Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, July 2, 2020 | Phillips

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  • In Short

    “He brought together street art and European old masters. He combined painting and writing. He combined icons from Christianity and Santería and voodoo… And on top of all that mixing and matching he added his own genius, which transformed the work into something completely fresh and original. The paintings don't just sit on my walls, they move like crazy – Jay Z

  • Basquiat's Heaven and Earth

    Within Victor 25448 is a constellation of the hieroglyphs, signature motifs, and graffiti imagery that defined Jean-Michel Basquiat’s all-too-brief oeuvre. One of the largest works on paper the artist created, Victor 25448 depicts a black figure, whose bandaged face and X’d eyes indicate him as the victim of violent trauma, in a cartoon-esque scene of brutality. Unlike some of Basquiat’s earlier depictions of racial violence, such as Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, there is no obvious perpetrator: the circumstances of the assault are left ambiguous. Though the work’s central conflict is unclear, its imagery unequivocally represents a parallel to the physical and emotional hardships Basquiat faced during the final year of his life.   

    Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio. Photograph by Tseng Kwong Chi. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. New York, Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York 

    Though the work can be read as a portrayal of Basquiat’s mentor and close friend, Andy Warhol, it is generally agreed to be a depiction of the young artist himself; specifically, it is most probably a portrait of Basquiat’s own fragility following Warhol’s unexpected death earlier that year. Supporting this consensus was its inclusion in the final exhibition of his lifetime at Vrej Baghoomian Gallery in 1988, where it was shown alongside other works betraying Basquiat’s existential grief after his monumental loss, such as Riding with Death, Eroica I, and Eroica II.  

    The present lot installed at Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vrej Baghoomian Inc., New York, April 1988. Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York 

    Corporeal loss is juxtaposed with a supreme state of existence in Victor 25448. The foreground of the picture is dominated by a beaten-up, bandaged figure, above which the thrice-repeated word IDEAL hovers—a negation of the symbols and imagery immediately below. Curator and art historian Fred Hoffman interpreted that “the placement of a repeated, large scale, pop-art-charged word juxtaposed with an expressionist-style figure suggests the continuation of the artist strategy implemented in the Basquiat-Warhol collaborative artworks.” Brutalized by conceptions of the “ideal,” the painting’s subject falls into a desolate land of violence, hopelessness, and ambiguity.  

    Perhaps the most central element in Basquiat’s singular lexicon is the human figure, which the artist used as a malleable iconographic device to coalesce art history, pop culture, autobiography, and the black experience. When discussing the frequent visits he took to his local museum during his childhood, the Brooklyn Museum, the artist told Henry Geldzahler, "I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them."[i]
    "the black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings." – Jean-Michel Basquiat  
      Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York  

    The state of the figure in Victor 25448 is a stark contrast to the victorious boxers that Basquiat depicted during his rapid rise to fame in 1981 and 1982, such as in Untitled, 1982, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. If Untitled is a portrait of Basquiat standing victorious at the one of the most promising moments of his life, Victor 25448 reveals the despondence that plagued him during the final year of his life.  

    Al Bowlly and the Ray Noble Orchestra, Little Old Lady, 1936.
    Click image to listen on Spotify.

    Like many other of Basquiat’s masterworks, Victor 25448 is named after a music record—in this case, a 1936 recording of “Little Old Lady” and “Now” by Al Bowlly and the Ray Noble Orchestra. Though bebop jazz constituted most of Basquiat’s collection of over 3,000 albums, his tastes were eclectic, spanning Bach to Beethoven to Donna Summer. In the 1980s, the record company Victor was reissuing 1930s British dance band recordings to unprecedented popularity—and the indisputable star of this boom of nostalgic music was Al Bowlly. The sweetness of these two songs forms a start contrast to the violence of the imagery of Victor 25448, in which the central figure—not at all victorious, but instead defeated—collapses backward, arms and legs flailing.  

