Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 3, 2022 | Phillips

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  • '[…] black people are never portrayed realistically in… not even portrayed in modern art enough, and I’m glad that I do that. I use the ‘black’ as the protagonist because I am black, and that’s why I use it as the main character in all the paintings.' —Jean-Michel BasquiatA succinct presentation of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s remarkable ability to distil complex narrative elements into deceptively simple forms, Untitled captures the human condition with startling precision. Developing out the enigmatic symbols and simplified forms that Basquiat created as a street artist, Basquiat’s figure belies a complex engagement with both myth and the art historical canon, as well as with the human condition itself. Formerly in the esteemed collection of Lio Malca, Untitled has only been in two private collections since and comes to market with impeccable provenance. Included in the 2019 exhibition Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan at the Mori Arts Centre Gallery in Tokyo, the first full-scale exhibition of the artist’s work in the region, Untitled offers a uniquely important insight into Basquiat’s drawing practice, and his legacy today.


    The Post-Modern Prometheus

    Highly energetic, Basquiat’s gestural brushwork here has rendered the subject’s body with a vigour and tenderness that highlights his deep engagement with sources as disparate as anatomical drawings, African art, and modern painting. Indeed, it was Basquiat’s representations of the human form that initially garnered him such widespread acclaim. As Kellie Jones notes, ‘Basquiat’s canon revolves around single heroic figures: athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself.’i The promethean figure here rises triumphantly despite his almost skeletal form; his fragility and his humanity openly evident to the viewer. Basquiat has chosen not to armour his hero with signs and symbols, nor has he adorned him with his signature crown. Instead, Basquiat peels back his figure, revealing the vulnerable soft tissue and organs within. In laying bare the raw physicality of his figure, Basquiat imbues his work with a vivid humanity that is at once both compassionate and evocative of African figurative traditions. The exaggerated cranium, the ordered rows of set teeth and contoured eyes recall the expressive and visually striking designs of African carved masks. The figure is then both a tribute and a rebuke to Western art history; whereas such African figures had so influenced Pablo Picasso amongst others, Basquiat firmly foregrounds the African figurative tradition in the familiar Western trope of the memento mori


    Left: Picasso, Self-Portrait, 1907, Narodni Galerie, Prague. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2022 
    Right: Leonardo da Vinci, The layers of the scalp compared to an onion and other studies, c.1490-93, Royal Collection Trust, London. Image: Svintage Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

    Untitled  is one of the most unique works on paper within Basquiat’s oeuvre; indeed, few other works on paper compare so closely to Basquiat’s paintings, nor indeed do many other fragmented final works exist. Drawing, for the artist, was a compulsive practice, a way of life: ‘something you did rather than something done,’ Robert Storr once noted, ‘an activity rather than a medium’ii.As gestural, colourful, and expressive as the artist’s best paintings, the present work is stirring both for its painterly prowess as well as its intensity. Bursting with colour, the central figure’s kinetic energy spreads across the composition. Bright orange and red brushstrokes cohere in the upper right corner as a comet flares across the sky, a harbinger for the artist’s own meteoric rise in contemporary art. 

    Basquiat executed the present work at the apex of his short, but prodigious career, at a time when he had already received significant recognition in the New York art scene. By 1982, he had exhibited at Documenta VII, Kassel and by 1983, was included in the Whitney Biennial, becoming the youngest artist to represent the United States in a major international exhibition of contemporary art. More recently, Basquiat was posthumously honoured with an exhibition at The Brant Foundation in New York, further solidifying the artist’s firm position as a master of twentieth-century art. Executed just 3-4 years before the artist’s untimely death, the present work becomes further haunting, as if Basquiat built this fragile body up from oils and oil sticks, arcing a short-lived celestial phenomenon over his hero, and finally tearing the work, prematurely disrupting the figure’s life. 


    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flexible, 1984, Private Collection; sold by Phillips May 2018 for $45.3 million. Artwork: © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

    Collector's Digest


    •    Jean-Michel Basquiat was widely exhibited, even at a very young age; indeed, by 1984-85 – when the present work was executed – the artist had already exhibited at Documenta VII, Kassel and the Whitney Biennial, becoming the youngest artist to represent the United States in a major international exhibition of contemporary art.


    •    On the heels of the wildly successful exhibition at The Brant Foundation in 2019, the family of the artist is putting on an immersive exhibition, Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, opening April 2022 in Chelsea, New York. This exhibition will bring together over 200 rarely seen works and underscores the deep appreciation for the artist today.


    •    Basquiat is one of the most sought-out after artists in the world today and holds the auction record for an American artist; furthermore, 7 of the artist’s top 10 prices at auction have all been achieved in the past 4 years, illustrating the significant demand in the market for the artist’s work.


    i Robert Storr, ‘Two Hundred Beats per Min,’ in exh. cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, 1990

    ii Kellie Jones, ‘Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix, (exh. cat.), New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 43)

    • Provenance

      Collection of Leo Malca, New York
      Private Collection, Hong Kong
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Tokyo, Mori Arts Center Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, 21 September - 17 November 2019, p. 8 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Taka Kawachi, ed., King for a Decade, Kyoto, 1997, p. 102 (illustrated)

    • 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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watercolour, oil stick, crayon and pencil on paper
57.2 x 48.3 cm (22 1/2 x 19 in.)
Executed in 1984-1985, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Full Cataloguing

£600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for £688,000

Contact Specialist

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

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+ 44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 3 March 2022