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

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  • Provenance

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

  • Exhibited

    This work has been requested for inclusion in Tokyo, Mori Arts Center Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat – Made in Japan, 20 September - 17 November 2019
    This work has been requested for inclusion in Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, 1 December - 13 April 2020

  • Catalogue Essay

    Exemplary of the graphic lyricism that Jean-Michel Basquiat boldly inserted into the canon of art history, Untitled, 1983, stems from the most significant period of the artist’s tragically short career. Animating the sheet’s pure surface in raw oilstick with visceral scrawls and symbols taken from Henry Dreyfuss’ Visual Sourcebook, Basquiat harnesses an electrifying palette to compose an enigmatic tableau that fluctuates between abstraction and figuration. Having been requested for inclusion for two forthcoming exhibitions at the Mori Arts Center Gallery, Tokyo, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Untitled is fuelled by artist’s unending fascination with the human form and the semantic duplicity of visual symbols.

    Swiftly identified as igniting a new sensibility in contemporary drawing and painting, Basquiat was ceremoniously introduced to the art world as the ‘radiant child’ who would carry forth the historic legacy of painterly automatism in 1981. ‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there... and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’ (Rene Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, December 1981, p. 35). A year later, the artist was bestowed with breakout solo exhibitions at Annina Nosei Gallery in New York, Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich and Delta Gallery in Rotterdam, as well as a remarkable inclusion in Documenta in Kassel. In 1983, Basquiat became the youngest artist to ever to be included in the Whitney Biennial at the mere age of 23. That same year, he produced some of his most vibrant works, including the present work.

    Resplendent with the key visual characteristics that define Basquiat’s enduring vision, Untitled is a paradigmatic work demonstrating the artist’s skill in drawing, the quintessential foundation of his artistic practice. The symbolic weight of pop culture and the graphic potency of graffiti underpinned the visual lexicon that Basquiat later introduced into the arena of fine art. In Untitled, the unbridled immediacy of drawing conjures an image that performs in a mode of free association. Delineating the silhouettes of three human figures alongside interlocked grids, Untitled appears to put together a scene from downtown New York, its noise evidenced by repeated loops and lines echoing cartoon iconography, and its heat embodied by the vibrant colours penetrating the contours of each drawn figure and building. Brought to life through the artist’s hand, this city vista is a testament to Basquiat’s ability to convey an image replete with real-life associations through the essential craft of drawing.

    The present work brims with geometric forms and symbols, three skeletal figures composed with a jutting sense of askew geometry and an improvised rhythm akin to the jazz music he revered, Basquiat’s robotic protagonists activate multiple semiotic registers. Recalling the artist’s fascination with signs and symbols, the present work is punctuated with references from Egyptian hieroglyphics and Henry Dreyfuss’ hobo code in the Symbol Sourcebook, 1972. The figures appear like monstrous cartoon robots, neither villains or heroes, alongside Dreyfuss’ register of symbols, the spirals signifying that a ‘judge lives here’ and the cross-hatching representing ‘jail’. Basquiat’s oilstick astutely condenses a multiplicity of symbolic, fictional and lived experiences as he revels in the ambiguity of prescribed visual signs.

    In the present work, new faces appear amongst other alien symbols and gridded lines drawn from Dreyfuss’ ‘hobo code’. Rendered in thickly applied brown and black oilstick, accentuated with clear red lines, Untitled, 1983, echoes the vocabulary of his seminal Six Crimee, housed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. As such, Basquiat implicates his viewers in a seductive game of semiotics where we are challenged to pin down the meaning of his signs, but where the tallies on his scoreboard are likely to change at any moment.

  • 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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oilstick on paper
56.5 x 76.5 cm (22 1/4 x 30 1/8 in.)
Executed in 1983.

£500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for £681,250

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