Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale New York Tuesday, May 10, 2016 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
    Acquired from the above by the present owner, circa 1982-1983

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Believe it or not, I can actually draw.” –Jean-Michel Basquiat

    Executed at the pinnacle of the young artist’s career, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled work on paper from 1982 embodies the expressiveness of painting from decades before him, combined with the former street artist’s graffiti-like aesthetic in a single sheet. The result is a foreboding, floating head composed of black acrylic, India ink and crayon. Its only distinguishing features are built from negative spaces—set into the image is a set of bulging eyes, each outlined by the pure black surrounding them. Unique in its monochromatic nature and consistent in its subject matter, the drawing stands out in the artist’s short, yet prolific oeuvre of paintings and drawings, completed in the year that the artist first rose to fame in the 1980s art scene.

    Basquiat’s thick and gestural application of the mixed media in this work emphasizes the artist’s regard for drawing as a medium in its own right, commanding the presence of a large-scale painting. As Robert Storr notes, "drawing, for him, was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium" (Dieter Buchhart, Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyler, Basel, 2010, p. 10). The resulting composition is active indeed, borrowing the dynamic energy of Basquiat’s graphic graffiti as the street artist SAMO. In its expressivity, however, his practice simultaneously recalls the emotional quality of paintings by artists like Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, particularly in the present lot’s all black marks. While identifiable as a human skull, the drawing retains a sense of the abstract through the artist’s use of materials. As curator Marc Mayer describes, Basquiat works in the same vein as one of “a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda” (Marc Mayer, "Basquiat in History," Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, 2005, p. 46).

    The present lot draws upon other less sophisticated influences as well, all of which have been consistently discussed and debated by the art community to which Basquiat belonged. Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a mother of Afro-Puerto Rican descent and a Haitian father, the artist was identified by many as simply a “black artist.” Further categorization of his aesthetic resulted in overly simplistic labels of "primitive” and “African.” While far too restricting, such terms do rightfully assert an aesthetic connection between Basquiat’s quickened drawings of human heads and African tribal masks, as is evident in Untitled, where the duality of black crayon and white paper creates the exact sort of cavities found in such objects. Even still, critics of the late 20th-century unfairly limited the scope of the artist and ignored the hybridity of his style. In the interview script from 1988 conducted by Demosthenes Davvetas, these restrictions are confirmed through the interviewer’s repeated use of phrases such as “graffiti artist,” “primitive signs,” “African roots,” and “cult.” By simplifying his art, Davvetas and many others believed that Basquiat’s success was derived not from his artistic ability, but instead from his ability to attract attention.

    Throughout his rise to fame, the artist attracted the attention of and established relationships with many important dealers and gallerists. In April 1982 when the artist completed this work, he traveled to Larry Gagosian’s Los Angeles gallery for a show, organized by Gagosian and Basquiat’s first gallerist, Annina Nosei. Negative attention surrounded the artist when he persuaded Gagosian to fly out several members of his entourage, as Gagosian recalled, “I bought first-class tickets for Jean-Michel, Rammellzee, Toxic, A-1, and Fab 5 Freddy. Annina was furious because she thought I was really spoiling them. But I thought it would be fun. And maybe I was trying to impress them, because I’m not above that” (Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, p. 125).

    In today’s contemporary art market, Basquiat continues to impress in his legacy. The works left behind after his short life showcase both his talents and potential. As Richard Marshall summarized in 1992, “Basquiat first became famous for his art, then he became famous for being famous, then he became famous for being infamous—a succession of reputations that often overshadowed the seriousness and significance of the art he produced“ (‘Repelling Ghosts’, p. 15). Works like Untitled from 1982 remind us of such significance, and most importantly, of the artist’s unique aesthetic as a draughtsman.

    "These are painting experiences. I don't decide in advance that I'm going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me. If you look at abstraction, you can imagine that it's a head, a bridge, almost anything - but it's not these things that get me started on a painting" (Franz Kline in Katherine Kuh, 'Franz Kline,' Franz Kline 1910-1962, Milan, 2004, p. 124).

  • 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 Head

India ink and crayon on paper
19 x 24 in. (48.3 x 61 cm)

$350,000 - 450,000 

Contact Specialist
John McCord
Head of Day Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

New York Auction 10 May 2016