Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, October 5, 2017 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    Pulsating with visceral energy and immediacy, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled exalts the unparalleled virtuosity that defined the artist’s notoriously short but groundbreaking career. Executed in 1984, the present work speaks of the assured hand of an artist enjoying international critical acclaim and widespread notoriety – at the mere age of twenty-four, Basquiat already had four major solo shows across America, Europe, and Japan under his hat and had become the youngest artist ever to be included in the Whitney Biennial the year before. Demonstrating Basquiat’s lifelong fascination with the human figure, Untitled presents the viewer with confidently painted anatomical fragments of the lower torso; a section of a hip joint to the left is juxtaposed with a more detailed rendering of an abdomen, across which the word ‘BLADDER’ is emblazoned on the right of the canvas. The richly textured black landscape from which fragments emerge is testament to Basquiat’s signature painting method that sees him methodologically mobilize pentimento as a conscious stylistic technique – continuously applying layers of paint over one another while also revising, scratching out and erasing visual elements and text in an automatist process. The incised letters and symbols in the upper right section of the canvas, scratched into wet paint, in a manner reminiscent of his artistic forebears Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet, imbue the surface with a sense of layered depth that is heightened by the thick impasto of Basquiat’s gestural brushstrokes and boldly drawn oilstick lines.

    While evoking Piet Mondrian’s primary colour palette of red, blue and yellow, Untitled specifically demonstrates the lasting influence of Abstract Expressionism on Basquiat’s practice. The gestural expressiveness with which Basquiat slathers unmixed paint across the canvas summons the jagged flashes of colour in Clyfford Still’s painting, while his painting technique shares many similarities with Willem de Kooning‘s laborious layering of the painterly surface; these techniques result in a dynamic push and pull effect. Like his artistic AbEx forebearers, Basquiat sought to distill a certain spiritual and fundamental truth in his work – his use of colour undeniably electrifying the composition and heightening its dramatic effect. Engaging in a radically different social milieu and historical context, however, Basquiat did so while pursuing a distinctive iconoclastic idiom. Indeed, as Marc Mayer observes, Basquiat used colour architecturally ‘like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda’ (Marc Mayer, ‘Basquiat in History’, Basquiat, New York, 2005, p. 46).

    Borrowing liberally from disparate fields, such as urban street culture, music, poetry, African-American and Aztec cultural histories and a broad range of art historical sources, Basquiat’s work is the result of a self-assured and intuitive process, one which exploited the creative potential of free association and past experience. Untitled pays testament to this stream-of-consciousness, ‘sampling’ approach with which Basquiat channeled his quotidian urban experience into intuitive elementary graphics and textual fragments. The letters and symbols that have been incised into the paint on the upper right of the canvas notably point to Basquiat’s beginnings as a graffiti-artist and street poet in the late 1970s. The copyright symbol specifically points to his earlier pseudonym and graffiti tag ‘SAMO©’ that accompanied the subversive aphorisms he had emblazoned on the abandoned walls of New York City.

    Above all, Untitled is testament to the central theme of human anatomy in Basquiat’s practice. While the motif of the skull already figured prominently in paintings started in 1981, from 1982 Basquiat began including body fragments into his compositions, as seen in the series of drawings Anatomy, or Untitled (Black Skull), both from 1982. Basquiat’s vision of the human body as fractured and dislocated was notably shaped by an early childhood trauma, having been struck by a car while playing in the street as an eight-year old in 1968. The young Basquiat was subsequently hospitalized to have his spleen removed and bed-ridden for a prolonged period of time. In the hope of providing him with 'a diagram for healing', Basquiat’s mother gave the young boy a copy of Gray’s Anatomy (Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London, 1998, p. 19). In Untitled, the circle in the middle of the torso is perhaps an allusion to the hole left in the artist's body when his spleen was removed, adding a crucial autobiographical element central to Basquiat’s oeuvre. Featuring a similar amalgamation of verbal and graphic anatomical description as in Catharsis, 1983, Untitled points not only to the artist’s lifelong study of Gray’s Anatomy, but also to Basquiat’s fascination with Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical renderings, having been gifted a book on da Vinci’s studies by art historian Fred Hoffman in the early 1980s. As art historian Olivier Berggruen observed, ‘There are Dionysian forces…at play in Basquiat’s works, which also reflect an affirmation of life…This, in the tradition of Picasso, points to an aesthetic of anatomical fragments, forms of mutilation in which destruction and violence are associated with the unleashing of creative powers’ (Olivier Berggruen, ‘The Fragmented Self’, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2015, p. 201).

    Untitled powerfully articulates the artist‘s idiosyncratic pictorial vernacular, a perfect coalescense of the raw, unfiltered expressionism and unbridled immediacy of his graffiti-beginnings into the painterly realm. Basquiat executes the pared down anatomical imagery which dominates the foreground of Untitled in his signature quick-fire, stream-of-conscious style that echoed the multi-sensory working conditions of his studio. Working against a steady backdrop of jazz music and cartoon programs, the canvas is an explosive cacophony of line, gesture, text and imagery. Demonstrating Basquiat’s unparalleled virtuosity as a painter, draftsman and colourist, Untitled is a testament to the artist’s ability to imbue the immediacy of the everyday into his art: ‘I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life‘ (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Basquiat, exh. cat., Museo Revoltella, Trieste, 1999, p. LXVII).

  • 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 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. 

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Property from the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat



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

£600,000 - 900,000 

Sold for £1,569,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 [email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 6 October 2017