Jean-Michel Basquiat - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2012 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Sale: Bonhams & Butterfields, Los Angeles, Modern and Contemporary Prints, Paintings & Photographs, May 9, 2001, lot 9068
    Ikon Ltd., Santa Monica
    Private collection, New York

  • Exhibited

    Santa Monica, Ikon Ltd., Jean-Michel Basquiat, June 25, 2005 – August 27, 2005

  • Catalogue Essay

    As he developed his penchant for dissection–linguistic, anatomical, chromatic, cultural–Jean-Michel Basquiat found his canvases blossom with ever-increasing subject matter and figurative study. If one were to observe the progression of his oeuvre from 1978 until his death in 1988, one would mark the deepening exploration of each motif in each of Basquiat’s works. As he rushed through his impossibly rapid growth to a mature style, Basquiat painted the present lot. Radium 23, 1982-1983 comes at the height of Basquiat’s unprecedented artistic excavations into the human condition; the picture yields boundless treasures of his painterly journey, from the historical pressures that influenced his hand to his mechanical portrayals of the human body’s mysterious machine.

    Beginning in the late 1970s, Basquiat made somewhat of a name for himself in an artistic partnership with friend Al Diaz. As young graffiti artists, Basquiat and Diaz established themselves as “SAMO”, an antiestablishment, word-based duo that scrawled their art on inner city buildings. Short for “Same Old Shit”, SAMO employed several trademark devices in their graffiti, including original spellings and an almost poetic rhythm to the words that they enshrined. The group developed a cult following in downtown Manhattan, conjuring themes of race, identity, and the absurdity of commercialism and commodification in art. There markable nature of SAMO’s particular style produced art that was as stark as it was beautiful, emphasizing the aesthetic power of the written word. In Radium 23, 1982-1983, the lexicon of text—Radium, Jaw, Flesh— fills the expanse of the canvas with the energy of a young vandal.

    Not long after Basquiat disbanded SAMO in 1980, he found himself already to be shouldering the label of the enfant terrible of the contemporary art world. Andy Warhol was first exposed to Basquiat’s work at the Times Square Show, an almost makeshift art show in which nearly 100 unknown or modestly recognizable artists decorated the world around them. Basquiat tagged both subway cars and canvasses with his signature urban poetry and unique visual figures, and the two began a fruitful collaboration
    that would stretch through the 1980s until Warhol’s death in 1987. Yet Basquiat’s major benefit from his appearance in the Times Square Show and from his collaboration with Andy Warhol was his newfound financial independence: he could finally nurture and develop his hand as a painter, which he did rapidly in the next two years.
    The hand at work was certainly a formidable one in terms of its influences. Jean-Michel Basquiat bore the weight of an enormous cultural heritage that include both the Voodou tradition of Haiti (his father’s homeland) and the Catholic tradition of Puerto Rico (his mother’s). By the time he had reached ten, Basquiat was already trilingual, speaking Spanish, French, and English in complete fluency. It is almost as if Basquiat’s three languages are indications of his artistic lineage as well. The French Impressionists Rousseau and Gaugin make frequent appearance in scholarship concerning Basquiat—their portraits of indigenous cultures prime for comparison with Basquiat’s Voodou figures and inclusions of masks in his paintings. Basquiat also finds commonality with Picasso; his cubist stylings seem to prefigure the radical, multi-dimensional forms of Basquiat’s own figures. Basquiat’s intellectual life, it seems, was simply born to paint for a new generation of multi-cultural artists.

    Basquiat’s natural talent comes to us in full force in Radium 23, 1982-1983. Apart from its immense size, the painting’s most striking aspect is, first and foremost, the dominance of orange and bright silver as the primary makeup for the background. Though we rarely find these colors working in tandem to create an impression, it is far from unusual for Basquiat. Indeed, though the present lot glorifies the clashing spectacle of orange and silver, Basquiat’s adherence to simple chromatic scheme hearkens
    back to Mark Rothko’s exploration of the same concept: simplicity of color, in its controlled variation upon the canvas, provides just as much visual power as a diverse palette does. Here, we see tradition triumph amidst Basquiat’s celebrated iconoclasm.

    However, raging above the pair of two-hued puzzle pieces, there is a universe of symbolic collision, verbal explosion, and figurative mystery. The upper-right hand portion of the picture displays a human head topped with a glorious deep silver crown. The massive and terrifying head is blazed with lines of blue, silver, red, and yellow, allowing the trenches of its face to recede in smoldering black. Letters to the right of the head form two words of disputable spelling. Alternatively, one could identify them as “Radium-23)” and “Jawitudy” or as “Radium-231” and “Jawstudy”. Though various spellings of these words would correlate with specific interpretations of the painting, Basquiat delivers to us a frustrating and provocative mystery of vocabulary, just as he did from his earliest beginnings as a graffiti artist in SAMO. Radium, that toxic villain of the periodic table of elements, almost signifies the name of the crowned head, intensifying the sinister laugh of the hollow face; “jawitudy” remains below, frightening yet mesmerizing us with its enigmatic spelling.

    The painting is awash with plenty of other typographical oddities, including the confounding “Abokieshies” in the lower left-hand quadrant. Yet in the lower center of the painting, we spy a word seemingly without any mystery at all: “flesh”. In many ways, we can use the lens of this particular word to examine the rest of Basquiat’s picture. At the center of Radium 23, 1982-1983, a black machine of infinite complexity carries “flesh” as a label, conflating the functioning human body with the concept of a well-built machine. Behind this particular piece of industry, we witness an ever-receding pipe, suggesting portions of the machine invisible to our eyes, expanding far beyond our sight. This use of perspective by Basquiat is uncommon and captivating, as it erects a world outside his painting, extending into denser and more remote psychological realms.

