Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Thursday, December 3, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Introduction


    Jean-Michel Basquiat, dubbed “the radiant child” by the American art critic Rene Ricard, was an extraordinarily gifted neo-expressionist painter with an ability to shock, inspire and get under the skin of his viewers past and present i. Self-taught, with a restless and prolific mind, he developed a unique visual vocabulary drawn from his Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage, pop culture, art history, poetry and his enduring fascination for Abstract Expressionist art. Starting out as a graffiti renegade under the pseudonym SAMO with fellow artist Al Diaz in the late 1970s, Basquiat eventually entered the world of contemporary art, and his works caught the attention of gallerists and dealers such as Annina Nosei and Bruno Bischofberger. The artist swiftly rose to fame with the support of industry powerhouses such as Andy Warhol, Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone, and in 1983 Basquiat was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (Whitney Biennial) to become the youngest artist to have represented America in a major international exhibition of contemporary art. Basquiat was also the youngest artist ever to be included in Documenta in Kassel, two years before the present work's inception, in 1982. Executed in 1984, Ancient Scientist was created at the pinnacle of the artist’s career. 


    Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio, 1980s

    Basquiat’s insatiable hunger for information allowed him to draw inspiration everywhere, appropriating references from music, poetry, history, politics and popular culture in the development of his own personal iconography. In an interview showcasing a collection of drawings by Basquiat, collector and scientist Herbert Schorr elucidated on the workings of his close friend’s mind: ‘he didn’t have formal lessons, but he went to museums. He understood what he was seeing. I was told he went to some dealer’s library and scoured through the books…Basquiat was just like that—visually he could see it and absorb it instantly. He was extremely smart’ ii. Living downtown in his Manhattan studio was highly significant to Basquiat’s development as an artist. Interviewed for an exhibition at the Fun Gallery in 1982, the artist noted that he took various academic references from trips to the Metropolitan Museum, or history and anatomy books, using them as source material and incorporating various sketches of artifacts to juxtapose them with ‘what he normally does’. With an endless expanse of information at his fingertips, Basquiat studied the world widely, condensing his knowledge onto the canvas.

    "When I’m working, I hear them you know, and I just throw them down." —Jean Michel Basquiat 

    The Scientist


    Pablo Picasso, The Red Armchair, 1931. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    A nod to Pablo Picasso’s Cubist aesthetic derived from ancient masks and sculptures (see for example Pablo Picasso, The Red Armchair, 1931), bold lines form the outline of a mask-like head and body on a heavily blacked out canvas. The angular formation of the face with a distinct triangular nose that runs up the figure's forehead draws another comparison to African Banda masks of the late 19th and early 20th century, including the mask held in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, which Basquiat was known to have frequented.


    Detail of the present work with a Banda Mask, late 19th or early 20th Century. Collection of the Brooklyn Museum  


    With stark white eyes that directly confront the viewer, the profile of the figure in the present work further calls to mind classical half-length portrait paintings of characteristic three-quarter turned faces. The subject of Ancient Scientist could perhaps be an influential scientific figure such as Sir Isaac Newton (see for example Sir Godfrey Kneller, Sir Isaac Newton, 1702), whose mask like- wig and white collared attire bear an uncanny likeness to that of the figure. Following the line of sight with another streak slashed across the picture plane are a cluster of red circles. Possibly alluding to the shape of a scientist’s globe (See for example Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, c. 1668), an image of a female torso comes into view when paired with two smaller circles above. Showcasing his deep dive into the world of Classical and Contemporary art, Basquiat distills the female figure into the essential features associated with sexual reproduction and fertility, stripping down figure to its simplest forms.

  • Anatomy 


    With two circles indicating breasts, and the larger one to suggest a pregnant belly, the image calls to mind the exaggerated features of the earliest prehistoric figurines, sculptures that embodied the divinity of procreation (see for example Venus of Willendorf, c. 28,000–25,000 B.C.). 


    Venus of Willendorf, c. 28,000–25,000 B.C. Collection of the Nauturhistorisches Museum, Vienna 

    Basquiat’s inherent interest in science and anatomy stems from his childhood; Having been incolved in a car accident at 6 years old, the artist’s mother gifted him a copy of Gray's Anatomy by Henry Gray, an influential work on the subject of human anatomy for medical knowledge. The workings of the human body would continue to fascinate him, taking the anatomical drawings from books and the art of Renaissance artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and translating them onto his canvases. 

  • The graphic, heated strokes of primary colours in the composition harkens back to these anatomical illustrations (see for example Illustration by Henry Carter from Henry Gray, Gray’s Anatomy, 1918), a colour palette Basquiat utilises throughout his oeuvre (see for example Jean Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1983). Additionally, these colours were also the most effective in conveying emotion and energy. Bold and bright, each line carved into the pitch black surface highlights the physical act of painting that was central to the Abstract Expressionist movement (see for example Willem De Kooning, Woman, ca. 1952), creating multiple layers of complexity within the composition. 


