Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, May 19, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "Every single line means something."
    —Jean-Michel Basquiat

    Through an array of symbols and text, Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled provides an intimate look at one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th Century. Executed in 1987, just a year before the artist passed away at the age of 27, Untitled was created at a time when Basquiat was struggling with the loss of his dear friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. Here, the artist invites the viewer into his own elaborate universe, creating a drawing that is both personal and encyclopedic. The present work portrays a narrative through motifs, short phrases, and signs. The composition is a recompilation of the most meaningful symbols and motifs Basquiat had been using in his work up until this point, bringing together the various sources and iconography that defined his entire practice from the early 1980s to his untimely death. 


    Basquiat as a Draughtsman

    Jean Michel-Basquiat distinguished himself from his contemporaries by the amount of works on paper he executed, and the artistic achievements he realized with this medium. He treated drawing with the same importance as he treated painting, making each one a work of art in its own right. Basquiat was attracted to the immediacy of the act of drawing, and the similarities this medium shared with graffiti, having started as an artist on the streets. Drawing became a way of “channeling” his inner thoughts, impressions, memories, and fantasies.i In Untitled, the symbols, imagery and text are rendered with a dark black crayon, making them stand out from the negative spaces in the sheet.ii These come into contact with a few bright green watercolor brushstrokes and scattered blue, red, and pink scribbles, all of which together illustrate how Basquiat embraced text and color seamlessly throughout his practice.


    Jean-Michel Basquiat stands in front of his painting with the words "Man Dies" on exhibit at the Vreg Baghomian Gallery shortly before his death on August 12, 1988, New York City, Image: Mark Sink / Corbis / Getty Images


    Breaking Down the Symbols


    Untitled brings together the artist’s expressive rawness and primitive style, with a recording of phrases and hieroglyphics akin to stream-of-consciousness writing. “PUMP, ROTARY AND CENTRIFUGAL” and “FATAL INJURY” are some of the most noticeable phrases in the drawing. But even more captivating are the graphic symbols, inspired by Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols published in 1972. After Basquiat studied this textbook, he started integrating many of the symbols Dreyfuss codified into his own works. In Untitled, one example is the circle with a diagonal line protruding from the top corner with a “G” at the end. Intertwined with this kind of symbolism, we find other recognizable motifs like the pig’s eye, the Batman logo, and a sword. The ambivalent references embodied in this work, also reveal Basquiat’s mental state during this time of his life, when he was struggling with addiction and intense personal loss. These emotions can be felt in the symbols of mortality, anatomy, and alchemy, alongside words like “CRUCIBLE” and “SPIRIT.” 


    include FIG 3 next to this image (is not very high res, include small next to this one as a comparison). Caption: Henry Dreyfuss, Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols (source image for the present lot).
    Henry Dreyfuss, Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols (source image for the present lot).

    "I don’t think about art when I’m working. I think about life."
    —Jean-Michel Basquiat
    Untitled is a testament to this notion—a visual manifestation of his complex perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs, bringing together ideas about both the physical and spiritual world. It begs the question of what might lie beyond the sheet, challenging the viewer to decode the messages and decipher this map of disparate symbols. The dissemination of phrases, words and signs, integrated with his raw style of drawing, brings a sense of intimacy and personal significance into this composition. In this way, Untitled uniquely showcases Jean-Michel Basquiat’s determination as a creator and is a powerful example of the authenticity that defines his most celebrated masterpieces. 

    i Fred Hoffman, The Art of Jean Michel Basquiat, New York, Enrico Navarra Gallery, 2017, p. 69–71.
    ii Robert Storr, Two Hundred Beats Per Min., Brooklyn, 1990, n.p., in John Cheim. ed., Jean Michel Basquiat Drawings, New York, 1990.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Mathias Fels, Paris
      Private Collection
      Christie's, New York, November 17, 2000, lot 526
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Literature

      Galerie Enrico Navarra, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works on Paper, Paris, 1999, p. 260 (illustrated, erroneously dated 1984)

    • 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 Esteemed New York Collector



signed and dated "Jean-Michel Basquiat '87" on the reverse
crayon and watercolor on paper
30 x 22 3/8 in. (76.2 x 56.8 cm)
Executed in 1987, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Full Cataloguing

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $877,000

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 19 May 2022