Jean-Michel Basquiat - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2013 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Stavros Merjos, Los Angeles
    Neal Meltzer Fine Art, New York

  • Literature

    R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, New York, 1996, vol. II, p.58, no 4 (illustrated)
    Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 65 (illustrated)
    R. D. Marshall and J.L. Prat, eds., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris: 2000, p. 88, no. 5, (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “My subject matters are royalty, heroism, and the streets.”

    Jean-Michel Basquiat’s prolific paintings of African American athletes and cultural heroes are among the most personally and politically charged works in his ephemeral yet
    vast oeuvre. In the figure of Jackie Robinson, Basquiat recognized a resilient hero and a captivating icon of self-made success. Robinson was an athletic champion who
    managed to triumph against all odds in the form of deep-rooted racial prejudices of the 1950s. This was a heroic figure that Basquiat truly identified with, growing up as a young man of Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage with incomparable artistic talent, challenging the predominantly white world of the competitive art scene. The present lot, Untitled, 1981, is one of Basquiat’s first images of the famed ball player, and one that predates most of his “famous negro athletes”; it is also a metaphorical self-portrait of Basquiat as a defiant competitor of his day.

    Basquiat defined his artistic subjects as “royalty, heroism, and the streets,” and the human figure quickly emerged as the central theme in Basquiat’s work, employed as a
    platform for combining autobiography with black history and popular culture. He had been aware of art history since his youth, visiting the Brooklyn Museum of Art near
    his home in the New York City borough. “I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them,” he remarked, and that “the black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings” (H. Geldzahler, “Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview, January 1983). Yet while he commemorated icons such as jazz luminary Charlie Parker and boxing champion Joe Louis later in his career, it was the context of Jackie Robinson within the world of baseball that made it the most attractive and urgent of his early subjects.

    The present lot combines a series of powerful images and events that Basquiat highly valued. There is, of course, the breakthrough black athlete in the figure of Jackie Robinson, but baseball, and it’s heroic stature as an American pastime and ritual, provides an equal amount of visual inspiration for Basquiat. As a mixed Puerto- Rican/Haitian who was also a first-generation American, Basquiat had three separate cultural influences that drove him toward the admiration of baseball as a cherished
    custom. In addition, baseball provides a remarkably fertile ground for the exploration of Basquiat’s themes: as the figure stands alone at bat, he has an equal amount of
    support and faction within the stadium, and he alone can write the destiny of his success. As a figure of adulation, the lone batter is the paradigmatic Basquiat overreacher— he who makes greatness for himself in the face of massive opposition. Combined with Robinson’s singular importance as a racial icon, the present lot sets the stage for Basquiat’s Famous Negro Athletes in a formative capacity, readying the batter’s box for the deluge of tributes to come.

    The present lot depicts the legendary Robinson in all his glory, worshiped by Basquiat’s own form of haloed, winged angels collaged below. Here, Basquiat also depicts
    his iconic sense of anatomical drawing, a mainstay of his early work. As the school of angels accepts Robinson into sainthood, winged arms up in praise for the revolutionary baseball, he has achieved the ultimate adulation. Additionally, Basquiat’s inclusion of crowns surrounding the figure symbolizes him as a monarch of sorts, a king of his craft; also, however, we see at play Basquiat’s admiration for the lone figure, the dictator of movement within the game and the ruler of action. Consequently, the crowns were are further evidence of Basquiat’s obsession with the singular figure of change, similar to the Christian notion of enshrining Christ as prime mover of the modern era: “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 Charlie Parker, Jackie Robinson, and Joe Louis to a wobbly, generic pantheon of saints while such gestures might still have meaning.” (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History”, Basquiat, New York, 2005, p. 51).

    Untitled, 1981, displays Basquiat’s instantly recognizable style, particularly his brilliant handling of paint, spontaneous sense of line, and imaginative use of color. Basquiat cited Franz Kline as one of his favorite artists, whose brawny brushwork is echoed in Basquiat’s dynamic strokes of paint, as seen is the yellow streak swathed across the lower quadrant. The use of line in the present lot, marked by hesitations and white scrawls, was developed with Cy Twombly’s style, in mind, whom Basquiat noted as a major influence. Basquiat cleverly and uniquely built upon the techniques of these acclaimed artists and others, as well as sources of African masks, Voodoo figurines from the Caribbean, and Christian icons, melding these rich sources into a single style. The present lot marks an important moment for the artist. It is an image steeped in
    both American history and Basquiat’s own personal gratitude for those who have paved the way in breaking barriers. Without such heroes to guide him, Basquiat may never have persevered as one of the greatest Contemporary artists to date. As the lone figure in the batter’s box, Basquiat prevailed.

  • 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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acrylic, oil stick, pencil, spray paint, paper collage on wood
48 x 30 x 1 1/2 in. (122 x 76.2 x 4 cm.)
Signed, dated and inscribed "NYC 81 Jean-Michel Basquiat" on the reverse.

$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Sold for $4,085,000

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York 16 May 2013 7pm