Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  •  Henry Geldzahler: "What is your subject matter?"
    Jean-Michel Basquiat: "Royalty, heroism, and the streets."

    The present lot installed alongside Untitled, 1982 which achieved $110,487,504 in 2017. Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, Maori Arts Center, Tokyo, September 21 – November 17, 2019. Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York 

    Arriving to auction for the first time in over three decades, Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King exemplifies the gestural, painterly prowess and distinctive iconography that denoted the peak of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career. Executed during his meteoric rise to fame in 1982, the painting features the same interrogation of “high” and “low” culture that would typify the rest of his too-brief oeuvre. In both its depiction of legendary New York street artist A-One as well as its unique construction, Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King harkens back to Basquiat’s past as a graffiti artist in the late 1970s, during which he emerged 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. Indeed, with its various drips, scrawls, and fields of paint, the work is emblematic of the same vigor and immediacy that characterized the much-cherished art he executed in his days as SAMO. 

    "[In 1982] I made the best paintings ever."
    — Jean-Michel Basquiat

    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.”i In this translation—from concrete walls to canvases—Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King 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 multiple layers of paint washes and marks present in the painting.


    Radical Kings


    The most central element in these layers—and perhaps of the artist’s artistic lexicon overall—is the human figure, which Basquiat used as an iconographic device to coalesce art history, pop culture, and the Black experience. A nod to Basquiat’s community and own past as a street artist, Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King is one of just two paintings Basquiat made which portray his close friend and collaborator, graffiti artist A-One (Anthony Clark); in the present work, he stands crowned in an ambiguous space covered in tags and “cool S’s.”  


    [left] Photograph of A-One at Fashion Moda, 1982. Photograph by Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy. [right] Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anthony Clark, 1985. Private Collection, Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

    Speaking of the frequent visits he took to the Brooklyn Museum—his local museum growing up—the artist told Henry Geldzahler, “I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them.” In confronting this perennial lacuna, the artist expounded that “the black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings.”ii Basquiat thus sought to anoint pop culture icons, his friends, and himself in his own distinctive form of royal portraiture, just as Western art history valorized saints and kings for millennia. Bringing together as diverse figures as jazz luminary Charlie Parker, boxing phenomenon Muhammad Ali, hip-hop artist Rammellzee, and A-One, Basquiat consecrated his community and personal heroes in his pantheon of Black kings, which challenged conventional class-based conceptions of royalty: to Basquiat, the crown instead indexed skill or authenticity of expression.

    "He brought together street art and European old masters…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

    When Geldzahler asked Basquiat what his subject matter was, the artist paused for a moment, then responded “royalty, heroism, and the streets.”iii Indeed, this duality—as well as the artist’s signature word play—is present in both the Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King’s title and motifs: in street vernacular, a “king” refers to a highly-regarded graffiti writer that’s renowned in a particular region for his skill, and self-declared “kings” often insert crowns into their work. One of Basquiat’s most enduring and recognizable pictorial tropes, the crown cleverly memorializes A-One with the double meaning of the title “king,” evoking both street culture and the art historical genre of royal portraiture.


    Basquiat and Friends


    A staple of Manhattan’s downtown club scene, Basquiat often incorporated his wide group of friends and acquaintances into his canvases, which today stand as astute portraits of the city’s social life in the 1980s. 

  • A Unique Construction


    A superb example from “one of [Basquiat’s] most important groups of paintings,”iii Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King is one of the artist’s iconic “exposed stretcher-bar” works, many of which are held in the most prestigious museums in the world, including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Broad, Los Angeles; and the Menil Collection, Houston. In 1982, Basquiat instructed his assistant Stephen Torton to assemble stretchers from found wood and twine. “I would go out in the middle of the night and find the stuff,” recalled Torton. “I was making things that looked like what the circus leaves behind…It was such a relief to climb into dumpsters and pull things out of them and make sculptures.”iv The resulting paintings formed a bridge between the painted doors and found objects that littered his early oeuvre and his later, more conventional canvases he used later.

    "These rough-hewn frames are still singled out as one of Basquiat’s original innovations."
    — Phoebe Hoban

    The exposed stretcher-bar paintings were immediately acclaimed as poetic evocations of Basquiat’s graffiti past, especially by prominent art critic Rene Ricard. “For a while it looked as if the very early stuff was primo, but no longer. He’s finally figured out a way to make a stretcher…that is so consistent with the imagery,” Richard declared. “They do look like signs, but signs for a product modern civilization has no use for.”  The raw construction of these works blur distinctions between art made in the studio and imagery from the streets—the very division Basquiat’s career was obfuscating in 1982.


