Jean-Michel Basquiat - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I get my facts from books, stuff on atomizers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs, […] I don’t take credit for my facts. The facts exist without me.”
    —Jean -Michel Basquiat

    Jean-Michel Basquiat came of age in New York in the 1970s, when hip-hop culture and street art were booming, and collaborative, underground communities of artists, filmmakers, and musicians moved easily between studios, streets, and clubs, transforming the lower east side into a vibrant and dynamic art scene. On the one hand, this was a time of wildly inventive and unrestricted creativity, remembered now for its legendary nightlife, statement fashions, and the enormous impact that a pioneering group of artists and musicians would have on generations to come. On the other, it was also a time of economic stagnation, high unemployment and rising crime rates, where strikes, riots, and police corruption were everyday occurrences and where a young Black male from Brooklyn would quickly grasp the gap between inclusion and separation, wealth and poverty, and the everyday realities of institutionalised racism.


    Words and Symbols


    Street art and hip-hop both found powerfully expressive ways to criticise and challenge these power structures, using language to speak for communities most routinely silenced within these systems. Working with his childhood friend, the graffiti artist Al Diaz, Basquiat created an enigmatic and politically charged mode of graffiti, tagging walls and sidewalks with the SAMO© insignia in a very literal mode of concrete poetry that ‘tapped into the zeitgeist, bringing the satirical bite of the Beat writers into a new age.’i The immediacy of graffiti, its ability to carry meaning, and the endlessly inventive combinations of text, image, and symbol that it presented was central in shaping Basquiat’s distinctive visual language, expressed most directly in his drawings.


     Basquiat, Painting Live Street Graffiti


    As his mother would recall, Basquiat drew from an early age, always carrying a notebook with him and allowing ‘impressions, thoughts, memories, associations, fantasies, and observations formulating in his mind to simply pass through him, making their way onto a sheet of paper.’ii Immediate and intuitive, his approach to drawing as a mode of ‘channelling’ information – cultural history, politics, snatches of literary and art history, mythology, and music – was established early on and confirmed these works on paper as a distinct and hugely significant part of his practice that can be read independently of his paintings, even while it obviously informed them. In its pictographic arrangements and lively combination of image, symbol, and text, Untitled (Colored Boy Piano Player) exemplifies this ‘channelling’ practice as the artist ‘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 synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.’iii


    Proud of his self-taught credentials, Basquiat devoured books, from Gray's Anatomy to The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), The Bible to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, writing these references and the processes of thinking them through into his densely citational paintings and drawings. In the present work, the repetition of certain symbols and phrases refers directly to Basquiat’s close reading of Henry Dreyfus’ 1972 semiotic study Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols. A compendium of the graphic language of symbols, that includes the more familiar visible language of street signage and instructional codes designed to be immediately legible, regardless of the viewer’s language or level of literacy (a child recognises the danger of a skull and cross bones sign on an everyday domestic cleaning fluid), to more esoteric symbolic systems.  

    ‘Hobo Signs’, from Henry Dreyfuss, Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols, 1972


    Reproduced in a faint, chalky line to most accurately represent the way that the symbols would appear scrawled on rough wood or concrete surfaces, Deryfus’ ‘Hobo Signs’ were a source of great inspiration for Basquiat, both in their graphic, drawn immediacy, and in social contexts in which they operated. Cryptic pictograms, these symbols were a sophisticated and coded mode of communication shared between itinerant travellers or ‘hobos’ as a means of sharing important information about the places where the marks were left all across Depression-era America. As in more monumental pieces such Pegasus, created in the same year as the present work, Basquiat’s selection of more sinister icons in Untitled (Colored Boy Piano Player) speaks to his interest in the profound difficulties of navigating a cruel and dangerous world for those living on the fringes of society, and the strategies that these communities invented in order to survive.


    Reading the image from left to right, the graphic, comic strip style of the drawing takes on new significance, the repetitions of the symbols for ‘A beating awaits you here’ and ‘this is not a safe place’ visually replicating the itinerant wanderings of these individuals and reinforcing the relentless dangers that they faced on their travels. Combining image and text, Basquiat communicates this with striking directness, culminating in the rapid and running-on scrawled repetition of ‘this is not a safe place’ in the far left of the composition. In typical fashion, Basquiat’s social commentary here also invokes law keepers as dangerous figures, the coiled spring icon and circled symbols traditionally used to warn travellers of the proximity of judges and courthouses. 


    In bringing this coded visual language into his practice, Basquiat honours this sophisticated mode of visual communication, and the powerful ways in which it allowed the most unseen and ignored members of society to forge their own communities and remain visible to one another. Closely connected to Basquiat’s reference to the nomadic Blemyan tribe in the eastern Sahara in his inclusion of ‘Dumaris’ in a number of significant compositions, we might also read these pictograms as Basquiat’s ‘affirmation of his own nomadic journey’, his dedication to choosing his own path, connecting and communicating with fellow travellers along the way.iv


    Testament to the central importance of drawing and works on paper to the ‘radiant child’s’ prodigious output, the first posthumous exhibition to be mounted of Basquiat’s work was of his drawings, held at the Robert Miller Gallery in 1990. Executed in 1987 and included in the exhibition Jean Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Drawings, 1980-1988, mounted to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the artist’s death, Untitled (Colored Boy Piano Player) highlights how central the interplay of word, image, and symbol was to Basquiat’s unique visual language, from his earliest SAMO© epigrams to his latest works on paper and canvas.


    Collector’s Digest

    • Jean-Michel Basquiat was widely exhibited, even at a very young age, participating in a staggering 44 personal exhibitions between 1981 and his death in 1988. Most recently in London, the artist was honoured with a major retrospective Basquiat: Boom For Real, held at the Barbican Art Gallery in 2017.

    • 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.

    • The artist is represented in several prominent museum collections all over the world. He also starred in “Downtown 81,” a verité movie that was written by Glenn O’Brien, shot by Edo Bertoglio, and produced by Maripol in 1981, but not released until 2000.



    i Elanor Nairne, ‘Samo©’, in Basquiat: Boom for Real, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2017, p. 29.

    ii Fred Hoffman, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Works from the Schorr Family Collection, exh. cat., Aquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 33.

    iii Elanor Nairne, 'Encyclopaedia', in Boom for Real, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2017 , p. 189.

    iv Fred Hoffman, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Works from the Schorr Family Collection, exh. cat., Aquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 49.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg
      Galerie Sollertis, Toulouse
      Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
      Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles
      Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
      Briggs Robinson Gallery, New York
      Phillips, New York, 16 November 2007, lot 193
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings & Drawings,1980-1988, 12 February – 14 March 1998, no. 52, n.p. (illustrated, n.p.)

    • 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.

      View More Works


Untitled (Colored Boy Piano Player)

signed and dated ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat 87’ on the reverse
graphite and oilstick on paper
43.8 x 56.5 cm (17 1/4 x 22 1/4 in.)
Executed in 1987.

Full Cataloguing

£200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for £203,200

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023