Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, November 17, 2021 | Phillips

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    "As a king rules by divine rights, so did Jean-Michel Basquiat draw and paint." 
    —Peter Brant



    Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81, 1980-1981. Image: Edo Bertoglio © New York Beat Film LLC, Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York



    With its gestural vigor and electric immediacy, Untitled (from Famous Negro Athlete Series) epitomizes the unbridled fervor that characterizes Jean-Michel Basquiat's early work and his singular graphic language. Executed in 1981, the work marks the pivotal moment at the cusp of Basquiat’s meteoric rise to international acclaim and was notably a gift to his dear friend, Kai Eric, who had befriended Basquiat several years before his claim to fame and shared his apartment with the artist for a time. During the artist’s lifetime, Eric temporarily consigned Untitled (from Famous Negro Athlete Series) to Basquiat’s legendary art dealer Annina Nosei, and ultimately brought it to Mary Boone just before her first Basquiat show. Having been acquired by the present owner soon after, the present work arrives to the public for the first time in nearly four decades. 



    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Famous Negro Athletes, 1981. Former Collection of Glenn O’Brien, Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York



    "He wasn’t out to get rich—he was out to win. He painted for the world title: heavyweight champion of the world and grandmaster."
    —Glenn O’Brien



    A significant conceptual anchor throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre, the theme of the Black athlete appears in myriad paintings and works on paper especially during his early years, often referencing renowned contemporaneous figures including Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott, Hank Aaron, and Jackie Robinson. In Untitled (from Famous Negro Athletes Series), Basquiat brings together his own kind of Hall, or Wall, of Fame, scrawling baseball imagery alongside his well-known crayon hopscotch squares and ambulances. Here, Basquiat’s signature three-pointed crowns thereby potently showcase their trademark symbolism of autobiographically alluding to himself as well as recognizing the regal stature of his heroes.



    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Six Crimee, 1982. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York



    For the present work, Basquiat xeroxed nine individual drawings he had made, pasting each onto the canvas and overpainting the collage like a downtown city wall at his disposal. With the vernacular dynamism of his street-poet, alter-ego SAMO©, the “HO”s and “OA”s at once evoke his frequent allusions to Hank Aaron’s name—as seen in works such as Orange Sports Figure, 1982—and the sounds of sirens that reflected the artist’s deep sensitivity to his environment. The suggested baseball diamonds at the lower right also recall boxing rings, further featuring Basquiat’s classic manipulation of his now-iconic signs and symbols through his exhilarating graphic intensity and unapologetic artistic sensibility that has come to define his extraordinary artistic legacy.



    [left] Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981. Private Collection, Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York [right] Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Ring, 1981. Private Collection, Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York



    Through his graphic lexicon, Basquiat at once transforms these respectable figures into canonized icons and renders their faces inscrutable, inciting a commanding statement about prejudicial stereotypes in society by “present[ing] so simply how society expected black people to be athletes and not painters.”i In the present work, Basquiat’s searing handling of the archetypal, mask-like countenances is as explosive as his gestural Franz Kline-esque brushwork in gouache. The free-flowing, liberal expression of energy seen in Untitled (from Famous Negro Athletes Series) is striking testament to Fred Hoffman’s words, “These images an ecstatic state. Freed from worldly constraint, whether human or bird, they are an expression of freedom.”ii 



    "There would be 20 sheets of paper on the floor, all seemingly half-finished pieces of work, and he would jump from one, walk across five, literally walking on them!"
    —Kai Eric



    Untitled (from Famous Negro Athlete Series) is one of two from the artist’s titular series that Basquiat left for Kai Eric among a number of pieces. Eric first met the artist on a pre-winter morning in the late 1970s as he wandered the streets of Lower Manhattan, when he encountered a figure in the middle of the block. “I had started to see these oblique pieces of poetry around the city,” Eric recalled.iii “This figure I saw was Jean-Michel—he was standing there in an overcoat and I had caught him with a spray paint can in his hand. He was in mid tag. Al Diaz was with him. I had recognized his work from the streets and it caught my attention.”iv Soon after, the two would meet again at a punk rock concert at CBGB in East Village where their friendship solidified. “Jean-Michel walked in, sat in a corner, and we just talked. It was there we realized we were very like-minded and from there became best friends.”v 





    Basquiat’s street poetry was as nomadic as his living situations, and he would eventually live with Eric for about eight months in the latter’s place on Canal Street. In typical Basquiatian nature, the apartment became both a crash pad and studio, where he created, entertained, and produced a sea of work. Eric recalled, “Jean was prolific and would leave my apartment littered with his output. Every day I would come home to find a new array of works large and small. It was there that Henry Geldzahler first visited, bought a canvas which propelled Jean into his art career. Those are bittersweet memories.”


    The year that Basquiat made and gave the present work to Eric would profoundly transform the course of the artist’s life as he joined Annina Nosei’s gallery and held his first solo show at the Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena, Italy. “When he first signed to Annina Nosei’s gallery in 1981,” Eric said, “his life changed practically overnight.”vi  



    Basquiat's New York


    Kai Eric shares his insights with Phillips on his relationship with Basquiat, the flourishing creative scene of 1980s downtown New York, and Untitled (from Famous Negro Athlete Series). Read here.



    i Glenn O’Brien, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street,, Deitch Projects, New York, 2006, p. 19.
    ii Fred Hoffman, The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 2017, p. 137.
    iii Kai Eric, quoted in Tamra Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, 2010, documentary.
    iv Kai Eric, conversation with author, October 22, 2021.
    v Ibid.
    vi Kai Eric, quoted in Hayley Maitland, “American Graffiti: Memories of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Vogue, September 20, 2017.

    • Provenance

      Kai Eric (gifted by the artist)
      Annina Nosei Gallery, New York (on consignment)
      Mary Boone Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in May 1984

    • 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


Untitled (from Famous Negro Athlete Series)

Xerox, graphite, gouache and oilstick on canvas board
23 7/8 x 36 in. (60.6 x 91.4 cm)
Executed in 1981.

Full Cataloguing

$750,000 - 1,100,000 

Sold for $2,450,000

Contact Specialist

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 November 2021