersection between art and popular culture. Through these symbolic elements, Basquiat invites viewers to contemplate the intersection of fame, race, and iconography, challenging conventional notions of heroism and idolization.


    Andy Warhol, Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2024 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 


    Basquiat ennobled his heroes, using his crowns like the royal titles that famous African American musicians have sometimes adopted or the nicknames of sporting greats—such as Duke Ellington or Muhammed Ali, interchangeably known as “The Greatest,” “The Louisville Lip,” and “The Champ”—to create a court including renowned jazz musicians and celebrated athletes. In Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), he establishes himself in that pantheon of Black heroes, employing his distinctive crowns as symbols of his induction and investiture into the overarching storyline of art history. Basquiat's inclusion of baseball imagery reflects both his racial heritage as a Puerto Rican/Haitian American and the duality of exploitation and aspiration, mirroring his own ascendancy within the predominantly white art establishment, akin to the extraordinary success of these athletes.


    In fact, Basquiat used baseball imagery and references in his work from the earliest days of his career. Starting in 1979, one of his first ventures as a professional artist was a project realized in collaboration with Jennifer Stein, whereby he produced a small number of altered baseball cards and postcard collages, collectively referred to as “Anti-Baseball Cards” or “Anti-Baseball Card Products.”vi Basquiat would customize the cards with correction fluid, erasing the faces and biographies of the players and reauthoring them with text reading “JOe,” “JERK,” and “WALLY,” to name a few.vii The cards were inspired by the world around him and included street detritus, advertisements, newspaper clippings, and photo-booth portraits. By taking a mass-produced commercial product and removing the value—in this case, the players’ identities—Basquiat subverted their meaning, instead turning them into unique art objects that he called “non-products.” The eclectic series of color Xerox and mixed-media collages on cardboard became a sort of calling card for the artist, who sold them on the street for $1 each, often targeting the crowd that milled outside MoMA.viii

    Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein, Joe, 1979. Collection of Jennifer von Holstein. Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York


    At the same time, the paired arrangement of schematized heads in Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer) implies the categorization of individuals within a system, reminiscent of popular board games like Guess Who? and Connect Four. By depicting people as mere playthings within a social structure marked by racism and profit-driven motives, Basquiat subtly critiques the societal pressures that push young African Americans toward professional sports as one of the few perceived paths to success, thus perpetuating a narrow interpretation of the rags-to-riches American Dream. This thematic exploration anticipates significant works such as David Hammons’ 1986 public art installation Higher Goals, where towering basketball hoops in Cadman Plaza Park symbolized the precariousness of such aspirations.


    In Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), Basquiat pairs individuals and objects in ambiguous relationships to evoke tension and challenge perceptions. The artist is often regarded as existing in two worlds—as an "insider-outsider." However, for Basquiat, the notion of duality was complex, relating not only to his own identity but also to social systems of wealth and class. In the present work, Basquiat recasts ideas of black and white, dark and light, challenging stereotypes and defying perceptions of good and evil. On the surface, this is a painting about stardom and celebrity—and certainly the dichotomy of fame is one of the messages embedded within—yet each carefully chosen reference conceals a multiplicity of meanings. By combining disparate elements in this single image, Basquiat suggests that opposing forces can be united to create a whole, and that two seemingly contradictory truths can coexist simultaneously.


    Basquiat's ability to straddle the center and the margins reflects a quintessentially American experience, where inclusion and exclusion intertwine. In Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), he delves into the contradictions and complexities inherent in this dynamic, offering profound insights into his inner world and the broader landscape of American culture and identity.

    “It's a certain burden, this American-ness…I feel sometimes as an artist must feel, like a baseball player or something. Members of a team writing American history.”
    —Willem de Kooningix


    Eadweard Muybridge, Baseball Batting (Plate 276) from Animal Locomotion, 1887. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.