    In counterpoising heaven and earth, Victor 25448 depicts two distinct yet interrelated strata. “While the lower portion of the work presents a narrative of an individual’s “fall” or demise, the top alludes to an elusive yet attainable state of being. The pictorial division in Victor 25448 is reminiscent of the same artistic strategy Basquiat employed much earlier in his career,” Hoffman elucidated. “Victor 25448 is an expression of the duality Basquiat returned to throughout his career, and represents the harmonization of pictorial strategy and conceptual content.”[ii]

  • The Anatomy of Victor

      Though Basquiat began appropriating hieroglyphs from Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook in 1982, in wasn’t until 1986 that these codes appeared as prominent motifs in the artist’s visual lexicon. Symbols and their corresponding definitions from the book’s “hobo signs” section feature in Victor 25448, such as A BEATING AWAITS YOU HERE, FATAL INJURY, and NOTHING TO BE GAINED HERE. A counterpoint to the IDEAL tags that float above, these very unideal messages pay homage to a language of street art spoken by a disenfranchised and underprivileged population.

    The IDEAL tags are evocative of the logo of the toy manufacturing company popular in the 1980s, and reappears several times in Basquiat’s work from this period. One to revel in semantic ambiguity and wordplay, the artist was no doubt attracted to this tag’s myriad references: to actual commodities, to the concept of an IDEA (amplified by the nearby brain and trailing L), to the phrase “I deal” (in drugs, consumerism—or art).  
    Excerpt from Henry Dreyfuss's Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols, published in 1972. 
      [left] Jean-Michel Basquiat, Light Blue Movers, 1987. Private Collection, Martigny, Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
    [right] Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Ideal Ideal), 1987. Private Collection, Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
      Jean-Michel Basquiat, Levitation, 1987. Salm Palace, Prague, Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
    Basquiat’s black subjects are always self-referential, and the figure in Victor 25448 represents a beaten-down Basquiat in the last year of his life. Emulating a KO’d boxer bandaged with an X over a blank eye socket, Basquiat is portrayed defeated—perhaps physically from chronic drug use or emotionally from negative reception of his art and the death of Warhol.  
    [i] Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, “Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview Magazine, January 1983.
    [ii] Fred Hoffman, The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 2017, p. 221-224.    
  • Basquiat & Warhol

    • Provenance

      Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
      Stephanie and Peter Brant Foundation, Greenwich and New York (acquired from the above)
      Christie’s, New York, May 13, 2008, lot 36
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April 29 – June 11, 1988
      Malmö, Rooseum, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, April 8 - May 28, 1989, no. 11, p. 50 (illustrated)
      New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Houston, The Menil Collection; Des Moines Art Center; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 23, 1992 – January 9, 1994, pp. 26, 266 (illustrated, p. 225)
      London, Serpentine Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March 6 – April 21, 1996, n.p.
      Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Peintures, April 3 – June 12, 1996
      Brooklyn Museum of Art; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Basquiat, March 11, 2005 – February 12, 2006, pp. 148 - 149 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Minneapolis, 1999, p. 46 (illustrated)
      Jean-Louis Prat and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. 1, Paris, 1996, pp. 346-347
      Jean-Louis Prat and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. 2, Paris, 1996, no. 4, p. 152
      Tony Shafrazi, Jeffrey Deitch and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, pp. 274-275 (illustrated)
      Jean-Louis Prat and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd Ed., Vol. 1, Paris, 2000, pp. 334-335 (illustrated, pp. 334-335)
      Jean-Louis Prat and Richard D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd Ed., Vol. 2, Paris, 2000, no. 4, p. 259 (illustrated, p. 258; Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, New York, 1988 installation view illustrated, p. 287)
      Alison Pearlman, Unpackaging Art of the 1980s, Chicago, 2003, fig. 13, pp. 77 (illustrated)
      Eric Fretz, Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography, Westport, 2010, p. 161
      Fred Hoffman, The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 2017, pp. 108, 220, 221, 224, 226, 231, 250 (illustrated, pp. 222-223)

    • 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 an Important Private Collector, with a Portion of Proceeds to Benefit Art for Justice


Victor 25448

acrylic, oilstick, wax and crayon on paper laid on canvas
72 x 131 in. (182.9 x 332.7 cm)
Executed in 1987.

Full Cataloguing

$8,000,000 - 12,000,000 

Sold for $9,250,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 2 July 2020