Jean-Michel Basquiat - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Robert Miller Gallery, New York
    Galerie Bernard Cats, Brussels

  • Exhibited

    Kyongju, Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art, Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat, September 14 - October 20, 1991, then traveled to Seoul, The National Museum of Contemporary Art (November 1 -November 30, 1991)
    Brussels, Galerie Eric van de Weghe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April 9 - May 23, 1992

  • Literature

    K.S. Lee, D.A. Ross, Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Kyongju: Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991, no. 12
    P. Sterckx, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Brussels: Galerie Eric van de Weghe, 1992
    L. Walsh, Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Notebooks, New York, Art + Knowledge, 1993, p.9 (illustrated)
    R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris: Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996, vol. II, p. 114, no.1 (illustrated)
    R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris: Galerie Enrico Navarra, 3rd ed., 2000, p. 184-185 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “The ease with which Jean-Michel achieved profundity convinced me of his genius…but perhaps it was his simple honesty that that has made him a true hero.”
    KEITH HARING, 1989

    There is no body of work more distinctive in its iconography or more radically individualistic than that of Jean-Michel Basquiat. While contemporary critics have been tempted to highlight Basquiat’s background and multicultural influences as the source for his stunning originality, it is far more productive to locate Basquiat’s artistic genius within a more wide-ranging collection of influences that in combination created such a rich legacy. His encyclopedic visual vocabulary remains one of the most far ranging and idiosyncratic imaginable—as well as one of the most debated and mysterious. As Basquiat ascended to the height of his painterly powers during the first years of the 1980s, his visceral, combination of text, content and form reached a fever pitch. It was at this point in history that the present lot, the important Untitled (Soap),
    1983-1984 sprung forth from Jean-Michel’s soul. It is among the most technically balanced pieces in Basquiat’s oeuvre and exhibits the incredibly broad cast of figures and motifs so typical of his highest quality works.

    Basquiat, while ostensibly a self-taught artist, in the breadth of his subjects and inspirations is among the greatest autodidactsof the twentieth century and an artist who
    actively pursued the painterly excellence of his forbears. “He set out to establish himself as an artist, and began by learning about the painting styles and techniques of
    established twentieth century artists that he admired, in particular, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly.”(R. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects”, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, p. 15).

    Basquiat was clearly playing for keeps willing himself into the pantheon of great artists of the twentieth century and beyond through his powerful, ferocious works on canvas. However he did not just admire the great artists of recent history but sought to actively surpass them through dedication and—to a degree— from sheer force of will combined with painterly dexterity. However Basquiat’s affinity for these earlier generations never slipped into mimicry. Akin to a jazz player riffing on a well known tunes, Basquiat makes every strategy and technique he channels unmistakably his own improvising late into the night and creating new possibilities where none were thought to exist before. “Words play a more obsessive and prominent role in his art than in Twombly’s; and his chanting rhythmic repetitiveness for the first time mixed sound into this brew of sense and senses. Basquiat’s visceral receptivity also brought some of Pollock’s lyric passion back into painting.”(K. Kertess, “Brushes with Beatitude”, Jean-
    Michel Basquiat
    , ed. R. Marshall, New York, p. 54). As a young poet utilizing spray paint to transmit his lyric invention, it was effortless for Basquiat to employ sketches, cartoons, and words onto canvas.

    While Basquiat’s canvasses or painted wooden surfaces of 1980-1982 feature a variety of forms, they tend to feature a single figure prominently on the canvas, awash in a
    background of color. It was in this period that Basquiat most frequently employed his skull motif in a dark palette: blacks, red, and dark blues dominate his pictures. Subsequently, his surfaces begin to show a certain levity in their chromatic schemes, sometimes even adopting lighter colors as their main hue. In addition, Basquiat’s use of graffiti and iconography begins to assume a more organic role in his paintings, almost becoming decorative background for his major players in the foreground.