    Jean-Michel Basquiat, LNAPRK, 1982. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York 


    1982: The Breakout Year


    Though SAMO’s graffiti had cropped up around New York City in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until a year before the execution of Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King that the art establishment took notice of 21-year-old Basquiat. In January 1981, he 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 dynamism caught the attention of gallerists Annina Nosei and Bruno Bischofberger, who would become virtually responsible for catapulting his career.


    Nosei facilitated Basquiat’s transition from street culture to the commercial art world and set him up for his breakout year, providing him with many of the tools he had been lacking: a proper studio space, large-scale canvases, and high-quality paints. She also gave him the first solo show of his career in 1982, which was presented in her SoHo gallery. Energized by this and a string of other career-launching exhibitions, Basquiat spent the pivotal year executing depictions of those close to him with invigorated passion—pictures which today are widely considered to be the finest of his career.


    Annina Nosei and Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio in the basement of the Annina Nosei Gallery on Prince Street, SoHo, New York, 1982. Photo © Naoki Okamoto. Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

    “For Basquiat, it all converges in 1982,” Jeffrey Deitch, the prominent art dealer and close friend of the artist’s, elucidated. “Those of us who were there at the time and saw those paintings just couldn’t believe it. The level of achievement was just astonishing. It was almost a miracle.”vi


    Characterized by their bold contours, exuberant color palette, and large foregrounded figures, these 1982 works such as Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King emanated Basquiat’s exhilaration from his newfound success during the apex of his career. “His peers had already anointed him as the best artist in the community, and he had the accolades of ‘New York/New Wave,’” which inspired “an increased confidence in the painting: in the strength, in the line,” according to Deitch.vii

    "Everybody around him knew that these [1982 paintings] were extraordinary."
    — Jeffrey Deitch

    With its gestural vigor and electric radiance, Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King epitomizes both the fervor and narrative clarity that characterized Basquiat’s work from the most formative year of his career. Though this visual audacity became less palpable in works from subsequent years as he began facing constraints and pressure from gallerists, in 1982, the artist “wasn’t making paintings because he had to give them to Bishofberger for his stipend, or for his show at Mary Boone,” said Deitch. “He was making them because he was compelled to make them, so they are filled with personal passion.” viii Indeed, it was the same enthusiasm and visual dynamism which permeates this portrait of the artist’s close friend that catapulted the young Basquiat to international fame, introducing him to an art world that would forever be changed by his revolutionary approach.


    Collector’s Digest"Basquiat’s paintings from 1982 are undisputedly the most confident and dynamic of his career and the most desirable to collectors."
    — Scott Nussbaum, Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, New York

    • 1982 is widely considered to have been the apex of Basquiat’s career—a year in which he made his finest work and which has been subject to much critical and commercial focus.

    • The artist’s top three results at auction are all from 1982. 


    Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio, New York, 1982. Photograph by Gianfranco Gorgoni; © Maya Gorgoni. Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

    Richard Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 23.
    ii, iii Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, “Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview Magazine, January 1983.
    iii Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, p. 279.
    iv Stephen Torton, quoted in Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London, 1998, pp. 106, 173.
    v Rene Ricard, quoted in Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, 105.
    vi, vii, viii Alexxa Gotthardt, “What Makes 1982 Basquiat’s Most Valuable Year,” Artsy, April 1, 2018, online.

    • Provenance

      Bonlow Gallery, New York
      Private Collection
      Sotheby’s, New York, November 11, 1986, lot 274
      Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
      Mugrabi Collection (acquired from the above in the early 1990s)
      Private Collection (acquired from the above)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2014

    • Exhibited

      Coral Gables, Quintana Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1980-1988, December 17, 1996 – February 1997, pp. 28, 66 (illustrated, p. 29)
      Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario; Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, February 7 – November 1, 2015, p. 222 (illustrated, p. 77)
      Tokyo, Mori Arts Center Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, September 21 – November 17, 2019
      Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, December 1, 2019 – April 13, 2020, p. 345 (illustrated, p. 65)

    • Literature

      Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. II, Paris, 1996, no. 2, p. 79 (illustrated, p. 78)
      Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. II, Paris, 2000, no. 2, p. 127 (illustrated, p. 126)

    • 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

Property from an Important European Collection


Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King

signed, titled and dated ""PORTRAIT OF A ONE A.K.A. KINGS" Jean Michel Basquiat SEPT 1982" on the reverse
acrylic, oilstick and marker on canvas mounted on tied wood supports
72 x 72 3/8 in. (182.9 x 183.8 cm)
Executed in 1982.

This work has been requested for inclusion in the artist’s forthcoming exhibition Warhol | Basquiat: Collaborations organized by the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, to be held from April 6 – August 30, 2022.

Full Cataloguing

$10,000,000 - 15,000,000 

Sold for $11,500,000

Contact Specialist

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


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020