    Willem De Kooning, Woman, ca. 1952. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 



    Fascinated by modern technology, in 1983 Basquiat invested in his own colour Xerox machine –  utilising collage as an integral element in his practice. These Xerox collages added density to his works and were often repeated across various pieces, indicating that the artist concurrently worked on several works at a time. Though in Ancient Scientist much of the collage is obliterated by black paint, the lower section of the painting shows a critical glimpse of what the artist used as a foundation of his work. Lined with botanical drawings of thorns, leaves and flowers, scientific language such as “OF SODOM – (SOLANAMUM SODOMEUM)” and “THEVETIA PERUVIANA” can just be made out from his characteristic graffiti scrawls. A little research would show that these are names of plant species, both which are highly toxic. Solanum Sodomeum is also known as the ‘Apple of Sodom’ – a plant often used to illustrate the externally beautiful but poisonous forbidden fruit of the mythical tree Eve had tempted Adam with, leading to their exile from the Garden of Eden. 


    Detail of the present painting with botanical drawings
    Leonardo Da Vinci, A sprig of guelder rose (viburnum opulus) with berries, c.1505-10. Collection of the Royal Collection Trust, UK

    Adam and Eve


    As it may be, the Eureka moment in Ancient Scientist comes to the fore when examining the work as a whole. Positioning the scientist next to the female form, Basquiat juxtaposes the scientist’s solid body to that of the delineated female figure, evenly spacing out the round halos to create optical balance. The placement of the male and female form is not only a celebration of science and the human body, read between the lines it also conjures up the classical subject and narrative pervasive in art history – the story of Adam and Eve. 

  • In that vein, the abstract rectangle that divides the nude female and the masked figure at the centre of the painting is its key. A character that may have been extracted from the Hebrew alphabet that forms “Sodom” סְדֹם (s'dóm), the bold rectangular shape transforms into a metaphor for Newton’s apple that was the milestone in scientific discovery, but is also the symbol of sin widely illustrated in Renaissance art. Occupying equal halves of the canvas, Basquiat offers in the same work a twofold reinterpretation of Birth and Creation in history, one that was built on modern scientific discoveries, and the other based on religion and mythology. Studying the works of Renaissance masters who were similarly absorbed with the study of the human body such as Albrecht Durer and Titian (See for example Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504), Basquiat reinvents classical images with wild colour and fevered strokes, resulting in a contemporary illustration exploring the classical Renaissance debate of Science versus Art. 


    Detail of the present painting examined under the context of Adam and Eve depictions 

    New layers of intellectual depth through composition and colour reveal themselves under Basquiat’s alleged impulsive scrawls and scribbles. The botanical xeroxes that mirror the red female form in its romantic sense suggest the celebration of beauty and spring (see for example Sandro Boticelli, The Birth of Venus, ca 1485). The green pointed shaped scribbled on the bottom left of the painting also bears close resemblance to a fig leaf used to conceal Adam’s modesty widely illustrated in classical art. 


    Sandro Boticelli, The Birth of Venus, ca 1485. Collection of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence



    Sampling from his past alter ego as SAMO, words such as “VROOM!”, “HISSSSSS” AND “RATS!” also pepper the xerox collage on the lower portion of the work. It is also interesting to note the work was executed in the zodiac year of the Rat, an indication to Basquiat’s exploration into Asian symbols in various other works executed in the same year (see for example Jean-Michel Basquiat, Big Pagoda, 1984 and Untitled, 1984), yet another endearing manifestation of his experiences living in the rich multicultural and cosmopolitan streets of New York City. In 1985, Basquiat took a trip to Hong Kong with restaurateur and artist Michael Chow and his then-wife Tina, spending two weeks absorbing the spirit of the city. 


    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Big Pagoda, 1997 and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1984
    Detail of the present work next to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1984

    A genius of his time, Basquiat experimented with new artistic techniques and mixed different methods of expression, capturing the mix of high and popular culture with an acute sensibility characterised by unconventional spontaneity. The present work was also exhibited in Musée Maillol, gracing the cover of its flyers alongside works by Pablo Picasso, placing him in the same league as the masters that he had looked up to. 


    Jean-Michel Basquiat on the cover of The New York Times, 1985 

i Rene Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, December 1981
    ii Herbert Schorr, quoted in ‘Learn About a Couple that Collected Jean-Michel Basquiat—and Became His Friend, Too’, Vogue, 15 May 2014, online

    • Provenance

      Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
      Private Collection, Chicago
      Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Arizona
      Sotheby's, New York, 11 May 2005, lot 348
      Galerie Jan Krugier, Ditesheim & Cie, Geneva
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Gagosian, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Drawings, 1980-1988, February - March 1998, no. 30 (illustrated)
      Paris, Musée Maillol, Le Feu sous les Cendres: De Picasso à Basquiat, 8 October 2005 - 13 February 2006

    • Literature

      Richard D. Marshall, Enrico Navarra and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd Edition, vol. 2, Paris, 2000, no. 1, pp. 224-5 (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.

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Property from an Important European Collection


Ancient Scientist

signed with the artist's initials, titled and dated 'JMB "ANCIENT SCIENTIST" 1984' on the reverse
acrylic, oilstick, Xerox and paper collage on canvas
167.7 x 154 cm. (66 x 60 5/8 in.)
Executed in 1984.

Full Cataloguing

HK$50,000,000 - 70,000,000 

Sold for HK$58,330,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 3 December 2020