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

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  • Overview

    In what subsequently became an iconic exchange between the American curator Henry Geldzadhler and the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the young, prodigious painter once declared that the three themes overarching his artistic intention were ‘royalty, heroism, and the streets’.Created in Basquiat’s milestone year of 1982, Untitled (Pestus) brilliantly encapsulates this threefold vision. At the top of the composition, the titular word ‘PESTUS’ hovers over a black housing project, and is surrounded by the sporadic appearance of expressions like ‘ASPHALT’, ‘SULPHATES’, and ‘BALTIC AVE’. Combining this distinctly urban vernacular with more idiosyncratic subjects, the work explores Basquiat’s proximity to the streets, which hosted the beginning of his career in New York City. This theme in turn reveals a natural implication of royalty and heroism, as arrows, waves, and other signs infer a movement from the bottom up, at once linguistically, iconographically, and socially; a suggested ascension that also appears in the artist’s animated work on paper Untitled (Plaid), a masterpiece of the same year residing in the Whitney Museum of American Art. With its invigorating strokes of turquoise, red, green, pink and black, and its serendipitous arrangement of writing and visual symbols, Untitled (Pestus) offers a vitalising glimpse into Basquiat’s draughtsmanship at the height of his creative powers.


    Untitled (Plaid)
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Plaid), 1982, oil paintstick and ballpaper on paper, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020. Image: Adagp Images, Paris, / SCALA, Florence.

    Prior to 1982 – a breakthrough year marking the beginning of Basquiat’s intimate mythologies – the artist spent the majority of his time in New York’s Lower East Side, producing graffiti under the moniker SAMO (a shorthand for his derisive motto ‘same old shit’). During this period, the artist shared a partnership with his friend Al Diaz, with whom he brandished anti-establishment messages regarding race, identity and commercialism on inner city buildings. These concerns remained alive as ever in Basquiat’s early independent work, developed at the dawn of the 1980s; in the present image, the artist clearly continues to deal with subjects of urban poverty, mass commodity, and the lack of resources employed to fix faulty – and dangerous – structures in low-income neighbourhoods. With its clear, horizontal structure and its neatly delineated painterly elements, Untitled (Pestus) epitomises Basquiat’s perennial visual language, which, like all the best of his work, encapsulates the crux of his life observations: his childhood fascinations, his adolescent discoveries and his encounters with cultural disparities and convergences in young adulthood.


    Shortly before the execution of the present work, Basquiat’s art began garnering a number of critical accolades, including an invitation to participate in the landmark show New York/New Wave, which took place at the MoMA PS1 in February 1981, and congregated such influential artists as Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kenny Scharf and Andy Warhol. From that moment onward, ‘All hell broke loose’, observed Richard Marshall. ‘The young master was ready’.ii A result of newfound resources and increased artistic confidence, Untitled (Pestus) was painted a year after Basquiat had achieved cult status in the streets, and coincides with his progressive shift to gallery premises, enabled by the support of his new dealer Annina Nosei. At the mere age of 22, Basquiat impressed contemporary art critics with his natural flair, and cemented his status as New York’s ‘Radiant Child’ – a title coined by Rene Ricard in the American poet’s seminal Artforum article of 1981.


    Jean-Michel Basquiat in front of his window
    Ben Buchanan, Jean-Michel Basquiat in front of his window, 1985, black and white photograph. Image: Bridgeman Images.


    A Duality in Composition


    Untitled (Pestus) contains a number of symbols and expressions that have concerned Basquiat during his all-too-short career. Most strikingly exposing the artist’s take on displacement and duality, the composition juxtaposes an essentially bare background with loosely rendered figurative signs. On the one hand, the work conveys the archetypical sensory experience of New York City’s busy streets through the use of heated colours and words like ‘ASPHALT’, ‘PESTUS’ and ‘PETROL’; on the other, the artist mobilises references that are geographically distant, with the expressions ‘CARRIBEAN SUGAR’ and ‘HAITIAN BASEBALL (IMPORTED)’. The thematic fragmentation contained within Untitled (Pestus) reflects the duality that Basquiat continuously negotiated throughout his life, manifested in the twofold cultural legacy he inherited from his parents, and the amalgamation of his conflicting personas in later years: a subversive artist exploiting urban landscape on the one hand, and a successful painter attending to the lifestyle of New York’s creative elite on the other.


