Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips
  • Video

    Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'The Ring', Lot 26

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    Rosa Esman Gallery, New York
    Private Collection, East Coast (acquired from the above in November 1982)
    Christie’s, Los Angeles, June 9, 1999, lot 196
    Estate of Theodore J. Forstman (acquired at the above sale)
    Sotheby’s, New York, May 9, 2012, lot 4
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario; Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, February 7 - November 1, 2015, p. 222 (illustrated, p. 73)
    New York, Mnuchin Gallery, REDS, April 27 - June 9, 2018, pp. 54, 95 (illustrated, p. 55)

  • Literature

    Jean-Louis Prat and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, no. 4, p. 93 (illustrated, p. 92)
    Fred Hoffman, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 93 (illustrated, p. 92)
    Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Art of Storytelling, Cologne, 2018, pp. 14, 493 (illustrated, p. 15)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Executed in the pivotal year of 1981, The Ring denotes the gestural vigor that exemplified Jean-Michel Basquiat’s approach to his portrayals of exalted figures. Set against an activated red expanse, the present work depicts a boxer in a fighting ring, lifting an arrow or spear above his head and crowned with an intricate halo before a crescent moon, resulting in a unique marriage between boxing iconography and conventional symbols of African royalty. It is all too fitting that Basquiat painted The Ring during a year in which he found unprecedented levels of critical and commercial success; by the end of 1981, Basquiat stood victorious, having effectively conquered the art world when René Ricard published his watershed essay, “The Radiant Child” in Artforum. The first comprehensive study of Basquiat’s practice, the article cemented his place in the art historical canon, declaring “If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there [and is] from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet” (René Ricard, “The Radiant Child,” Artforum, vol. XX, no. 4, December 1981, p. 43).

    During this meteoric rise to fame, the artist painted The Ring, in which he began to develop the idiosyncratic visual language that would typify the rest of his too-brief oeuvre. Perhaps the most central element in this artistic lexicon is the human figure, which Basquiat used as an iconographic device to coalesce art history, pop culture, autobiography, and the black experience. Speaking of the frequent visits he took to his local museum during his childhood, the Brooklyn Museum, the artist told Henry Geldzahler, "I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them." In confronting this perennial, gaping lacuna, the artist expounded that "the black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings" (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, “Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview Magazine, January 1983). Thus, just as Western art history valorized Greek gods and saints for millennia, Basquiat sought to memorialize the champions of black history, from jazz luminary Charlie Parker to boxing phenomenon Muhammad Ali. When Geldzahler asked Basquiat what his subject matter was, the artist paused, then responded “royalty, heroism, and the streets” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, “Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview Magazine, January 1983).

    Perhaps a reference to the widely-read boxing magazine of the same name, The Ring situates its Herculean figure within the pantheon of legendary boxers that the artist commemorated in his work, including Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay), Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jersey Joe Walcott. Well-versed in the lives and achievements of these pugilist athletes, Basquiat grew up watching their matches with his father, who reminisced, “I was a big fan of boxing, and when he was a kid, there would be fights on television every Friday. We would sit together and watch. He talked about Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Wolcott, all of them—the great boxers of years past” (Gérard Basquiat, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Streets, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2007, p. 90). In particular, the artist admired how each of these men had fearlessly challenged pervasive social and racial prejudices: they had, literally and figuratively, fought their way to fame and success. Louis and Ali had specifically achieved notoriety in the 1960s and 1970s—Basquiat’s formative years—for promoting racial integration and protesting cultural inequalities. By depicting these figures victorious, beneath a crown or halo, and accentuating their race with jet black paint, the artist canonized the African American heroes of his time in his paintings such as The Ring.

    The halo does not appear as a merely pacific symbol of exaltation, however; it is more reminiscent of a crown of thorns, a recurring pictorial trope of the artist’s, which he used in numerous tour de forces from the period including Untitled, 1981, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Slave Auction, 1982, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. In this allusion to Jesus’s crucifixion, Basquiat accentuated the martyrdom that is inextricably tied to sainthood, further emphasizing his figures’ holiness. The artist also began developing several other motifs at the time, present in The Ring, which resurfaced throughout the rest of his oeuvre—including the black arrow in the top left hand corner of the picture and the spear-like instrument hoisted up by the boxer—and are evocative of a medley of African, Caribbean, and Western icons. In fact, not even the polka-dotted shorts that the figure in the present work wears are singular in Basquiat’s practice: they are no doubt the same as the Everlast ones included in his masterpiece from the same year, Per Capita, The Brant Foundation, Greenwich. In this sense, The Ring can be read as a crucial step in the development of Basquiat’s iconographic vocabulary, one which traces the beginnings of symbols that are now considered cornerstones of his approach.

