Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 18, 2017 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Scott D.F. Spiegel, Los Angeles (acquired directly from the artist in 1982)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Property from the Collection of Scott D.F. Spiegel

    Basquiat was a drawer; he drew to release from his mind his dynamic texts, shapes and symbols in a deluge of artistic spontaneity onto paper. His creative imagination led him to frequently reuse and re-imagine disparate graphic symbols, turning them into striking visual combinations, scattered with poetic snippets, resulting in an elegant, artistic vocabulary. For Basquiat, the draftsmanship of drawing was never a means of studying or preparation but an artistic practice in its own right.

    PHILLIPS is proud to present for sale the following three works on paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat from the Collection of Scott D.F. Spiegel, an esteemed Los Angeles art collector whose cutting edge acquisitions of 1980’s artwork and commitment to emerging art is publicly visible by the multitude of works purchased for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles through the Scott D. F. Spiegel Endowment Fund. The following three works coming from the Collection of Scott D.F. Spiegel represent the best of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works on paper which stand within the artist’s practice as his most pure of creations.

    Basquiat’s Crew
    by Fred Hoffman

    In Untitled (Three Heads), 1982 Basquiat presents a portrait gallery of three personages, each individualized and highly expressive. Rendered from only three oil paintstick colors—red, black and blue---Basquiat’s goal was to simultaneously characterize and animate each figure. The head to the left presents the viewer with large peering eyes, gazing directly at the viewer, nostrils flaring wide open, mouth bearing a full set of teeth, hair spiking up and out in a multiplicity of directions. This is the most completely rendered of the three heads, not only establishing the level of energy for the overall work, but the primary means by which the viewer is “invited” into the world of Basquiat’s characters. The somewhat diminutive size of the middle head causes it to slightly recede back from the more formidable head to its left. While this figures’ eyes are piercing, both nose and mouth present a less detailed rendering. This character feels more inwardly focused. Basquiat’s third head does not peer out towards the viewer. Rather, this figure is depicted in profile, with its focus directed at the other two heads. The most simplified of the three, this figure serves an important purpose of conveying that the three personages are engaged with each other. Basquiat’s heads are neither symbols nor icons. They are the representation of “real” people, full of the capacity to both emote and interact.

    Untitled (Three Heads) is an important work in the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat; it is one of the only works on paper in which the artist has depicted multiple images of intensely focused, highly energized figural heads simultaneously asserting their presence as they stare out toward the viewer. The only other works on paper representing multiple heads are two earlier drawings depicting “Famous Negro Athletes” — one with three heads, the other with four. While the idea of capturing multiple heads in the same work may have come from these two earlier works, the heads portrayed in Untitled (Three Heads) are now highly expressive, revealing a significant shift of focus within Basquiat’s concern for both the physical and psychological presence of his subjects. Coming less than a year after “Famous Negro Athletes”, Untitled (Three Heads) is one of the earliest examples of a newly evolved subject matter.

    Scott Speigel acquired Untitled (Three Heads) at the same time as the monumental Six Crimee from the artist’s first exhibition at the Larry Gagosian Gallery (April 8-May 8, 1982). The ambitious new collector met Basquiat during the young painter’s initial visit to Los Angeles for his opening at the Larry Gagosian Gallery, accompanied by members of his “crew” Ramelzee and Toxic. Their visit to Los Angeles is memorialized in the wonderful painting Hollywood Africans now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Scott continued to stay in touch with Basquiat, visiting him in his New York studio and regularly seeing him in Los Angeles later that same year, at which time Basquiat both worked and resided in the ground floor of Larry Gagosian’s town house in Venice. Six Crimee is the depiction of six black heads, each highly individualized and expressive, each topped by a nimbus, each hovering above abstract gestural paint strokes, a row of numbers, graffiti-like scrawls, and some recognizable imagery resembling game boards. The figures and surrounding space are all bathed in, even caught up in a rich, aqua-marine atmosphere.

    Six Crimee is the first major painting in which Basquiat presents an array of figures that he would have seen during his countless hours, days and weeks of observation on the streets of New York. The figures depicted could very well represent individuals he came to know, even befriended. In either case, Basquiat was invested in these figures and presented them not only as individuals but as saints. Basquiat has transformed them into symbols of authority, of royalty.

    Basquiat continued his interest in depictions of his “crew” when he undertook Untitled (Three Heads) later that year. Having infused a great deal into this work, it must have signaled to the artist that there was a “larger” story to tell. That “story” unfolded a few months later with the realization of Mitchell Crew, a now monumental portrayal of no less than ten heads presented across a pictorial field of almost 12 feet in length. Each head, uniquely rendered, represents a different personage. Each presents an individual whose wide-open eyes and mouth penetrate toward the space of the viewer. As if each is in an act of communication, they invite us to join them in dialog. Interestingly, in Untitled (Three Heads) Basquiat’s rendering of both eyes and mouth in the larger head to the left share a great deal with the facial features of several of his heads in Mitchell Crew. Because of the similarity of at least two of the heads in Untitled (Three Heads) to the major painting, Mitchell Crew, painted the following year, I would propose that Untitled (Three Heads) was executed in Basquiat’s Crosby Street studio sometime after he returned to New York from Los Angeles. Supporting this conclusion is the actual piece of paper on which the work is executed as well as the back of sheet. Unlike many (not all) of Basquiat’s works on paper, Untitled (Three Heads) was executed on a thicker sheet of archival paper. In addition, its size is unusual, indicating that it was cut from a larger piece of paper. The back of the work is entirely covered with foot prints and other markings which imply that it was retrieved from the floor of the studio prior to becoming the surface for this artwork. What is suggested is that Basquiat spontaneously chose this particular paper fragment for his continued investigation of the subject of observed individuals. Going further, I would propose that during a visit to Basquiat’s New York studio Scott Spiegel came across the multi-head work on paper, and given his familiarity with the works’ underlying theme from his earlier acquisition of Six Crimee, sought out this new acquisition of Untitled (Three Heads).

    While intimate in scale, Untitled (Three Heads) is rich and complex, demonstrating Basquiat’s capacity to present three highly individualized characters, each possessing a unique physical as well as psychological make-up. This work could have only resulted from the artist’s capacity to astutely observe and respond to the world around him. These figures are a reflection of what Basquiat learned from his personal experience on the streets of New York.

  • 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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Untitled (Three Heads)

signed and dated "JM Basquiat 82" on the reverse
oil paintstick on paper
8 1/4 x 21 3/8 in. (21 x 54.3 cm.)
Executed in 1982, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat and dates the work 1982/83.

$650,000 - 850,000 

Sold for $790,000

Contact Specialist
Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
New York
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2017