Jean-Michel Basquiat - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 13, 2015 | Phillips

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    Jean Michel Basquiat 'Krong Thip (Torso)', 1983

    Perhaps best known for his derivative street style, 'Krong Thip (Torso)', 1983 is a rare example of Basquiat subscribing to traditional modes of rendering human anatomy. This lot depicts a human muscle study of the back and upper limb that is rich with reference to the proportional figure studies drawn by old masters, yet painted in the archetypal Basquiat process and exhibiting his instantly recognizable color application technique as exemplified by the vibrant interplay of white, blue, pink, red, yellow and orange on the canvas.

  • Provenance

    Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
    The Estate of Marjorie Leshaw, New York
    Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, May 13, 2004, lot 448
    Private Collection
    Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, May 11, 2006
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, States of War: New European and American Paintings, April - June 1985

  • Literature

    States of War: New European and American Paintings, exh. cat., Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 1985, p. 23 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Krong Thip (Torso) executed in 1983 shows Jean-Michel Basquiat during the second creative phase of his eminent career, having recently graduated from subways to white cube spaces and assuming his position as a prodigy on the international art scene. Known for his powerful compositions which ignore academic rules and compositional hierarchies, Basquiat drew inspiration from everyday life and mixed media. Famously sampling elements from a wide range of source material such as symbol books, comic books quotations, music, African American culture, art history and anatomy and re-mixing them on canvas. Perhaps best known for his derivative street style, Krong Thip (Torso), 1983 is a rare example of Basquiat subscribing to traditional modes of rendering human anatomy. This lot depicts a human muscle study of the back and upper limb that is rich with reference to the proportional figure studies drawn by old masters, yet painted in the archetypal Basquiat process and exhibiting his instantly recognizable color application technique as exemplified by the vibrant interplay of white, blue, pink, red, yellow and orange on the canvas. This unusual subject matter aligns itself with the recurring motif of anatomical components within Basquiat’s oeuvre, inclusively tied to an enigmatic combination of words and symbols that collectively characterize his unique visual aesthetic.

    Unlike many Basquiat compositions which depict figures engaged in actions or which exude overt political or social associations, the labels “TORSO” and “LEFT HAND” alongside the figure are clear references to anatomical drawings and figure studies from the renaissance in which specific body parts were illustrated in isolation in order to enhance the artist’s understanding of anatomical precincts and contribute to the creation of more dynamic compositions. Set against the dominant red background, the vibrancy of the yellow torso isolates itself from the rest of the composition as the focal point. The sculptural rendering of the torso derives from Basquiat’s fascination with Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks, which provided a great source of inspiration throughout his career. The protruding shoulder blades and chiseled core indicate an idealized physique rendered in the classical style, while the cyan and black brushstrokes upon the torso depict a muscular form reminiscent of the deep shadowing and highlights employed by Da Vinci in his topographic notebook studies of human musculature.

    These accentuated lines adhere to anatomical rules of movement to produce the illusion of three-dimensionality on the canvas. Stretching out from the torso itself, the outline of an outstretched arm concluding in a geometric grid form is an allusion to Da Vinci’s comparative anatomical figure studies that employ mathematics to theories of body proportion. The blue and yellow numbers illustrated above the left hand indicate its function as a detail within the overall study, eliciting an effect which is at once connective yet separate from the whole. These renaissance studies were not intended as artworks in their own right, but were considered necessary to become a technician capable of constructing dynamic compositions with heightened realism. This appropriation of imagery from renaissance and baroque artistic vocabulary demonstrate the diversity of artistic influences that comprise Basquiat’s extensive visual lexicon, and suggests his employment of them to improve the conceptual dynamism of his artistic style. In this way Krong Thip (Torso) is not a literal figure study but instead operates as a metaphor for Basquiat’s own ground breaking aesthetic contributions to his generation and place in history.

    As with Da Vinci, anatomy was a lifelong fascination for Basquiat after he received a copy of Gray’s Anatomy textbook from his mother at age seven to occupy him during a period of hospitalization in which he recovered from a traumatic car accident (L. Emmerling, Basquiat, Cologne, 2006, p. 11). Basquiat has cited the trauma of this event as his most vivid childhood memory (B. Johnson and T. Davis, interview with Jean- Michel Basquiat, Beverly Hills, California, 1985). Gray’s Anatomy functioned as a major reference source throughout his career and was a contributing influence to the incorporation of image and text within his oeuvre. The noise music band, Gray, that he formed alongside Michael Holman, Shannon Dawson, and Vincent Gallo, was even named after the book and their performances often involved Basquiat reciting passages from Gray’s Anatomy while lying on the ground (L. Emmerling, Basquiat, Cologne, 2006, p.14). This early introduction to anatomical structures and draughtsmanship greatly influenced the development of Basquiat’s Neo-Expressionist approach to painting, which was a departure from the conceptual and minimal art of the 1970s. As a genre it favoured the representation of recognizable objects and human figures albeit in a rough and violently emotional manner owing to the use of vivid colors, as shown in Unititled, 1982.