    Royalty, Heroism, and The Streets


    Devised on an elongated horizontal ground, Untitled (Pestus) combines a number of Basquiat’s best and most revered tropes, including his all-cap lettering, the three-pointed crown, the visual and written reference to ‘low-income housing’, and the copyright symbol, which humorously posited as a claim to ownership for all the words and ideas he repeatedly used throughout his oeuvre. Amidst Untitled (Pestus)’s animated surface, fragments of information can be deciphered both in drawn and written forms, overall constructing a splintered scene that, despite missing clear direction, conveys the busy atmosphere of New York’s streets. As each symbol is placed impetuously across the surface of the composition, it is as if the artist were daring the viewer to follow his mental meanderings in real time. As such, Untitled (Pestus) is also revelatory of Basquiat’s working method, whereby he would let his surrounding environments glide into the rhythm and pace of his painterly gestures. Ruled by a deliberate placement of incongruous elements on the paper’s surface, and a visual cadence akin to instinctive melodies, Untitled (Pestus) illustrates Glenn O’Brienn’s statement that, ‘[Basquiat] ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him, and he processed it all into a bebop Cubist Pop Art cartoon gospel that synthesized the whole overload we lived under into something that made astonishing new sense’.iii 


    Frequently devising 'suggestive dichotomies' in his work – wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, among others – Basquiat used both personal experience and external sources to produce his vivid and conceptually fraught tableaux.iv Voraciously consuming all the signs and images that surrounded him, he additionally appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting to produce frenzied surfaces at the threshold of truth and fiction. In the present work, the black housing project stands erect, surrounded by the inscriptions ‘PESTUS’, ‘ASPHALT’, ‘SULPHATES’ and ‘CARRIBEAN SUGAR CROPS’. To the left of the building, a ladder leads to Basquiat’s iconic three-pointed crown – as if the streets and their dangers could produce, or derive from, a form of royalty. Straddling various visual vocabularies denoting urban environments and royal associations, Untitled (Pestus) thus corroborates the artist's claim that his subject matter ultimately amounts to 'royalty, heroism, and the streets'.v 


    Jean-Michel Basquiat in Conversation


    In a 1983 interview with the famed Metropolitan curator Henry Geldzahler, who discovered Basquiat's work at the 1981 show New York/New Wave, MoMA PS1, the artist discusses his progression from subway walls to canvas, and from the streets of New York to the galleries of Soho.
    Henry Geldzahler: What about words like tin and asbestos?


    Jean-Michel Basquiat: That’s alchemy, too.
    HG: What about the list of pre-Socratic philosophers in the recent paintings, and the kinds of materials which get into your painting always, that derive not so much from Twombly as from the same kind of synthetic thinking. Is that something you’ve done from your childhood, lists of things?
    JMB: That was from going to Italy, and copying names out of tour books, and condensed histories.
    HG: Is the impulse to know a lot, or is the impulse to copy things that strike you?
    JMB: Well, originally I wanted to copy the whole history down, but it was too tedious so I just stuck to the cast of characters.
    HG: What is your subject matter?
    JMB: [pauses] Royalty, heroism, and the streets.
    Read the rest of the interview here.

    i Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, 'From the Subways to Soho', Interview Magazine, January 1983, online.
    ii Richard Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1991, p. 37.
    iii Glenn O’Brien, ‘Greatest Hits’, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2015, p. 177.
    iv Fred Hoffmann, 'The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works', Artist's websiteavailable online.
    v Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, 'From the Subways to Soho', Interview Magazine, January 1983, online.

    • Provenance

      The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat
      Robert Miller Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
      Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1995)
      Private Collection
      Max Lang Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
      McCabe Fine Art, New York (acquired from the above in 2010)
      Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above in 2010)

    • Exhibited

      Tokyo, Mori Arts Center Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, 21 September - 17 November 2019, pp. 156-157 (illustrated)
      Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, 1 December 2019 - 15 March 2020

    • 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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Property from a Private Swiss Collection


Untitled (Pestus)

acrylic and oilstick on paper
114.3 x 182.8 cm (45 x 71 7/8 in.)
Executed in 1982, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Full Cataloguing

£2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for £2,200,500

Contact Specialist

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020