Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 16, 2017 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Acquired from the artist by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    "I don’t know how to describe my work. It’s like asking Miles [Davis], ‘How does your horn sound?’” – Jean-Michel Basquiat

    “Since I was seventeen I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix… I had a romantic feeling about how these people became famous.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat

    Virtually unseen to the public since its creation, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Halloween) presents the viewer with an exhilarating cacophony of pure color, line and form that rises with a deafening crescendo into a powerful incantation on the fragmented self. Feverishly working against the pulsating beat of music in his studio, Basquiat ushers his idiosyncratic vocabulary onto the vast canvas with palpable unbridled energy. Our gaze darts back and forth across the dynamic composition – from the prominent hex symbol on the upper left of the composition, a reoccurring motif in Basquiat’s oeuvre, to the thicket of oilstick scrawls on the upper right, to the crossed out word “HALLOWEEN” on the lower left. Epitomizing the centrality of the human figure in Basquiat’s celebrated practice, Untitled (Halloween) is charged with references to his jazz idol Charlie Parker, while also articulating Basquiat’s own vision of a fractured human personality as shaped by childhood trauma and interest in human anatomy. Mobilizing pentimento as a conscious stylistic technique, Basquiat uses paint architecturally to specifically focus attention on the human body scattered across the canvas: he deliberately slathers red paint across the black underpaint to sculpt a larger-than-life, x-ray vision of a human leg from the resulting negative space and emphasizes the downward movement of the reaching hand through white gestural brushstrokes, while simultaneously adding visual weight to the piercing eyes and foreboding smile of the mask-like face through cream-colored patches or color and white and blue impasto paint. As with all his greatest paintings from 1982 and 1983, Untitled (Halloween) vividly articulates how in this groundbreaking period, as Richard Marshall observed, “all hell broke loose. The young master was ready. Painted evocations of classic forties jazz became a medium of emergence” (Richard Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1991, p. 37).

    Asked by Henry Geldzahler in 1983 what his subject matter was, Basquiat succinctly stated “royalty, heroism, and the streets” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, “Art: From Subways to Soho”, Interview Magazine, vol. 13, January, 1983). In an oeuvre revolving around single heroic figures, including athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, kings and the artist himself, the 1982-1983 period saw Basquiat incorporate his lifelong love of music into his art. A quintessential painting from this period, Untitled (Halloween) notably evidences Basquiat’s utter admiration for jazz musician Charlie Parker, one of the most influential improvising soloists in jazz and a key figure in the development of bebop in the 1940s. As Richard Marshall pointed out, Basquiat “was keenly aware of the historically important contribution that black musicians had made, and he was determined that it should be recognized. His art became the vehicle by which he could bestow crowns on deserving individuals” (Richard D. Marshall, “The Drawings of Jean-Michel Basquiat”, in Enrico Navarro, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat Works on Paper, Paris, 1999, p. 34). Within this pantheon of famous black musicians, Basquiat felt a particularly deep affinity for the accomplishments and struggles of Charlie Parker, whose groundbreaking, but also tragic, career ended prematurely after years of struggle with substance abuse. While Charlie Parker is referenced in many of Basquiat’s works, he is rarely depicted in the semi-naturalistic manner captured in Untitled (Halloween). Demonstrating Basquiat’s habit of revisiting and resampling motifs in his work, the figure notably recurs in the seminal drawing Untitled (Charlie Parker), 1983, that is currently celebrated in the Barbican Art Gallery’s Basquiat – Boom for Real in London. Taking a press photograph of the jazz musician from the beginning of his exciting career in 1945 as a point of departure, Basquiat depicted the smiling Parker with his dotted necktie and saxophone alongside a flurry of musical notes, names, titles and words related to Parker’s history. Of the few known paintings that saw Basquiat integrate this striking portrait – Joy, Red Joy, and 2½ Hours of Chinese Food, all 1984, featured it in the form of Xerox copies – Untitled (Halloween) appears to be the only one in which he did so in the painterly, free-hand realm.