    Beneath the bold red background, several traces and marks reveal changes that made to the composition during production. Below the outstretched arm of the study figure, the outline of another smaller torso beneath the semi-translucent red paint is just visible. The technique of overlaying several coats of color with varying degrees of transparency increasingly appears in Basquiat’s works from the early 1980s, in which he developed Pentimento as a stylistic means. Creating pictorial elements and lettering before partially erasing them from view Dieter Buchhart notes that in the case of Old Masters, evidence of over painting is the result of increased transparency of the paint caused by aging and was not deliberate. Whereas Basquiat’s employment of Pentimento often overlays the most graphically complex elements of the composition. (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, 2010, p.13).

    In a 2009 interview with Michael Holman, he described how Basquiat would partially or completely paint over his most extraordinary pictorial compositions (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, 2010, p.13). He compares Basquiat’s technique to Edvard Munch who also deliberately worked with transparency to render underlying layers of color and motifs visible, (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, 2010, p.13) drawing the eye to a second submerged layer of reality. Basquiat’s use of this technique in Krong Thip (Torso) strives to achieve a precise balance between opacity and transparency in order to establish a metonymic connection between the graphic elements of the underlying layer and that which resides visibility on the top layer. Together the combination of pedimenti, acrylics, oil slick and collage turn his pictures into a kind of painted hip hop, in which samples are joined, overlaid and remixed to create a melody.

    Aged 22 when this work was painted, Basquiat was entering the second creative phase of his career. Experiencing a major lift off of in terms of notoriety and increased exposure in the international art world, his meteoric rise to fame was only just beginning. In March 1983 Basquiat was included the Whitney Biennial along with forty other artists, among them Kieth Haring, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman. To this day, Basquiat is one of the youngest artists ever to participate in a Whitney Biennial. Also in March of that year, his show at the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles sold out completely. The works featured texts and images related to famous boxers, musicians, and Hollywood films and roles played by blacks in them (F.Sirmans, Basquiat, 2010, p.48). Single heroic figures such as athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself dominate Basquiat’s canon. However, the figure in Krong Thip (Torso) is an ambiguous study and pure examination of the human body in the absence of persona. Kellie Jones observes that that the head is often the central focus in many images and emphasizes the way intellect is privileged over the body and physicality of these figures. (Kellie Jones, Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix)

    The emphasis on the body and the obliteration of any discernible facial features in this work are not intended to highlight the artist’s anatomical knowledge, but instead how the universality of the human figure transcends both racial and class divisions. Before Basquiat, no African American artist had made a successful bid to become the next Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol. Collectively the racial ambiguity present in this work and the allusion to the universality of human characteristics present a unique re-interpretation of humanism at the close of the twenty-first century. In typical Basquiat fashion, he has suggestively written “TORSO©” in the bottom write hand corner of the canvas. This refers to his earlier artistic identity, SAMO© the graffiti artist and street poet coming up in New York at the end of the 1970s and suggests the commodification of his artworks and persona that were beginning to occur when this work was created. By 1983 purchasing art had become a great trend and the art was just beginning to be compared to stocks and bonds as an investable commodity. Obnoxious Liberals, 1982, is challenge to the wealthy world of art collectors that surrounded him as he struggled to adapt to his place in a social system whose values he did not agree with.

    Predominantly known for the temporal quality of his works which are emblematic of the cultural and political undercurrents running through New York in the 1980s, the concept of equality in physical form conveyed through the anatomical imagery in this work transcends time and place to imbue this work with an atemporal quality. A calculating technician, Basquiat absorbed everything with his eyes and ears, producing a body of work that has outlasted the transient and fleeting atmosphere of the context in which they were created (R. Storr, Basquiat, 2010, p.36). Recalling Harvard educated art historian Robert Goldwater’s dissertation, Primitivism in Modern Art (1937), which set forth the principle categories of the “primitive art” that influenced modernism. Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and their Cubist followers were heavily influenced by tribal art from Africa and Oceania, while the Surrealists borrowed from artists in asylums and social outsiders. Robert Storr posits that the spine of modernism is constructed of interlocking forms of primitivism, and notes how Basquiat’s appetite for anatomy books and pictorial surveys are derivative inclinations that secure his prolific status within the paradigm of modernism (R. Storr, Basquiat, 2010, p.36).

    The controversial issues that characterized Basquiat’s time persist today, and his exploration of their nuances within the social system using diverse media continue to inspire emerging painters today. To classify him as a graffiti artist, or Neo-Expressionist would be an oversimplification of the complexity and range of the art that he produced (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, 2010, p.10). Basquiat’s untimely death at the age of twenty-seven contributed to the myth that formed around him and his works (L. Emmerling, Basquiat, Cologne, 2006, p. 7). To be a legend of the late twentieth century was to be a celebrity in an era remembered for myth making. Working closely with his friend Andy Warhol, considered by many to be the hardest working myth maker of modern times, no one wanted to achieve fame and mythological status more than Basquiat himself (R. Storr, Basquiat, 2010, p.35).The layered visual and cultural dichotomies within this composition epitomize Basquiat’s highly innovative style, demonstrating the depth of his artistic knowledge and highly capable transmission to canvas. The successful execution of such knowledge based artistic strategies place him among the ranks of other forerunners such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Debuffet, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Cy Twombly. All of whom greatly influenced his artistic direction, and the generations of young painters that succeeded them.

  • 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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Krong Thip (Torso)

acrylic, oilstick on canvas
66 1/8 x 60 1/8 in. (168 x 152.7 cm)
Titled "Torso" lower right; further signed, titled and dated "Nov 1983" on the reverse.

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Evening Sale 14 May 2015 7pm