Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2019 | Phillips

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    Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Robot Man', Lot 21

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 16 May 2019

  • Provenance

    Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
    Fredrik Roos Collection, Stockholm
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Malmö, Rooseum, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, April 8 - May 28, 1989, no. 30, p. 52 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    A tour-de-force of form, symbolism and energy, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Robot Man, 1983, embodies the artist’s ability to abstract the human figure and to imbue it with multifaceted meanings. This arresting work features a single figure with limbs in red: one arm is down by his side while the other is extended at an angle, and both of his legs point to the left. The figure’s head is abstracted, reminiscent both of an African mask and of the mechanical forms of a robot’s head, with black ovals delineating his eyes, ears, and mouth. Defined by confident strokes of oilstick, its lines and shapes cohere into an active composition of grids, vectors, numbers, and letters that both surround the figure and appear on his body, either as clothes or revealing inner mechanisms of some sort. To create this work, Basquiat synthesized diverse sources from the past and present – from ancient art and Christian iconography to modernist painting, and from mainstream popular sources to the hip-hop culture that arose in early 1980s New York. Not seen by the public for three decades, Robot Man was last exhibited at the Rooseum in Malmö as part of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel in 1989, the year after the artist’s death.

    Robot Man was created in 1983, at the apex of Basquiat’s short but prodigious career and it exhibits the mature style that he had fully developed by the age of 23. That year, he became the youngest artist ever to be included in the Whitney Biennial. Just three years earlier, Basquiat had turned from thought-provoking graffiti to painting, drawing, and mixed-media work. Hailed as the “Radiant Child” by critic Rene Ricard, he would rapidly receive popular and critical acclaim for his daring and expressive practice. Key to Basquiat’s rapid achievement was his ability to bring together disparate and even contradictory realms of imagery to create profound and expressive works of art.

    Though Robot Man contains robotic elements, the figure in its center is more man than robot, differing from the artist’s depiction of a robot in Molasses, 1983, another painting of the same year. The robot in Molasses resembles a tin toy atop a skeletal body, whereas the figure in the present work shares the style and stance of Basquiat’s heroic full figures of men, including those in Per Capita, 1981, Self-Portrait, 1982, and With Strings, 1983. With its title, Basquiat indicates that we see not merely a robot, but a robot man, implying either a man with robotic qualities or a robot that resembles a human – a cyborg. His torso contains overlapping patterns and alphanumeric characters, implying both human and mechanical characteristics. On the left of his chest are gridded numbers that imply an equation. On the right side of his body are words that reference anatomy: “INTESTINES” written three times and crossed out, along with “HUESO” and “SIN HUESO” – Spanish words for “bone” and “boneless” that the multilingual Basquiat used in other works, such as Dog Leg Study, 1982-1983, from The Daros Suite. On the work’s right side are letters that suggest mechanical sounds and to the left are letters that do not cohere into a legible word, but begin and end with the Greek letter Phi, a symbol often used to indicate a variable in a formula or algorithm. A segmented circle above his head reads both as a halo and a polar graph plot or radar screen, connoting both sainthood and an electronic display.

    In addition to invoking Christian iconography with the halo in Robot Man, the style of the figure suggests an even older form of art – that of ancient Egypt. Basquiat adapted a version of the Ancient Egyptian composite style, a convention in which head and limbs are in profile, while the torso faces forward. One can see the similarity between Robot Man and Relief of Akhty-hotep, circa 2650-2600 B.C.E., a work in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum that the artist may have known from a young age, having frequented the museum since a child. The position of Robot Man’s arms is related to the stance of the Old Kingdom official, though Basquiat toyed with the conventions of Egyptian art by pointing both of his figure’s feet to the left as the rest of his body points right. In addition, his dispersal of letters and diagrammatic forms throughout his composition is reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

    In his bold handling of the human form, Basquiat drew from modernism as well, inspired especially by Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly and the early work of Jackson Pollock. It was his ability to engage with the legacy of modern painting while creating profoundly original works that led Marc Meyer to designate Basquiat as “the last modernist” (Marc Meyer, “Basquiat in History”, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 43). Consider, for instance, Robot Man in relation to Jackson Pollock’s Stenographic Figure, circa 1942, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. This totemic painting is from Pollock’s early career, as he incorporated the influences of Synthetic Cubism, Surrealism, and Native American art into his work. Both Pollock and Basquiat worked in palettes based around primary colors and shared a strategy of defining the figure into planar abstractions that coexist with calligraphic lines that suggest written content without revealing its significance. Robot Man, like Stenographic Figure, contains multiple superimpositions of seemingly disconnected visual information, a strategy Basquiat frequently used to enliven his works.

    Popular culture was another key touchstone for Basquiat, who often worked in his studio with the television playing in the background. According to Glenn O’Brien, “He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him, and he processed it all into a bebop Cubist Pop Art cartoon gospel that synthesized the whole overload we lived under into something that made astonishing new sense” (Glenn O’Brien, “Greatest Hits”, in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2015, p. 177). Robots were ubiquitous in 1980s popular culture and were prominent symbols of the decade’s futurist spirit, as seen in C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars, the replicant cyborgs from Blade Runner and many others. In science fiction, robots serve as symbols of both fantasy and dread concerning the status of humanity amid rapid technological change. In addition to augmenting human powers in the popular imagination, robots also challenge what it means to be fully human; if someone is acting robotic, then they are behaving as if programmed, without volition or the spark of humanity. In Robot Man, as in 1980s culture as a whole, the boundaries between robot and human weren’t always clear.

    The stiff limbs and twisted perspective of the figure in Robot Man has yet another possible meaning: that of a man dancing "the Robot," a 1980s dance style that emerged from hip-hop culture. To do "the Robot", dancers pop and lock isolated parts of their bodies to make quick, jerky moves that mime a mechanical figure. Like graffiti, "the Robot" was a street style that emerged from African American culture and would have been familiar to Basquiat. As Franklin Sirmans stated, “no artist has ever so profoundly embodied a cultural movement as Jean-Michel Basquiat personified hip-hop culture in its brilliant infancy” (Franklin Sirmans, “In the Cypher: Basquiat and Hip-Hop Culture”, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 91).

    By negotiating the boundaries between humanity and machine, the present work positions Basquiat within the discourse of Afrofuturism, a subcultural use of science fiction themes to express aspects of African American experience in the present. By analogy, Afrika Bambaataa’s futurist hip-hop was inspired by the motorik beats and synthesizers of Kraftwerk, taking up the mantle of Sun Ra and George Clinton. Basquiat also responds to the culture of his day as an African American artist very much aware of the era’s existential anxieties. By drawing from the past and the imagined future, Robot Man, then, is about defining what it means to be human in the computer age.

  • 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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Property of a Private Collector


Robot Man

signed "Jean-Michel Basquiat" on the reverse
oilstick on paper
22 1/4 x 30 1/8 in. (56.5 x 76.5 cm.)
Executed in 1983, this work is registered under inventory number 1989 (Peorsveokpho) in the Annina Nosei Gallery Archive, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University, New York.

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $3,860,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue