Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 20, 2020 | Phillips
  • Overview

    Exemplifying Jean-Michel Basquiat’s obsession with anatomical imagery on a monumental scale, Back of the Neck is one of several editioned silkscreens that the artist created in his lifetime. At the centre of the composition, a hand-painted gold crown hovers over a deconstructed torso. To the left, the titular words ‘back of the neck’ are inscribed in chalk-white over the surface’s dominating black ground, devised in Basquiat’s signature all-cap writing. The inclusion of this expression evidently refers to human anatomy; but also, as the foremost Leonardo da Vinci scholar Carlo Pedretti notes, to ‘the seat of the soul’.i Testament to its importance within Basquiat’s oeuvre, another example of Back of the Neck is held in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum, New York, and another was included in the recent landmark exhibition Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story, which took place at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2019. 


    It was in 1968, at the age of seven years old, that Basquiat first came in contact with the medical world. The young Basquiat was playing softball on his street in Brooklyn when he was hit by a car, resulting in a broken arm and various internal injuries. During his recuperation time in the hospital, his mother gave him a copy of the medical text Gray’s Anatomy, which he pored over and memorised. Filled with detailed anatomical drawings and diagrams, the book had a profound influence on the burgeoning artist who, throughout his oeuvre and particularly in his drawings and prints, has compulsively detailed fragments of the human body. His fascination with the anatomical realm was crystallised most compellingly in his first experimentation with printmaking, embodied by his two series Anatomy, 1982 and Untitled (from Leonardo), 1983. However, it is only in the present work, Back of the Neck, that Basquiat combined disparate limbs to create a complete image – one that would move beyond the isolated illustrations of medical textbooks. 


    Illustration from Henry Gray’s publication Gray's Anatomy, 1918, lithograph plate, Mary Evans Picture Library, London. ©King's College London / Mary Evans. Image: Mary Evans/Scala, Florence.
    Illustration from Henry Gray’s publication Gray's Anatomy, 1918, lithograph plate, Mary Evans Picture Library, London. ©King's College London / Mary Evans. Image: Mary Evans.

    A masterpiece hailing from Basquiat’s printmaking practice, Back of the Neck not only incorporates the artist’s sourcebook of signs – the writing, the anatomical sketches, the copyright symbol, the three-pointed crown – but furthermore boasts a fraught and taut energy that recalls the overarching sense of violence that invaded the air of New York City and the United States in the early to mid-1980s. Conceived the same year that the twenty-five-year-old black graffiti artist Michael Stewart was arrested and beaten to death while in New York police custody, Back of the Neck addresses the politics of violence surrounding the black body: the contortions, assaults and defacement it too often undergoes. Basquiat was obsessed ‘with the black male body’s history as property, pulverized meat and popular entertainment’, wrote Greg Tate. As a black artist, he was moreover acutely aware of ‘performing the splitting, doubling, and stitching-up procedures which lie behind a production of identity’.ii In Back of the Neck, the body is portrayed as inherently vulnerable -- its skeletal, brittle spine flanked by two dismembered arms; one almost entirely clad in flesh, the other flayed to muscle and sinew. The subject of the work appears to have been torn asunder, his body parts scattered across the paper. And yet, the figure remains crowned, like a fallen king or a martyr.


    A Critical Moment


    Executed in 1982, Back of the Neck furthermore cemented a moment of increased critical and commercial fame for Basquiat. In March 1982, the artist was bestowed his first one-artist exhibition in the United States at the Annina Nosei Gallery, which spurred unanimous and near-unprecedented acclaim. A month later, the artist travelled to Los Angeles for another solo show, this time held at Larry Gagosian Gallery, and arranged in conjunction with Annina Nosei. Following these two seminal solo presentations, Basquiat mustered a succession of accomplishments that, among others, spanned his exclusive European representation by Bruno Bischofberger, and his inclusion, at age twenty-one, in the international exhibition Documenta 7 in Kassel, West Germany, where he was the youngest of 176 artists invited to participate. In 1983, Gagosian introduced Basquiat to Fred Hoffman, an art dealer and admirer of Basquiat's work. Basquiat, with Hoffman's help, produced five editions of prints published by New City Editions in Venice, California, which comprised three untitled sets along with Back of the Neck and the 8-foot-tall Tuxedo. ‘I was taken aback by the unique vision and conviction of this young man of just 21’, mused Fred Hoffman as he reflected on their first encounter to discuss editioned silkscreens.iii 


    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gold Griot, 1984, acrylic and pencil on wood, The Broad Art Foundation, California. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020. Image: Adagp Images, Paris, / SCALA, Florence.
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gold Griot, 1984, acrylic and pencil on wood, The Broad Art Foundation, California. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020. Image: Adagp Images, Paris, / SCALA, Florence. 

      Within this scintillating context, Back of the Neck distinguishes itself as perhaps one of the artist’s most iconic creations. It boasts a complete, excruciating image that, in extremely simple terms, synthesises suffering. With its vivid contorsions and distinct corporeal elements, the composition namely recalls the artist’s Gold Griot, executed a year later, which shows a figure whose bodily components are rendered visible in Basquiat’s signature x-ray vision, similarly twisted and bent in unusual positions. In Back of the Neck, Basquiat’s exacting vision is made evident by the control of subject matter, space, and the relation between both. The image exemplifies what the art historian Olivier Berggruen has described as powerful and assertive vulnerability: ‘an aesthetic of the body as damaged, scarred, fragmented, incomplete, or torn apart, once the organic whole has disappeared. Paradoxically, it is the very act of creating these representations that conjures a positive corporeal valence between the artist and his sense of self or identity’.iv                                       



    Back of the Neck in Context


    Take a virtual tour of Basquiat’s 'Defacement': The Untold Story, where another example of Back of the Neck was prominently displayed.



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    i Carlo Pedretti, ‘Conversation with Annina Nosei’, 2003, quoted in Fred Hoffman, The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2017, reproduced online.
    ii Greg Tate, ‘Nobody Loves a Genius Child’, Village Voice, 14 November 1989, reproduced online.
    iii Fred Hoffman, quoted in ‘Basquiat’s L.A’, Los Angeles Times, 13 March 2005, online.
    iv Olivier Berggruen,  ‘Some Notes on Jean-Michel Basquiat's Silk-Screen Prints’, The Writing of Art, London, 2011, p. 127.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection
      Sotheby's S2 Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2013

    • Exhibited

      New York, Vrej Baghoomian, Inc., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 21 October - 25 November 1989, p. 69 (another example exhibited and illustrated)
      Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes; Recife, Museu de Arte Moderna; Sao Paulo, Pinacoteca, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Obras sobre Papeis, 1997-1998, pp. 102-103 (another example exhibited and illustrated)
      Künzelsau, Museum Würth, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Works on Paper: The Mugrabi Collection, 27 September 2001 - 1 January 2002, pp. 110-111 (another example exhibited and illustrated)
      New York, Sotheby's S2 Gallery, Man Made: Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2 May - 9 June 2013
      New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Basquiat and the Bayou Presented by the Helis Foundation, 25 October 2014 - 25 January 2015, pl. 13, pp. 72-73 (another example exhibited and illustrated)
      Milan, Museo Delle Culture, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Opere dalla Mugrabi Collection, 28 October 2016 - 26 February 2017, pp. 176-177 (another example exhibited and illustrated)
      Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, Jean-Michel Basquiat: New York City. Opere dalla Mugrabi Collection, 24 March - 2 July 2017, pp. 126-127 (another example exhibited and illustrated)

    • Literature

      Enrico Navarra and Richard Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works on Paper, Paris, 1999, pp. 342-343 (another example 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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Sold to Benefit The Bedari Foundation


Back of the Neck

signed and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 1983' lower right; further numbered '13/24' on the reverse
screenprint with hand colouring on paper
127.7 x 257.8 cm (50 1/4 x 101 1/2 in.)
Executed in 1983, this work is number 13 from an edition of 24 plus 3 artist’s proofs.

Full Cataloguing

£450,000 - 650,000 

Sold for £627,500

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020