Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, March 6, 2019 | Phillips
  • Video

    'Untitled (Velveeta)' | Jean-Michel Basquiat

    Specialist Rosanna Widén discusses the external influences that inspired the artist's masterwork "Untitled (Velveeta)".

  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    A study in colour and abstraction, Untitled (Velveeta), 1984, epitomises Jean-Michel Basquiat’s distinctly feverish visual repertoire. Bringing together disparate iconographic fields, the painting merges figurative expression, abstract forms, street vernacular and mathematic signs. Executed in acrylic, oilstick, resin and paper and canvas collage on canvas, it exemplifies Basquiat’s prodigious ability to conjure pictorial complexity on a single plane. From the estate of the artist, Untitled (Velveeta) is a rare masterwork by the artist who, until his tragic and untimely death in 1988, revolutionised the medium of painting and the history of contemporary art itself.

    Overlaying blocks of vivid colour alongside the portrait of an anonymous heroic figure, Basquiat marks an invisible line at the canvas’s vertical centre, balancing two apparently improbable pictorial arrangements. The right-hand of the composition is dedicated to an ominous verdant man with idiosyncratically upraised arms, crested by the collaged canvas study of an echoing, totemic face in dual perspectives. To the left of the plane, superimposed blocks of colour glow with relentless verve: a soft, worn-out pink covers a larger mass of pine green which itself drifts over a massive bulk of dramatically vibrant blue, animating the whole composition.

    Heralded the ‘radiant child’ of New York City’s art scene by René Ricard in 1981, Basquiat only accrued critical acclaim and impressive accomplishments thereafter. ‘All hell broke loose. The young master was ready’ Richard Marshall observed (Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1991, p. 37). In 1982, Basquiat moved his studio from the basement of Annina Nosei's gallery to a large Soho loft; liberated and energised, he began creating some of his most vital paintings. Working in his studio against the steady backdrop of music and cartoon programmes, he covered canvases with swift but certain gestures whilst adroitly exploiting the creative potential of free association. In 1983, he became the youngest artist ever to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial; in 1984, he had become one of the most significant black artists in the canon of Western art history. Executed at the apex of his tragically short career, the present composition emerges from a moment of unprecedented prestige, brimming with the characteristic elements that defined Basquiat’s most mature work. Coalescing various colours and textures, Untitled (Velveeta) pulsates with the energy of an artist at the height of his creative powers.

    Like the musicians he so admired, Basquiat drew on a range of sources to vivify his visual lexicon, including urban and pop culture, anatomical studies, music, poetry, art history, Christian iconography, and African and Haitian culture. Digesting these influences in a stream-of-consciousness approach, Basquiat subsequently translated his fused ideas directly into his work. Pasting his biological study onto the upper right corner of the canvas, the artist’s concern with anatomy comes to the fore. After a car accident at the age of eight, the artist suffered various internal injuries and received a copy of Gray’s Anatomy from his mother whilst recovering in hospital. The lasting impression of the tome on the artist was prevalent throughout artistic career, with the incorporation of anatomical imagery, dismembered limbs, peculiar X-ray vision and medical labelling rife within the most accomplished of works. 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 synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made astonishing new sense’ (Glenn O’Brien, ‘Greatest Hits’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2015, p. 177).

    Basquiat was an avid collector of newspaper comic strips and frequently worked with the television streaming cartoons in the background. One of the sources that filtered into his art were the advertisement breaks that took place between each televised programme. The painting’s title, Untitled (Velveeta), along with some of the forms adorning the work’s animated surface, could be perceived as allusions to such references; writ between the two eyes of his dismembered totemic figure at the top right corner of the canvas, the word ‘Velveeta’ brings up an image of the American processed cheese of the same name. Replicated as a supporting hue in the background, the cheese’s golden colour travels across the surface of the canvas, implicitly marking its presence as a pervasive leitmotif.

    Conjuring a part-abstract, part-figurative whole, Untitled (Velveeta)’s two halves are each evocative of distinct art historical associations, drawing from traditions of portraiture and pictorial abstraction alike. While Basquiat’s unnamed protagonist boasts a style distinctively its own, the artist’s arrangement of multi-coloured tides alongside the man’s elongated figure contains an expressive sensibility that is akin to Clyfford Still’s viscerally chromatic canvases. Letting the vast expanses of pigment act as foils to the anonymous character, Basquiat’s amorphous, energetic swathes are indeed redolent of the animistic quality found in Still’s large-scale abstractions.

    The vital quality summoned by Untitled (Velveeta)’s striking colour palette is only reinforced by the amalgamation of materials and textures that compose its surface. Applying a creased section of canvas onto the composition, Basquiat formally alludes to the scruffy gestural character and directionless swirls of ochre acrylic in the background, together, pointing to an aesthetic of fragmentation. Echoing the artist’s passion for jazz, the rhythmic interaction of colour, form, and tangible materials indeed produces a visual cadence akin to instinctive and visceral melodies. As expressed by Richard Marshall, ‘The segmentation and display of body parts in Basquiat’s work is also one manifestation of his presence for fragmentation as a more general mode of picture-making, storytelling, and as a way of treating materials’ (Richard Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Museum Würth, Künzelsau, 2001, p. 28).

    The present composition, with its bold, vibrant colour palette, is in itself an outstanding work from Basquiat’s repertoire; the artist achieves an illusion of space and depth, distinctively differentiating foreground and background. Covering the work’s ochre backdrop with impastoed lines of luminescent white, and generous swathes of turquoise, green, and pink paint, Basquiat ultimately used colour to push the subject to the foreground of the composition. Whilst areas of the canvas reveal a muted palette, the paintwork surrounding the head of Basquiat’s anonymous protagonist, as well as the tighter detail in the facial area, provide the viewer with a poignant point of culmination. Emblematic of his incomparable touch and quasi-incantatory intuition, Untitled (Velveeta) contains all the iconic skills and idiosyncrasies that named Basquiat a revolutionary artistic figure of his generation.

  • 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 (Velveeta)

acrylic, oilstick, resin, paper and canvas collage on canvas
167.6 x 152.4 cm (65 7/8 x 60 in.)
Executed circa 1984.

£1,200,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for £1,887,000

Contact Specialist
Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2019