Create your first list.

A way to share and manage lots.

  • Provenance

    Gracie Mansion Gallery, New York
    Private Collection, New York
    Anon. sale, Drouot - C. Charbonneaux, 15 June 1988, lot 39
    Private Collection, Europe
    Christie's London, 'Post-War and Contemporary', 09 February 2005, lot 006

  • Exhibited

    New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Four Friends, 25 October 2007 - 12 January 2008 (exhibition extended to 29 February 2008)

  • Literature

    R. D. Marshall, J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 1996, vol. II, p. 62, No. 10 (illustrated)
    R. D. Marshal, J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 2000, 3rd ed., p. 86-87, No. 10 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “His early paintings manifest the same immediacy and speed with which Basquiat executed his graffiti on buildings.” JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT

    The human figure is a central and reoccurring theme throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre; it provided the perfect vehicle for merging autobiography with references to popular culture and African-American history. The present lot, Untitled, executed in 1981, depicts the upper torso of an anonymous figure. Painted in Basquiat’s archetypal naïve style, the figure disproportionate in nature and loosely representing the true human form dominates the centre of the composition. Basquiat’s unmistakable style is visible throughout, particularly his bravura handling of the scarlet red, gun metal grey and fluorescent yellow colour-fields, making him an obvious advocate of Abstract Expressionism. Further, the use of spray paint resulting in energetic and urban infused lines, most visibly to the hand and halo area, expands upon Cy Twombly’s style, which Basquiat directly cited as being a great influence. Additionally, the viewer receives an insight into Basquiat’s prior years as a graffiti artist in downtown Manhattan under the pseudonym, SAMO. The face itself is typically crude, void of distinct features, a primitive mask-like rendering with an uncomfortably large circular mouth and sharp eyes offering a disconcerting glimpse into the troubled mind of the young artist. Yet, the figure is somewhat heroic, regal and commanding, indentifying with Basquiat’s powerful artistic talent, going up against the predominantly white world of the art establishment.

    1981, the year the present lot was executed, is widely regarded at Basquiat’s greatest year of output. This was the year he made the transition from the streets to the studio. At the beginning of his ephemeral career, he was uncorrupted by art world politics, personal fame and addiction; these early works married the gritty urbanism of his street graffiti with his raw guttural symbolism. Basquiat grew up as part of a middle-class family in Brooklyn to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents. In the late 1970s he left home and took to the streets of Manhattan, making his mark as a graffiti artist. He soon began to attract attention and in September 1981 he was invited to join Annina Nosei Gallery and occupy her basement as his studio. It was this period, in Annina Nosei’s basement, that he produced Untitled, and many of his greatest masterpieces. In December 1981, Basquiat was brought to international attention when Artforum published Rene Richard’s ‘The Radiant Child’ article. He has gone from an unknown graffiti artist to receiving international recognition in one year, an unparalleled rise through the art world echelons.

    Basquiat declared that ‘the black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings’ (Quoted in H. Geldzahler, ‘Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,’ Interview, January 1983). Although the figure in the present lot is anonymous, he stands as a celebration of African-American achievements in a white dominated society. Basquiat celebrated many African-American luminaries in his work, particularly musicians and athletes such as, Charlie Parker, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Leonard; the few professions African-American’s were able to excel in. In Untitled, the figure has an elongated right arm; the hand is open revealing the palm and oversized fingers, perhaps alluding to crucifixion or an act of surrender. Further, it symbolises protest and power, referencing the African-American civil rights movement and political activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The black power salute came to represent the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s, the apex of which was the defiant salute of the runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the medal ceremony in the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City.

    Alongside enshrining his idols he also drew upon autobiographical references, he identified with their personal struggle. Basquiat achieved great success critically and financially throughout his career, but he always remained acutely aware of the imbalance in the art world, where white dealers and collectors held court. It was these pressures and struggles with identity that ultimately led to his dependents on drugs and premature death at the age of 27. Charlie Parker, one of the most influential figures in jazz suffered from alcohol and drug addictions that led to his early death. Joe Lewis ended up in a state of personal and financial distress, suffering from drug addiction and bankruptcy. They all excelled through raw talent and in Basquiat’s eyes died martyrs.

    ‘Of course for somebody of colour like Jean-Michel, New York had another dimension. New York cops were mostly white, as were the taxi drivers, and if you were black, it didn’t matter how much money you had in your pocket or how good you looked, you weren’t getting a cab. I remember hailing a taxi for Bethann Hardison, a black woman and ex-model who owned a model agency, because she couldn’t get one to stop for her. And Jean-Michel – in designer clothes, pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills- wasn’t able to get a taxi either.’ (G. O’Brien, Basquiat and the New York Scene 1978-82, in Basquiat, exh. cat., Foundation Beyeler, 9 May - 5 September, 2010, p. 39)

    Untitled, incorporates significant iconography from Basquiat’s repertoire. A crown or halo, freely painted in spray paint, floats over the figures head, adverting to the process of canonisation and further religious connotations. The Xerox paper collage elements adhered to the canvas throughout the composition contain familiar motifs, the crown and baseball all illustrated in childlike manner. Untitled, successfully documents his stylistic range from expressive painting to conceptual collage and colour-field painting. In turn, it follows the progressive construction of the artist’s discordant identity, of a man grappling with the reality that he could make little use of the patterns available to him. He fluctuated between his father’s middle class ideals, the homeless graffiti sprayer, and the celebrity artist. Although, however unstable the artist’s personal life and standing, his work remained groundbreaking. His oeuvre was among the most powerful and intense to be produced during the 1980s. Untitled, captures a seminal year of output of an artist who has redirected the course of art history.

  • 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. 

    View More Works



acrylic, spray paint, oilstick and Xerox collage on canvas
122.5 x 152.5 cm. (48 1/4 x 60 in.)
Signed and dated '81' on the right overlap. This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

£3,000,000 - 4,000,000 

Sold for £1,874,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
[email protected]
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London 16 October 2013