    As curator and Basquiat scholar Marc Meyer contends in the catalogue for his 2005 retrospective of the artist's work at the Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat utilized art as a tool “to process what he knew about history, about the cultural richness of the African Diaspora and his Caribbean roots specifically, and about the epic historical struggle of African Americans. He knew about music, especially jazz and nascent hip-hop, and about sports, particularly boxing and baseball, and he explored this knowledge iconographically.” Meyer describes how Basquiat infused his works with totemic power as he “celebrated the black musicians and athletes who inspired him by painting dedicatory works.”x In doing so, Basquiat reclaims their images, elevating them to symbols of strength and resilience in the face of systemic oppression. Through this motif, Basquiat challenges viewers to confront the historical marginalization of Black individuals in mainstream culture while celebrating their cultural contributions and achievements. It also reflects Basquiat's personal experiences and interests, merging his love for sports and art with a profound social message about race and representation. These paintings—sometimes specifically titled but often left characteristically open-ended, such as in the case of the present work—served as tributes to childhood heroes and intimate reflections on Basquiat’s own life. They were akin to visually encoded diary entries imbued with an art brut sensibility.


    In Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), Basquiat invites viewers to determine the identity of the protagonist. Could this ‘Famous Ballplayer’ be Jackie Robinson, the pioneering Black baseball player who broke the color barrier in the American major leagues during the 20th century? Basquiat saw in Jackie Robinson a resilient hero and an enduring symbol of self-made success, triumphing over the pervasive racial prejudices of the 1950s. Alternatively, it could be Hank Aaron, the inaugural figure in Basquiat’s pantheon of revered Black dignitaries. A childhood hero to Basquiat, renowned for his achievements rivaling those of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron’s influence is palpable throughout Basquiat’s earliest works. Or perhaps, the enigmatic figure is Willie Mays, the legendary outfielder whose sensational over-the-shoulder catch—famously known as “The Catch” and considered by many to be one of the greatest defensive plays in history—during the 1954 World Series remains one of baseball's most iconic moments.


    [Left] Willie Mays with the New York Mets, c. 1972-73. Image: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
    [Right] Willie Mays, New York Mets Collectible Card, 1973. Image: Q20 / Alamy Stock Photo  



    On October 3, 1981, the Mets staged an Old-Timers Day Game at Shea Stadium in which the then 50-year-old Mays “flashed back to his 20-year-old days for a few glorious seconds,” making a running catch that The New York Daily News described as “a play many modern major leaguers half his age would not make.” This game, coupled with Mays’ induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, elevated him to an even greater status in both sports’ history and popular culture. Aside from the recent media revival surrounding the player and the circulation of images showing him in his blue and white pinstriped Mets uniform, which would make him a timely reference point in Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), Basquiat was also recognized by Mays' name among his friends. Describing their first meeting at the Mudd Club, John Lurie says, “His face looked so delighted by his own dancing…it reminded me of something my father had told me about seeing Willie Mays play baseball. Mays was 19 at the time and coming up to the majors through the minor league, and my father said he’d play with this absolute delight on his face. So I started calling Jean-Michel, Willie Mays.”xi Like a double portrait, Mays’ meteoric rise in professional baseball mirrors Basquiat’s own ambitions at the time. The nickname stuck, even making its way into Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat, in which Benny, a composite character based on several of the artist’s closest real-life friends, repeatedly calls him “Willie Mays.”xii

     “To friends his age he was Willie Mays. But he wasn’t a jock and would never be a Famous Negro Athlete…he wanted to do for art what Willy Mays did for baseball.  Do it the way it had never been done before.”
    —Glenn O’Brienxiii 

    i Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist,” New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, online.

    ii Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler, “Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview, January 1983.

    iii Ibid.

    iv Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Dieter Buchhart and Sam Keller, eds., Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2010, p. XXII

    v Glenn O’Brien cited in Exh. Cat., Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 175.

    vi Eleanor Nairne, “Postcards, 1979,” in Basquiat: Boom for Real, exh. cat., London, Barbican Art Gallery, 2017, p. 106.

    vii Ibid.

    viii Ibid.  