    The machine itself is almost anachronistic, a living tribute to the devices of the Nineteenth Century, full of endless piping and infinite twists and turns. Almost baroque in its structure, the spherical bulb at its center very certainly bubbles with the workings of a mind in turmoil, inundated with questions of creation and identity. Feeding the main device at the center, the silver graffitied figure at the upper-left dispenses fluid or fuel. It is a machine of remarkable complexity, mysterious in its function, yet clearly functional in its mystery.

    Above the machine’s many working parts and to the right, Basquiat gives us three iterations of one concept: from top to bottom, he portrays three different human jawbones in devolving form. The first is a silver colored, cartoonish jaw in isolation, complete with pointed teeth and reminiscent of early Picasso. Below it we behold only a red sketch of the same jaw, stripped of its flesh and stylistic dynamism. Below, a word alone, crossed out with a firm black “x”. Though one might say that he was aiming for perfect version of a single body part, a kind of Platonic jawbone, Basquiat’s progression is more a dissection than a construction. The disembodied jaw, the seminal anatomical construction for speech and communication of thought, comes to us as less of a painterly etude and more as a series of progressively deeper explorations, layer upon layer stripped away until Basquiat can pronounce the jaw gone, crossing out the semiotic word to dispel the anatomical object. It is a glimpse into his career-defining motif of the relationship between symbol and object. Here, the word equates directly to its referent.

    “Flesh” appears again, perched upon a staring head etched in white foregrounding a pitch black surface. But this time, it is accompanied by a copyright symbol. The obvious impact of the modern copyright symbol is to thrust its bearer into the world of financial ownership, its mere presence a deterrent from replication at the replicator’s own financial risk. As Basquiat’s friend and mentor, Andy Warhol took this symbol as his own personal raison d’être, glorifying the nature of commodity in his work. Yet, in Basquiat’s usage of the trope, we observe a sharp irony bordering on satire, calling attention to the ridiculousness of it all—the proper portrayal of anatomy in pictures dominated by the canon of art history, imposing it’s stylistic monopoly upon all young artists. However, in rendering his subject in accordance with his own artistic standards— the confusion of racial and cultural boundaries, the paired down and conflated boundaries of drawing and figure—Basquiat’s use of the copyright symbol is a rebellion against past artistic ethics; his style and use of the brush is patently his own, shouldering the weight of influence but independent enough to use it sparingly.

    The mask within the black region of the painting is reminiscent of Basquiat’s racially charged work, especially Irony of Negro Police Man, 1981, of which he famously declared that the figure “had black skin but wore a white mask”. But aside from the racial implications of his masks, they represent barometers of the hectic psychological life within the painting. In one respect, it is as if Basquiat’s masks, both top and bottom, reflect the cacophony around them with their expressions, as though they are the emotional cues for the viewer. Basquiat’s process was, after all, a vigorously active one: “he was endlessly crossing out words, writing them again, correcting, emphasizing, obliterating, inexplicably changing the subject, and putting it all together with a grimacing mask.”( M. Mayer, Basquiat in History”, Basquiat, New York, 2005, p. 50). So we find, atop the collision of word, symbol, color, and figure, a face with its mouth agape with a confused agony, overwhelmed with the explosive confluence of style below it.

    Yet after all of this interpretation of Basquiat’s masterpiece—concepts of psychological space and relationships between anatomy, semiotics, and race—Basquiat still leaves us a definitive and terrifying single word for analysis: Radium. On the periodic table of elements, Radium has an atomic weight of 88 and reaches its most stable isotope when accompanied by 138 neutrons to reach an atomic weight of 226. Regardless, it remains deadly radioactive. For centuries since its discovery by the Curies in the late Nineteenth Century, science has struggled to find useful applications for this elusive and toxic element. Early experiments in luminescence yielded positive results, and radium was dabbed on the hands of wristwatches in the early part of the Twentieth Century. Yet this attempt at practical application soon backfired as the women hired to paint the radium had used their mouths to shape the brush, exposing them to lethal dosages of the element. The dying women sued their employer, and Radium has
    since found little use in modern technology or science, instead being relegated to a few compounds used for rather obscure purposes.

    In Radium, Basquiat found an element that very much functioned the way he did as an artist: they both dove below the surface of their subject, intent not only on exploring but on destroying as well. Obviously where the artist and the element differ is in their aptitude for creation, as Basquiat’s paintings excised his psychological demons, resulting in the catharsis spread out upon each of his canvases. Throughout his life, Basquiat’s refusal to fit into the boxes he was prescribed to—either racial, cultural, or artistic—resulted in the greatness of his art and the excitement concerning scholarly study of his work. While society’s attempts to harness radium exploded, firing back with destruction, its same effort with Basquiat became the driving force of his wealth of creation. In Radium 23, 1982-1983, we observe this wealth by mimicking the masks on its surface–our bewilderment is placated by our fascination.

  • 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.

    View More Works


Radium 23

acrylic and oilstick on canvas
94 1/2 x 62 in. (240 x 157.5 cm)
This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Authentication Committee for the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

$3,000,000 - 5,000,000 

Sold for $3,666,500

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

15 November 2012
New York