Jean-Michel Basquiat - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “As Jean-Michel’s painting took off he started spending more time inside, working in the studio, where music was always playing. Now he could have any music he wanted and he began to explore jazz seriously. It’s all there in the paintings of 1983…”
    — Glenn O’Brien
    Arriving to auction for the first time in nearly four decades, Untitled (Grain Alcohol) exemplifies the gestural prowess and distinctive iconography that denoted the peak of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career. Executed in 1983, soon after his meteoric rise to fame, the work features the same interrogation of “high” and “low” culture that would typify the rest of his too-brief oeuvre. In its hieroglyphic composition, crudely-rendered pictograms, and textual acronyms, the work stylistically harkens back to Basquiat’s past as a graffiti artist in the late 1970s. It also represents many of Basquiat’s pictorial interests at the time, such as crowns, superhero imagery, and jazz musicians, specifically referencing Bud Powell, Charles Mingus (CHRLES MNGS), Miles Davis (MLSDVS), Dizzy Gillespie (DZYGLPSE), Charlie Parker (C PRKR), and Max Roach (MX RCH). These citations not only showcase Basquiat's deep appreciation for jazz music and its cultural significance but also highlight his penchant for incorporating a range of influences into his work, creating a rich tapestry of diverse visual and thematic elements. Bringing together motifs drawn street art, music, and pop culture, Untitled serves as a vibrant testament to Basquiat's extraordinary vision.


    Jean-Michel Basquiat DJing at Area, New York, 1985. Photograph by Ben Buchanon. Image: © Ben Buchanan. All rights reserved 2024 / Bridgeman Images

    Jazz music, and specifically bebop, was an enduring source of inspiration for the artist, resurfacing time and time again in over thirty of his famous paintings, such as Horn Players, 1983, The Broad, Los Angeles. Basquiat’s fascination with the genre stemmed from his upbringing in New York City, where he was exposed to the vibrant jazz scene of the 1960s and 1970s. This early exposure was later evoked in the artist’s studio practice and epitomized in Untitled, which mirrors the spontaneity and improvisation of jazz music through its rhythmic composition and swiftly drawn oilstick lines. As a musician himself, Basquiat ardently admired and identified with many of these figures—a sentiment visible in the pantheon of bebop luminaries that occupies the lower half of the image. In Untitled, Basquiat's reverence for the genre is palpable, as he pays homage to these legendary musicians while also infusing the painting with his own distinctive visual language.

    “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings.”
    —Jean-Michel Basquiat

     Jean-Michel Basquiat, Horn Players, 1983. The Broad, Los Angeles. Artwork: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

    Central to Basquiat’s practice was a sanctification of notable African American figures, which Basquiat used as an iconographic device to coalesce art history, pop culture, and the Black experience. As an answer to the lack of Afro-diasporic representation he witnessed during his frequent visits to the Brooklyn Museum during his youth, the artist began to anoint cultural icons in his own distinctive form of royal portraiture, just as Western art history valorized saints and kings for millennia. In the present work, these pioneering jazz figures—as well as heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott—are surrounded by superhero references, which were also found in his painting Charles the First (1982). At the top of Untitled are two Superman shields; just below is a human figure labelled twice as Thor, the Germanic pagan god who holds a hammer and was appropriated as a Marvel comic in the 1960s. Thor’s signature thunderbolt is repeated across the center of the image, elevating Basquiat’s subjects to a superheroic status. 

    “The crown motif that pervades Basquiat’s work…is often interpreted as an assertion of the artist’s power.”
    —Jordana Moore Saggese

    Crowns, one of the artist’s quintessential pictorial tropes, coronate Walcott and Roach and reinforce Basquiat’s exaltation of these figures. These symbols have a double meaning of “kingship,” serving as a nod both to Basquiat’s past as a street artist and to jazz culture. The writer Jordana Moore Saggese illuminated: “Graffiti writers who admired the work of others would express their respect for a piece by painting a simple, often three-pointed crown next to the work. Accordingly, certain artists were made ‘kings’ (as in king of the whole subway car or king of the wall).”i This history also resonates with jazz notions of “royalty,” in which musicians were granted informal honorific titles, such as the “Prince of Darkness” (Miles Davis) or Nat “King” Cole. Embodying both of these traditions, Untitled presents these figures as reigning figures within their respective realms. 


    Portrait of Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947. Image: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., William P. Gottlieb Collection 

    While the present work renders Basquiat’s superheroes at the height of their talents, it can also be interpreted as documenting their shared hardships. The scrawl “BENZEDREX INHALERS SOAKED IN WINE” refers to an over-the-counter nasal decongestant containing amphetamine, which was often abused by many jazz musicians—most notoriously Parker. The inhalers were typically broken apart to reveal a piece of cotton soaked in the drug, which would then be dipped in alcohol or coffee. Underscored by the work’s subtitle, Grain Alcohol, this reference foreshadowed Basquiat’s own addiction and premature death just five years after the execution of Untitled. In this way, the work serves as a poignant reminder of Basquiat's kinship with his idols—illustrating how they were united by both their artistic brilliance as well as their struggles. Weaving together personal experience, popular culture, graffiti, and music, Untitled symbolizes Basquiat’s defiance against social and artistic hierarchies.


    i Jordana Moore Saggese, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, Berkeley, 2014, p. 55. 

    • Provenance

      Galerie Bischofberger, Zürich
      Galerie Barbara Farber, Amsterdam
      Adri, Martin and Geertjan Visser, The Netherlands
      Sotheby’s, Amsterdam, March 21, 1988, lot 280 (titled Thor)
      Galerie Fabien Boulakia, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Drawings and sculptures from the collection Adri, Martin and Geertjen Visser, October 13–November 25, 1984, no. 1, pp. 34-35 (illustrated, p. 35)
      Paris, Galerie Fabien Boulakia, Basquiat, September 27–November 3, 1990, p. 26 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Galerie Enrico Navarra, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works on Paper, Paris, 1999, fig. 16, pp. 37-38 (detail illustrated, p. 37)
      Jean-Michel Basquiat. French Collections, exh. cat., Cultural Services of the Embassy of France in the United States, New York, 2007, fig. 16, pp. 21, 29 (detail illustrated, p. 21)

    • 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 (Grain Alcohol)

signed and dated "Jean-Michel Basquiat 83" lower right
oilstick on paper
30 x 22 in. (76.2 x 55.9 cm)
Executed in 1983.

Full Cataloguing

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $1,996,000

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024