    Channeling the central tenets of Parker’s musical expression – distilled in the drawing with the words “composed”, “repeated”, “improvised” – Basquiat exploits the creative potential of free association to construct a more ambivalent and loaded image. The polymorphous borrowing of and improvisation on past forms that characterized Parker’s sound is also made manifest in Basquiat’s own creative stream-of-consciousness approach, which saw him channel his quotidian experience while simultaneously drawing on such disparate fields as popular culture, music, poetry, African-American and Aztec cultural histories and a broad range of art historical sources. In Untitled (Halloween), Basquiat has transformed Parker’s smile and glinting eyes into a mask-like apparition and abstracted the list of words, numbers, symbols on the upper right into elementary forms, many of which are crossed out. As Basquiat explained, “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Richard Marshall, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1992, pp. 28-43).

    Just like his jazz forebears appropriated harmonic structures and repeated note patterns across several improvisations, Basquiat used similar strategies of appropriation as he ushered his vocabulary onto the canvas. Extending Cy Twombly’s investigations into the relationship between gesture, written word and ideograms, Basquiat not only integrates his own drawing of Charlie Parker into the composition, but also includes references to the everyday (“Halloween”), as well as symbols and motifs derived from his favored reference sources, including Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook and Gray’s Anatomy. As Glenn O’Brien recalls, “He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him, and he processed it all into a bebop Cubist Pop Art cartoon gospel that synthesized the whole overload we lived under into something that made astonishing new sense” (Glenn O’Brien, “Greatest Hits”, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2015, p. 177).

    A quintessential example of Basquiat’s idiosyncratic pictorial idiom, Untitled (Halloween) particularly demonstrates the young artist’s fascination with human anatomy. As art historian Olivier Berggruen has shown, Basquiat began including body fragments in 1982 with such paintings as Portrait of the Artist as Young Derelict, Self-Portrait as a Heel, Part Two and the Anatomy series, the latter of which serves as a point of reference for the skeletal leg within Untitled (Halloween). Basquiat’s vision of the human body as fractured and dislocated was notably shaped by an early childhood trauma, having been struck by a car as a seven-year old and subsequently being hospitalized for a prolonged period of time. In the hope of providing him with “a diagram for healing”, Basquiat’s mother gave the young boy a copy of Gray’s Anatomy (Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London, 1998, p. 19). The fragments of the human body that occupy many of his canvases, including the present one, points to Basquiat’s lifelong study of Gray’s Anatomy, but also testifies to his more recent fascination with Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies, having been gifted a book on the Renaissance master by art historian Fred Hoffman in the early 1980s. “There are Dionysian forces…at play in Basquiat’s works, which also reflect an affirmation of life”, Olivier Berggruen observed, “This, in the tradition of Picasso, points to an aesthetic of anatomical fragments, forms of mutilation in which destruction and violence are associated with the unleashing of creative powers” (Olivier Berggruen, “The Fragmented Self”, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2015, p. 201).

    Executed at the apex of Basquiat’s prodigious career, Untitled (Halloween) offers us with the transference of thought, energy and sound specific to the artist’s lived experience. As Basquiat said about the period in which the present work was created, “I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, “New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist”, in The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 29). Embedded within Basquiat’s vision of the fractured human body, the reference to Charlie Parker powerfully articulates Basquiat’s own reckoning with his meteoric rise to fame. Like Parker, Basquiat’s legendary career would be put to a halt only by his untimely death a few years later. Pulsating with the frenetic pace, raw energy and creative exuberance that pushed Basquiat to artistic heights, Untitled (Halloween) speaks to the way in which Basquiat exorcised his own creative demons within his art.

  • 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

Property from the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat


Untitled (Halloween)

acrylic and oilstick on canvas
83 1/4 x 59 3/4 in. (211.5 x 151.8 cm.)
Executed circa 1982.

$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Sold for $4,215,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 November 2017