    ix Willem de Kooning, quoted in David Sylvester, “Willem de Kooning,” Interviews with American Artists. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001: 43-57. Recorded March 1960 in New York City.  Aired on the BBC (1960) under the title "Painting as Self-Discovery."  Edited version assembled from excerpts first published as "Content is a Glimpse," Location 1, no. 1 (Spring 1963): 45-52.

    x Meyer essay in BK 2005 cat

    xi John Lurie, quoted in Todd Mcgovern, “A Sad and Beautiful Life. My Conversation with John Lurie,” in Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk, December 2, 2015, online.

    xii Script for movie is online & See Phoebe Hoban's, 'Basquiat' pg. 122, "When New York Beat resumed shooting in 1981, Basquiat moved into the back of the production office... Every morning the crew would arrive to find Jean-Michel and Ezter asleep in a tiny alcove at the back of the office... sometimes the pair would be woken up by John Lurie or (Danny) Rosen, shouting Basquiat's nickname, 'Willie Mays'.

    xiii Glenn O’Brien, The Handwriting on the (Bedroom) Wall, Christie’s, March 7, 2014, online.

    • Provenance

      Galleria Mazzoli, Modena
      Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
      Francesco Pellizzi, New York (acquired from the above in 1983)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Annina Nosei Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat Memorial Exhibition, December 3, 1988–January 15, 1989
      Hempstead, New York, Hofstra Museum, Hofstra University; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Lehigh University Art Galleries, 1979–1989 American, Italian, Mexican Art from the Collection of Francesco Pellizzi, April 16–November 2, 1989, no. 2, pp. 32, 58 (illustrated, p. 32)
      Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, February 7–May 10, 2015, pp. 19, 116-117, 223 (illustrated, p. 117)
      Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 3, 2018–January 4, 2019, no. 34, pp. 22, 24, 35, 116-117 (illustrated, p. 117; titled Untitled (“Famous”))

    • Literature

      Annina Nosei Gallery, Annina Nosei Gallery: 1989-1990-1991-1992, New York, 1992, p. 13 (Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, 1988-1989, installation view illustrated)
      Donald Kuspit, The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, New York, 1993 (illustrated on the front cover; titled Famous Black Athlete)
      Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, no. 3, pp. 62-63 (illustrated, p. 62)
      Tony Shafrazi, Jeffrey Deitch and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 315
      Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. II, Paris, 2000, no. 3, pp. 86-87 (illustrated, p. 86)
      Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2006, pp. 220-221 (illustrated, p. 221)
      “Top sports art to get you psyched about the Olympics,” TimeOut, June 11, 2008, online (illustrated)
      Bryan Miller, “The Ten List: Art Loves Baseball,” Glasstire, July 11, 2012, online (illustrated)

    • Artist Biography

      Jean-Michel Basquiat

      American • 1960 - 1988

      One of the most famous American artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat first gained notoriety as a subversive graffiti-artist and street poet in the late 1970s. Operating under the pseudonym SAMO, he emblazoned the abandoned walls of the city with his unique blend of enigmatic symbols, icons and aphorisms. A voracious autodidact, by 1980, at 22-years of age, Basquiat began to direct his extraordinary talent towards painting and drawing. His powerful works brilliantly captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s New York underground scene and catapulted Basquiat on a dizzying meteoric ascent to international stardom that would only be put to a halt by his untimely death in 1988.

      Basquiat's iconoclastic oeuvre revolves around the human figure. Exploiting the creative potential of free association and past experience, he created deeply personal, often autobiographical, images by drawing liberally from such disparate fields as urban street culture, music, poetry, Christian iconography, African-American and Aztec cultural histories and a broad range of art historical sources.

      View More Works

Basquiat’s World: Works Formerly from the Collection of Francesco Pellizzi


Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer)

signed with the artist's tag, inscribed and dated "SAMO© NEW YORK 1981" on the reverse
acrylic, oilstick and Xerox collage on canvas
50 1/8 x 43 1/2 in. (127.3 x 110.5 cm)
Executed in 1981.

Full Cataloguing

$6,500,000 - 8,500,000 

Sold for $7,892,500

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
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Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024