Jean-Michel Basquiat - Contemporary Art Part I New York Wednesday, May 11, 2011 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich

  • Exhibited

    Paris, Galerie Daniel Templon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Oeuvres récentes, January 10 – February 7, 1987; Beverly Hills, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paintings and Drawings 1980-1988, February 12 – March 14, 1998, no 47 (illustrated in color); Künzelsau, Museum Würth, Jean Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier (Paintings and works on paper), September 27, 2001 – January 1, 2002

  • Literature

    Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, p. 145, no. 3 (illustrated in color) and p. 217 (installation view); Jean-Michel Basquiat: paintings and drawings, 1980-1988, Los Angeles, 1998, no. 47 (illustrated in color); J. Baal-Teshuva, Jean Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier (Paintings and works on paper), Künzelsau, 2001, p. 99 (illustrated in color)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Basquiat’s repeated use of anatomical imagery — skeletons, musculature, and internal organs — coincides with an ever more widespread tendency in his work to turn things inside out. Inner thoughts are made public in graffiti-like litanies of words and other bursts of expression; distinctions between private spaces and public places are dissolved; past and present are interwoven, and levels of reality are multiplied and scrambled; the imagined realms of paradise, hell and purgatory become indistinguishable.

    (Jeffrey Hoffeld, “Basquiat and the inner self,” Jean-Michel Basquiat Paintings and Works on Paper, 2001, p. 27)

    Jean-Michel Basquiat defined American Art in the 1980s. Basquiat’s artistic career began in the late 1970s, when he was producing artwork as a graffiti artist under the pseudonym “SAMO.” The street and the urban landscape was Basquiat’s canvas. All of New York City’s public spaces were available to him and his work became instantly visible to and activated by passers-by. People of diverse backgrounds took notice: “Samo’s early public markings and images on canvas, paper and wood…conveyed a striking sense of isolation (and…loneliness) shamelessly displayed so as to append something almost sinister to a vulnerability that became in itself a shield.” In a relatively short period of time, SAMO’s graffiti gained cult notoriety. His work was featured in the Village Voice’s historic December 1978 article on the rise and importance of graffiti artists in New York City, to which Basquiat ironically replied a year later “SAMO IS DEAD,” officially ending that chapter of his career.

    The early 1980s were a pivotal time for Basquiat’s artistic development. In 1981, he was featured in Glenn O’Brien’s seminal documentary Downtown ’81 and was subsequently introduced to Andy Warhol, an artist who would become a mentor and confidant. Basquiat’s artistic career is often described as a meteoritic rise, punctuated by key moments that include Art Forum’s seminal Radiant Child article, his debut exhibition with legendary art dealer Annina Nosei, and sold-out exhibitions with Mary Boone, a gallery that defined and emblematized the spirit of the 80s. A year before Basquiat’s death in 1988, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times in an article titled “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist.” It was a harbinger for the fall of the 1980s stock market and the first major art world recession.

    Language has always played a central role in Basquiat’s work. Throughout his oeuvre, the vernacular of street culture slowly became integrated into commercial and institutional systems. The embedded politics in Basquiat’s paintings, such as Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), were now visible to larger communities, and consequently the voice and position of a marginalized body politic, otherwise unrepresented, took center stage. Primarily using found materials; the realities of urban culture were made manifest in Basquiat’s choice of medium. “At the beginning of 1981, he had been painting on found objects, discarded windows, doors, pieces of wood and metal; the debris of New York City.”

    In Irony of Negro Policeman, a towering black figure is inscribed with chalky white calligraphic lines. The figure’s black foot is the backdrop for an overlaid white foot, as if to infer the black body is still dominated by an institutional white system of control. The painting also suggests the pressures on African Americans as they navigate a world still governed by social inequality. Basquiat’s artistic career, from his debut exhibition in 1981 through his death in 1988 occurred while Ronald Reagan was President. Although the 80s were a time of economic boom and
    prosperity for America, some of which Basquiat participated in, it was also a time when issues of race, gender, sexuality, the AIDS crisis and economic discrepancies would set the stage for the crucible of the 90s.

    Untitled (Lung) from 1986 is a portrait of an African American man seen in profile. The painting’s monumental size, measuring eight feet tall, presents a heroic, imposing subject. However, the subject’s stature is compromised by his skeletal physique, whose stick-like arms and out-stretched hands grasp towards the margin of the canvas. Basquiat presents a “Warholian image of ‘life back from the dead’ (a zombielike cast transforming the features of the living into instant ancestral commemorations) takes on a distinctly different form, ‘feeling’ and content.” The figure’s body is clearly under stress, and the painting’s title Untitled (Lung), reinforces the emphasis placed solely on this one organ. The painting implies that a body is failing and the ability to breathe is constrained, perhaps under the pressures of life on the street or within the paradigm of a White Man’s America. The material of Untitled (Lung) further allows for these associations. The painting, composed on 15 slats of reclaimed wood, asserts the vulnerability and importance of impoverished materials, illustrating “the nonconformist genius of Basquiat, recycling wood planks to use them as a platform to his scene.”

    The fragility of the subject’s body may demonstrate autobiographical undertones. Basquiat’s own body had undergone serious trauma. In 1968, Basquiat underwent a splenectomy as a result of being struck by a speeding car. This event caused serious internal injuries, making Basquiat acutely aware of the fragility of life and a compromised body. In this work the figure “becomes both a silhouette and an x-ray. The silhouette of a half-spooky, half-humorous black figure that appeared
    years ago on many New York walls, particularly at street corners on rundown neighborhoods.”

    Untitled (Lung) is an outstanding example of Basquiat’s fascination with the power of primitive art and the basic forms of the human body. His works are intentionally reductive in nature and by breaking down his subjects to their most elemental form, he allows an exceptional depth and emotional connection to take shape. With this in mind Untitled (Lung) becomes one of Basquiat’s seminal works.

  • 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 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. 

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Untitled (Lung)

Acrylic on wood.
96 1/2 x 55 in. (245.1 x 139.7 cm.)
Signed and dated “Basquiat 86” on the reverse.

$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Contemporary Art Part I

12 May 2011
New York