Jean-Michel Basquiat - Contemporary Art Day Sale New York Friday, May 16, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
    Michael Klein, Inc., New York
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    Los Angeles, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April - May, 1982

  • Catalogue Essay

    "The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head."
    John 19:2

    Notoriously brief with regard to commentary on his work, Jean-Michel Basquiat was in some respects the pure artist: he who does not need to justify or elaborate upon the work that he has created, simply allowing the work to speak for itself. Yet in the past four decades, scholars, critics, and devotees alike have striven to dissect the meaning of his work; consequently, the categories of Basquiat criticism in existence today approach that of the Shakespearean, and, in their creativity, even the Biblical. Yet this final comparison is unsurprising, seeing how Basquiat’s constant wrestling with themes of his own religious and spiritual life consistently found their way into his work. Conceived near the beginning of his career, and during one of his most prolific periods in the 1980s, Untitled (crown of thorns), circa 1982 is a blueprint for one of Basquiat’s most important works, which was exhibited at the only show during his life with the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles.

    Several of Basquiat’s most powerful recurrent themes in his work exist within a rapturous state in Untitled (crown of thorns), circa 1982. Prior to his infamous late adolescence, which spawned the most famous duo in the history of modern graffiti (SAMO, along with Al Diaz), Basquiat’s dual Haitian/Puerto Rican ethnicity primed him for a spiritual battle with which he would contend his entire life. Charged with both the primal nature of Haitian voodoo and the European Catholicism that came from Puerto Rico, Basquiat was fascinated with his religious duality, examining the existence of the respective faiths within himself both separately and together: “he seems to have been driven to pull things apart, examine their inner workings, consider the harmony or discord of their parts, and to reassemble them in some semblance, however elaborate the artifice of reordering, of wholeness.”(J. Hofeld, “Basquiat and the Inner Self”, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Edited by J. Baal- Teshuva, Bonn, 2001, p. 28)

    This investigation of the roots of harmony segued into anatomical curiosity as well, and, as his career took off following the massively influential Times Square Show of 1981, Basquiat’s signature figure became the anatomized skeleton, almost scripted onto his mediums instead of drawn. The present lot is a wondrous hybrid of both his spiritual influence and penchant for physical dissection. A solid black mask sits upon naked white paper, spare in its foregrounding yet all the more visually powerful for it. With just a few strokes of wax, Basquiat presents us with an almost geometric skull, more cubic than round. Employing electric blue and his highlighting tool, Basquiat sketches the features of his naked skull—teeth grit angrily together, eyes bloodshot and wide, ears marked with only an “x” for detail, and the surrounding border of skin. All in all, Basquiat’s black mask is one of complete rage and aggression, nearly bursting out of its blue shell.

    Above and below the skull, we find two of Basquiat’s favorite artistic motifs: firstly, a double “E” rests below, almost as a label or name for the figure, reminiscent of the popular “INRI” inscription said to accompany Jesus in three languages as he stood dying on the cross (coincidentally, Basquiat was fluent in three languages from childhood). Basquiat’s frequent insertion of script into his work, sometimes coherent, sometimes poetic, sometimes neither, was a throwback to his work as a graffiti artist, when the power of suggestion trumped the sway of description. The sprawling crown above the figure’s head further emphasizes the Christian roots of the skull, perhaps even suggesting a self-portrait of Basquiat himself, full of remarkably unique rage, yet bound to his ethnic and religious roots. Yet, as he demonstrated time and time again, Basquiat’s work is too loaded with symbolism and to be analyzed so simply. The skull is pure expression, its flourishes a necessary adornment: “His paintings proclaimed the existence of a more basic truth locked within a given event or thought. As his career unfolded, the young artist applied the same intense scrutiny previously reserved for the world around him to the emotional and spiritual aspects of his own being.”(F. Hoffman, “The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works”, Basquiat, Edited by M. Mayer, New York, 2005, p. 129)

    Produced when Basquiat was only 22 years old, Untitled (crown of thorns), circa 1982 is not only a portrait of a brilliant mind, but one awash with the vigor of youth, pushing back against the forces that inarguably define it. Basquiat’s work was almost always a peephole into a mind working furiously ahead of its time: “Jean-Michel Basquiat was an articulate and prolific spokesman for youth: insatiably curious, tirelessly inventive, innocently self-deprecating because of youth’s inadequacies, jealously guarding his independence, typically disappointed by the inherited world he defensively mocked, yet filled with adulation for his heroes. “ (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” Basquiat, Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 46) Perhaps it was this constant state of intense alertness that drew Basquiat’s career to a sudden end so tragically fast. But it remains true that, despite the efforts of many to pigeonhole his work into the static halls of the ivory tower, he continues to frustrate many and inspire countless numbers more.

  • 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 (crown of thorns)

circa 1982
crayon on paper
14 x 12 1/4 in. (35.6 x 31.2 cm.)
Annotated "L66-JMB #19" on the reverse.

$250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for $317,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Day Sale
+1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Day Sale

New York 16 May 2014 11am