Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, June 26, 2019 | Phillips
  • Video

    Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Untitled (1981)', Lot 19

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 27 June 2019

  • Provenance

    Stavros Merjos, Los Angeles
    Neal Meltzer Fine Art, New York
    Phillips, New York, 16 May 2013, lot 22
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Phillips, London, American African American, 8 - 25 November 2017
    New York, Nahmad Contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat | Xerox, 12 March - 31 May 2019

  • Literature

    Jean-Louis Prat and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, no. 4, p. 65 (illustrated, p. 64)
    Tony Shafrazi et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 65 (illustrated)
    Jean-Louis Prat and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, no. 5, p. 89 (illustrated, p. 88)

  • Catalogue Essay

    With its electric immediacy, radical aesthetic insurgency and complex symbolism, Untitled, 1981, was created in a year of unprecedented success for Jean-Michel Basquiat. Rising to public attention from underground obscurity, 1981 marks the artist’s breakthrough participation in the renowned New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, his introduction to the downtown Manhattan art dealer Annina Nosei, whose gallery basement would become Basquiat’s determinative studio, and the publication of 'The Radiant Child', Rene Ricard’s article for Artforum that first brought his work to wider critical attention. Executed with convulsive, gestural brushwork and a frenzied elegance that reflects the spontaneity of graffiti, Untitled is a deft encapsulation of the artist’s transition from street to studio. Utilising the tripartite framing and devotional aspect of medieval and byzantine icons, Basquiat recasts the baseball player Jackie Robinson – the first African American to play professionally in Major League Baseball in the late 1940s and 1950s – as a modern day saint, in a painting as intrinsically autobiographical as it is an acutely aware portrayal of black male subjectivity.

    As Robert Storr has described the artist during this early critical period of his career: 'Jumpy, angry, driven, Basquiat was in a terrible and terrifying hurry' (Robert Storr, quoted in Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, exh. cat., New York, 1990, n.p.). Contemporaneous sources, such as the now legendary film Downtown 81, - the screenplay written by Basquiat’s friend and art writer Glenn O’Brian - paint a picture of Basquiat as possessing an insatiable creative drive. The present work demonstrates this impassioned, almost compulsive intensity to his practice: the schematic oil stick figure and voraciously applied swathes of paint fuse street aesthetics with the artist’s own particular brand of unfiltered, guttural symbolism. This is also one of the first paintings to introduce the quasi-heroic figure of Robinson, who broke the colour line to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, within Basquiat’s oeuvre, and predates the acclaimed Famous Black Athletes series that is widely recognised as part of his efforts to forge a body of work conscious of its contribution to art history.

    Brought up in Brooklyn, Basquiat was formatively nourished by childhood visits to the many art museums of New York City; an archaeological excavation of his visual lexicon reveals an outstanding absorption of, and criticality towards, these narratives. His incomparable symbolism is enmeshed in a complex matrix of signifiers steeped in indigenous traditions of African tribal and myriad sources of art historical inspiration, from the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso’s primitivism, to Cy Twombly’s ciphers of text and line. The overtly Abstract Expressionist machismo of Franz Kline is exemplified here by the vigorous yellow that tracks across the lower-right quadrant of the present work. A junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art from the age of six, Basquiat’s vast and varied output sort to redress visual culture’s myopic recitation of an exclusively white viewpoint. Profoundly conscious of the representational effects of racial segregation, as Basquiat later told a reporter for The New York Times: 'The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings … I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them' (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money’, The New York Times, 10 February 1985, online).

    Worshipped from below by a gridded chorus of winged and haloed characters, Robinson is positioned within the ascribed compositional schema of Jesus’s ascension into heaven, and in so doing Basquiat boldly asserts his insertion within this canon: 'The Christian artistic tradition was developed to chasten, instruct, and exult; we watch Basquiat rehearse, with an almost absurd potency, the instrumental inadequacy of such morally functional art from beyond the introverted rigors of modernism and the garrulous ironies of post-modernism. With the hybrid iconography that he developed from his complex heritage, he attempted to add [jazz luminary] Charlie Parker, Jackie Robinson, and [boxer] Joe Louis to a wobbly, generic pantheon of saints while such gestures might still have meaning' (Marc Mayer, 'Basquiat in History', Basquiat, New York, 2005, p. 51).

