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  • Provenance

    Elise Boisanté Fine Arts, New York
    PS Gallery, Tokyo (acquired from the above in August 1985)
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Tokyo, PS Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 8 October - 4 December 1987
    Tokyo, Min Min Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 11 - 15 April 2015

  • Catalogue Essay

    Unseen by the public for nearly four decades, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, 1983, presents the viewer with a raw and powerful portrait that illustrates the centrality of both the human figure and the written word within Basquiat’s inimitable oeuvre. A male figure is captured mid-stride within a landscape demarcated by a horizon line and teeming with symbols and textual fragments, including Basquiat’s iconic crown and copyright motifs. The near x-ray vision of the figure’s body reveals a web of tendons, blood vessels and bones rendered in swiftly drawn oilstick lines. While seemingly teetering at the edge of dissolution, the figure is anchored by a rich colour field that pushes it to the forefront of the composition. Distinguishing itself within Basquiat’s work on paper oeuvre with its rich narrative content and allusion to a landscape, Untitled brings forth themes and subjects found in key paintings including Untitled (LA Painting), 1982, Obnoxious Liberals, 1982 (Broad Museum, Los Angeles), Untitled (Black Tar and Feathers), 1982, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982. Firmly taking its place within this pantheon of masterpieces, Untitled was included in Basquiat’s solo exhibition at the PS Gallery in Tokyo in 1987 – one of the last exhibitions held during the artist’s lifetime that was cut short just a year later.

    Executed in 1983, Untitled was created at the height of Basquiat’s notoriously short, but prodigious artistic career that was recently celebrated in the Barbican Art Gallery’s Basquiat: Boom for Real in London. Drawn with confident oilstick lines, Untitled speaks to the assured hand of a mature artist, who, at the mere age of 23, already had four major solo shows across America, Europe, and Japan and had become the youngest artist to ever to be included in the Whitney Biennial that same year. Having first gained notoriety as a subversive graffiti-artist and street poet under the pseudonym ‘SAMO’, as of 1980 Basquiat started directing his extraordinary talent to painting, drawing and multi-media works.

    It was above all Basquiat’s re-introduction of the human figure into contemporary art that garnered him widespread acclaim. ‘Basquiat's canon,’ as Kellie Jones has indeed noted, ‘revolves around single heroic figures: athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself’ (Kellie Jones, “Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re) Mix”, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 43). Untitled presents us with such a single heroic figure, one that is caught between movement and stasis, the universal and the personal, life and death, the weight of history and the future, myth and reality. Adorned with a wreath that evokes the saintly halos and the crown of thorns from Christian iconography, the figure conjures associations with the history of oppression and struggle. Underscoring how Basquiat’s portraits are almost always autobiographical in some way, the three-pointed crown on the lower left and copyright symbol (Basquiat’s trademark established in his SAMO days) importantly alludes to the artist himself.

    An outstanding example of Basquiat’s celebrated draughtsmanship, Untitled pulsates with the unbridled immediacy that the act of drawing provided him. His raw and iconoclastic approach began with both the conscious and unconscious observation of source material and the world around him; exploiting the creative potential of free association, he drew on such disparate fields as street culture, music, poetry, history, the art historical canon, religion, mythology and illustrated reference books. ‘From a very early age’, Fred Hoffman recalled, ‘Basquiat discovered that drawing was a process of “channelling” in which he essentially functioned as a medium. In doing so, he also learned about a freedom from editing. That is, as impressions, observations and thoughts passed through him, he recognized that he did not need to prioritize or judge them’ (Fred Hoffman, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 33). In the process, Basquiat embraced writing and drawing interchangeably without prioritizing either – seamlessly integrating image and text into one pictorial field.

    The representation of the fractured self is a central theme in Basquiat’s oeuvre and here takes centre stage through the elaborate anatomical rendering of the human body. Executed shortly after art historian Fred Hoffman gifted Basquiat illustrated volumes of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies, Untitled speaks to Basquiat’s lifelong interest in human anatomy– an interest that was awakened within the artist already as a young child. Hit by an automobile while playing in the street, the seven-year old Basquiat was hospitalized after suffering various internal injuries. His real-life experience with physical pain and transformation was furthered by studying a copy of Gray’s Anatomy that his mother had given him during this period, providing him with the means to better understand the complexities of the human body – and human subjectivity, by extension.

    In many ways, Untitled represents a distillation of Basquiat's Untitled, 1982, a dense anatomical composition featuring a strongly delineated figure, as well as an emphasised proper left shoulder and bicep rendered with similar bold lines. In the present work, Basquiat has condensed aspects from this work into a distilled composition centred on one single figure surrounded by symbols and words. In Untitled, 1983 he includes a textual reference to the ‘Pleiades’ – the eponymous star cluster that marked the start and end of the summer sailing season in ancient Greece. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were also referred to as ‘The Seven Sisters’ or the ‘Oceanids’ as the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione, the protectress of sailing. In Untitled, the nautical reference is further emphasized by the waves and ‘aqua’ on the lower right of the work.

    While the words and symbols clustered to the right of the composition then evoke the universal journey of life, calling to mind such allegorical paintings as Thomas Cole’s Allegory of Life: Manhood, 1842, the phrase ‘12 feet’ on the lower left relating to Basquiat’s preoccupation with death. As with paintings such as Untitled (Tar and Feathers), 1982, the oft-repeated words ‘tar’ and ‘lead’ can be read as a treatment of race inequality in Basquiat’s oeuvre – whereby the blackness of tar is associated with Basquiat’s skin colour, as well as considered to refer to the racist act of tarring and feathering black men. ‘Asbestos’, emblazoned on the left, was a pervasive issue at the time as asbestos litigations were sending shockwaves through society. ‘Platinum’ on the upper left belongs to Basquiat’s repeated use of words related to commodities of trade, commerce and monetary manipulation.

    As such, Untitled powerfully exemplifies how, as Richard Marshall has observed, ‘the work Basquiat began in late 1982 signalled a new phase of intensity and complexity that focused on black subjects and social inequities’ (Richard Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Palacio Episcopal de Malaga, Malaga, 1996, p. 140). Formally and conceptually enacting the epistemological anxieties of his age, Basquiat exorcises his own creative demons as the figure symbolically marches through the apocalyptic landscape of his imagination.

  • Artist Bio

    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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Ο ◆26


oilstick on paper
55.9 x 76.2 cm (22 x 30 in.)
Executed in 1983.

£1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

sold for £1,089,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 hhighley@phillips.com

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 8 March 2018