    Untitled (Soap), 1983-84 comes at the zenith of Basquiat’s formal vibrancy and material complexity. Upon first glance, the prominent figures in Basquiat’s painting assume the narrative power of the composition. The two disembodied heads differ in color and tone from the rest of the painting. The lighter shades of the collaged background built up from a multitude of fragments define the ground of the picture and are punctuated by yellow and green. The heads blaze upon the surface in two tones of severity: blood red for the grimacing visage on the left, and a dense intermingling of navy and black for the mask like figure on the right. Intensely drawn with titanium white, the blue and black figure bears many of the hallmarks Basquiat’s earlier work—an almost transparent face, giving way to exposed bone and skull-like patterns upon the crown of the head. Yet the figure on the left represents a new path for Basquiat: a fuller, fleshier being than before. These two startling countenances are connected by a large ring—dueling spirits bound to each other for eternity.

    Beyond the ring made up of of these two iconic heads, the graphic contrasts of the collaged ground is punctuated by two crimson elements. Directly below the center of the
    piece lies a rectangular form labeled simply “SOAP”. At once confounding and oddly humorous, this central placement of such a puzzling object exhibits to us Basquiat the
    prankster and provocateur, an artist who is able to incite the interest of his viewers with something so seemingly mundane. Bleedingout its soft canary yellow interior into the murky space around it, the bar of soap is at home and constitutes an almost surrealist juxtaposition with the intense figurative forms above. Together, they form a chromatic warmth and unity, one apt to battle the malicious mood that the two heads would aim to perpetuate. As a counterpoint, Basquiat has also incorporated the red and white signal of a diving fag, further confounding a direct reading of the surface meaning of the painting.

    But perhaps Basquiat’s most interesting achievement in the present lot is his intricately decorated background. From top to bottom, his canvas is covered in icons drawn from the best of Basquiat’s seemingly infinite visual vocabulary, with these icons applied directly to the canvas and via sheets of paper and upon the canvas itself. The collaged elements range from elephants and anteaters to ladders and wheels, to boxers in fighting posture, to mathematical and anatomical models. While Basquiat had begun the practice of punctuating his backgrounds with graffiti years before the present lot is remarkable for its emphasis on pictorial rather than verbal content. But, as stated before, Basquiat was improvising of the visual melodies set forth by his predecessors: from Picasso and Twombly as well as Leonardo Da Vinci. The present lot
    is startling proof that Basquiat was beginning to fuse nearly all of his influences into a repertoire of standards that were singular each time they were performed.

    With every new motif that he painted upon a surface, Basquiat produced an enormous amount of academic dispute. Critics and scholars have tried to mine the underlying
    concerns that Basquiat proposes with his uniquely personal iconography. Some of diagrams or motifs have precipitated a critical consensus when it comes to their meaning.
    Soap, for example has special resonance as a racially charged subject in Basquiat’s work. Basquiat has in fact employed soap to as a satirical device before: “Basquiat’s inclusion of a drawing about Black Face Soap, a joke item advertised in the back of comic books that turns the users face a black color, illustrates the internalized racism characteristic of American society and promulgated in young readers.”(R. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects”, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, p. 31)

    But yet this reading of the usage of the phrase at the lower portion of the painting may limit the nonsensical and randomness of the Basquiat’s radical juxtaposition of
    subjects. As Basquiat’s additional drawings in the background do not always conform with this interpretation. For example, what are we to make of Basquiat’s cartoons? What of his long-trunked elephant? Perhaps the answer is that all of Basquiat’s complex internal realities exist within the confines of this single painting. For a mind as complex as Basquiat’s, the mere simplicity of a single reading does not satisfy the demands of his art.

    Basquiat manages to achieve fullness in every aspect of his form: his figures as balanced, his influences are looming joyously with every brushstroke, and, perhaps most wonderfully of all, Basquiat’s air of mystery is inscrutable and unmatched. In the present work we are faced with more questions than answers but questions that clearly will draw forth life changing answers each time one’s vision has occasion to visit the canvas.

  • 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. 

    View More Works


Untitled (Soap)

acrylic, oil stick, paper collage on canvas
66 x 60 in. (168 x 152.8 cm.)

$5,000,000 - 7,000,000 

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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York 16 May 2013 7pm