• Post-War & Contemporary Evenin auction at Christies

    Sale 2219

    Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale

    10 November 2009, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 14

    Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


    Price Realised  


    Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
    signed and dated 'JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT 1982' (on the reverse)
    oilstick and masking tape on paper
    60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm.)
    Painted in 1982.

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    A master drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled from 1982 is realized with an expressive power that rivals, and often surpasses, his large-scale canvases. Untitled is one of a series of five celebrated large-scale works on paper that rarely come on the market. Unique in its dense idiosyncratic mark-making, the work contains a frantic discharge of a distinctly human kind of madness, directly scrawled, etched and slashed onto the large-scale sheet. Originally owned by the noted Basquiat collectors John and Marion Shea, when the drawing offered at Christie's in November 1997, it realized a world-record for a drawing by the artist. Widely exhibited and celebrated, the drawing is a highpoint for the artists graphic work.

    Drawing upon observations of the role of the African American male in the urban politics of the time, Basquiat rendered the age-old trope of traditional portraiture in his own unique way. The body is set adrift, wrenched out of its identifiable context, while at the same time flattened, in a manner very much reminiscent of Jean Dubuffet, against a background cluttered with gestural drips allusive of wastelands and urban detritus. Basquiats graffiti-like and seemingly improvised scribbling and hieroglyphic scrawls, which were to be rightly canonized as the signature motifs in the artists oeuvre, are so readily visible in the deliberate rawness of this powerful work, which maintains a fine balance between control and spontaneity, menace and wit.

    Although Basquiats meteoric rise in the art world had afforded him widespread fame by 1982, he was acutely aware of the inherent racism within its ranks. He was particularly sensitive about being constantly stereotyped and pigeonholed as a black artist of untamed and 'primitive' talent and was anxious about being cast in the role of a mascot by the predominantly white art establishment. As the first African American to reach the apex of the official international art world, Basquiat reacted defiantly against such prejudice with works like Untitled, in its scheme of red, yellow and blue, a color combination Basquiat seemed to favor for its primary intensity, bringing his ethnic identity to the fore.

    When discussing the subjects of his pictures, Basquiat claimed that they were about 'royalty, heroes and the streets' (J. M. Basquiat quoted in H. Geldzahler, Art: from subways to Soho: Jean-Michel Basquiat, pp. 18-26, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh.cat., Vienna, 1999, p. 23). Creating a poetic modern mythology of black heroes, Basquiat's personal pantheon included amongst others, such towering Jazz musicians as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, artists with whom he personally identified. The menacing, grinning figure in Untitled with its seemingly ad hoc armor, in virtue of the stark geometric components of its multi-faceted outfit, becomes simultaneously an archetype and an alter-ego
    of these contemporary urban heroes.

    The figure in Untitled is drawn in the artists characteristically
    aggressive faux-naive style. He appears as an energetic, even frantic, caricature of the artist himself; a projection of his fears, anxieties, and rebellious rage, with a unvarnished directness that recalls Picassos late work, with its pipe referencing his smoking musketeers. Equally empowered and bewildered, the figure is endowed with paraphernalia resembling moon boots, electrified hair on his skull-like head, evoking a potent sense of panic at the immediate prospect of danger. The psychological chaos characterizing the figures mental state is made even more pronounced by virtue of its being set against Twombly-esque background of text, numbers, lines, charts, stars, geometrical shapes. 'QA' is written at the lower right corner most likely standing for the question-answer, problem-solution dualities -- a mathematical nightmare -- that not only alludes to the chaos of the urban environment and the years Basquiat spent coating Manhattan with his cryptic graffiti slogans, but also to the artists critical attitude towards the unquestioned values of the entrenched systems of education and conditioning in the society

    This troubled anti-hero has a supernatural aura, a cross between a futuristic automaton, a grasping voodoo effigy, and an Aztecan mythological figure. The raw energy and urban-primitive aesthetic of Untitled seems to mockingly assume the mantle of noble-savage Basquiat himself tried to shake off and stands out as the artists ultimate critique of the constitution of black identity at the peak of his creative powers.

    Special Notice

    On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.


    Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
    Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
    John M. and Marion A. Shea, Palm Springs
    Their sale; Christie's, New York, 19 November 1997, lot 347
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    Saleroom Notice

    Please note this work has been requested for inclusion in the forthcoming Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler from May-September 2010.


    B. Blistene, et. al., Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works on Paper, Paris, 1999, p. 171 (illustrated).
    Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 149, pl. 31 (illustrated in color).


    Osaka, Kirin Plaza, Basquiat + Haring + Scharf from the Leo Malca Collection, August-September 1998, p. 20 (illustrated in color).
    Havana, Galería Haydée Santamaria, Casa de las Américas and Havana, Museo del Ron, Fundación Havana Club, 7a Bienalde La Habana: Jean-Michel Basquiat, November 2000-January 2001, p. 95 (illustrated in color).
    Brooklyn Museum of Art; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art and Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Basquiat, March 2005-February 2006, p. 39 (illustrated in color).
    Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, September 2006-January 2007, p. 149, fig. 31 (illustrated in color).