    Though it is impossible to be certain of the identity of the central figure in The Ring, its remarkable similitude to Self-Portrait, 1982, leads one to believe that the work might portray Basquiat himself. Specifically, the protagonist’s distinctive hairstyle—long, twisting dreadlocks—which appears in the present work resembled the artist’s at the time and was featured in his other self-portraits from the period. Regardless of whether or not Basquiat intended to explicitly depict his physical likeness, he astutely captured an image, at least metaphorical, of himself standing victorious at the zenith of his career. “He brought together street art and European old masters. He combines painting and writing. He combined icons from Christianity and Santería and voodoo,” espoused the musician Jay-Z, a collector of several works by the artist. “He turned boxers and jazz musicians into kings with golden crowns. And on top of all that mixing and matching he added his own genius, which transformed the work into something completely fresh and original. The paintings don't just sit on my walls, they move like crazy" (Jay-Z, Decoded, New York, 2011, pp. 92-93).

    With its various drips, scrawls, and fields of paint, The Ring is emblematic of the same vigor and immediacy that characterized the much-cherished art he executed in his days as SAMO. According to curator Richard Marshall, "From 1980 to late 1982, Basquiat used painterly gestures on canvases, most often depicting skeletal figures and mask-like faces, and imagery derived from his street existence" (Richard Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 23). In this translation—from concrete walls to canvases—The Ring betrays at first glance no tentativeness or hesitation on behalf of Basquiat. However, despite his prolificacy, the artist was known to meticulously edit and rework his paintings, a tendency evidenced by the de Kooning-esque application of pale blue paint to the boxing ring floor, which was later covered with more red in a manner redolent of Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio, 1911, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In fact, Basquiat’s painterly approach unites the dripping spray paint style for which he gained notoriety and the carefully-crafted pictorial boldness of French modernism which he so loved. Indeed, Richard Marshall has proposed that the artist may have been galvanized to depict such aggression and brashness upon acquainting himself with Pablo Picasso’s Avignon canvases, which were exhibited at Pace Gallery in New York in spring 1981 and denote the modernist’s return to the graphic, distorted figures which Basquiat no doubt felt a kinship with.

    Despite his deep-rooted interest in the art historical canon, the streets of New York had the most conspicuous influence on Basquiat’s practice. After narrowly avoiding bankruptcy, the city was characterized in the late 1970s by the vacant buildings and tax foreclosures brought about by stubborn economic stagnation. Indeed, entire neighborhoods of Manhattan—specifically from Soho and the East Village through Tribeca and the Lower East Side—were left derelict as businesses and white-collar employees fled to the suburbs in the face of rampant violence; the New York City Police Department reported that 1980 marked the worst year of crime in the city’s history. In this climate, in which unequivocal distinctions between “high” and “low” art still persisted, an underground artistic community began to materialize, encompassing the young writers, musicians, and street artists who had made recently-abandoned downtown Manhattan their home. “The streets were animated with stark handmade posters for band performances, and spillover from clubs made the surrounding streets into a no-budget punk version of sidewalk cafes. Walking the blocks of the Bowery almost any time of day or night you were likely to run into an artist or musician of your acquaintance,” Jeffrey Deitch recalled. In this milieu, Basquiat took the New York art scene by storm, emerging as a street poet hidden behind the pseudonym SAMO, a relentless tagger whose nom de plume began appearing all over the city’s disintegrating infrastructure. “Every time you went to a good loft party, visited the apartment of someone interesting, or attended the performance of a talked-about new band,” Deitch remembered. “It seemed that SAMO had been there first. His disconcerting but riveting haiku-like street poetry marked the walls of every building where artists and musicians congregated” (Jeffrey Deitch, Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Streets, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2007, p. 9).

    Though his name had been mentioned in the press the year before, it was not until 1981—the year he painted The Ring—that SAMO would officially betray his identity to the international art-viewing public. In January of that year, Basquiat was included in a multi-disciplinary exhibition examining the burgeoning avant-garde scene in the city, New York/New Wave, at the gallery P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, where his raw, expressive vigor caught the attention of gallerists Annina Nosei and Bruno Bischofberger, who would become virtually responsible for catapulting his career. A few months afterwards, he had his first solo show abroad at Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena, Italy, and by the end of the year he was living and working in the basement of Nosei’s Soho gallery while participating in a robust program of international exhibitions. Deitch wrote, “during the year of 1981 [Basquiat] made the transition from a profusely talented and promising artist working on the street to a world-class painter, poised to become one of the most influential artists of his time” (Jeffrey Deitch, Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Streets, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2007, pp. 10-13).

  • 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.

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Property from an American Collection


The Ring

signed, partially titled and dated “Jean Michel Basquiat “RING” 1981” on the reverse
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 cm.)
Executed in 1981, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

$10,000,000 - 15,000,000 

Sold for $15,035,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019