    Demonstrative of Basquiat’s encyclopaedic and absorptive relationship with visual culture, the angelic figures have been repetitively printed by Xerox and attached directly to the work’s wooden support – a distinctive material marker of his early practice and referential echo of the sight of ad-hoc promotional billstickers common to city streets, the ground for his very first artworks. Their gridded form could also be read as an emblem of Manhattan’s labyrinthine street network, quivering with the dynamism of New York City. In this sense, the musicality of Basquiat’s canvases, his calculated weighting of primary colours and sense of vibration in the raw and intuitive mark-making, is the visual equivalent of his obsession with jazz, creating an score-like topography that is at once interruptive and complete.

    However, some of the artist’s greatest source material came from his own life experiences. At the age of eight, Basquiat was hit by a car whilst playing outside his home, suffering a broken arm, surgery to his spleen and a hospital stay to recuperate, during which time his mother gave him a copy of the medical textbook, Gray’s Anatomy. His resultant fascination with the human body and form has become a foundational trope within the almost-mythic production of Basquiat's biography. The present work’s skeletal silhouettes, and in particular the mask-like grimace placed atop the idiosyncratic face of its protagonist, are typical of this period, signalling Basquiat’s fatalistic conception of his own spectacularly rapid success that recalled the rise and fall of his heroes.

    Framed in inky black oilstick, Untitled’s combatant confronts the viewer with penetrating insistence and a fierce gladiatorial stance; with glazed eyes, brandished teeth and an oversized baseball bat-cum-weapon, it is only the all-American symbolic import of Robinson’s striped uniform that undercut the inherent violence and aggression of the image. Crudely delineated with a stark and prostrated fixity, Basquiat’s paroxysmal intensity of line takes on a specific art historical and political efficacy, as recognised by art critic Rene Ricard in his aforementioned essay, 'The Radiant Child'. ‘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 but from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet. Except the politics of Dubuffet needed a lecture to show, needed a separate text, whereas in Jean-Michel they are integrated by the picture’s necessity (Rene Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child,’ Artforum, December 1981, p. 43). It is here that the self-identification of the artist with the figure of Jackie Robinson is most dramatically effected, and notably exaggerated by the proliferation of Basquiat’s trademark icon – the three-point crown – shown both in the top-left aspect of the composition but also a recurrent pattern within its gridded armature. Often interpreted as a declaration of the artist’s power and ambition, the crown marks the pinnacle of Basquiat’s culturally loaded pyrotechnics of sign and signifier, here weaponised within his graphic arsenal.

    Numerous interpretations of this symbol abound: from its precedence within New York graffiti culture of the 1970s and 1980s and use as a visual sign of one artist’s appreciation for another’s work; the notion of kingship within jazz culture and the ‘crowning’ of especially talented performers such as Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole; to its assimilation by the world heavyweight boxing champion Mohammed Ali, – the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest’ – who took to theatrically adopting a crown for pubic appearances, including for the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1969. ‘The Radiant Child’ is also prescient for drawing attention to its resonance for Basquiat, with Ricard writing ‘the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel's repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it's his. He won that crown.’ (Rene Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child,’ Artforum, December 1981, p. 37). An emblem of royal or saintly significance here applied to a black sporting icon, the gesture’s function is one of empowerment and liberating enfranchisement. In this way, Untitled revels in the referential power of Basquiat's poetic and personal iconography, and his commanding and ferocious orchestration of artistic autonomy and cultural discourse as tools with which to challenge systems of power and representation.

  • 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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signed, inscribed and dated 'NYC 81 Jean-Michel Basquiat' on the reverse
acrylic, oilstick and xerox on wood
122 x 76.2 cm (48 x 30 in.)
Executed in 1981.

£3,000,000 - 5,000,000 

Sold for £3,842,000

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Rosanna Widén

Director, Senior Specialist
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

44 20 7318 4060

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 27 June 2019