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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Untitled

Details
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Untitled
signed and incorrectly dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 87' (on the reverse)
tempera, colored pencil, oil stick and graphite on paper
29½ x 41½ in. (74.9 x 105.4 cm.)
Executed in 1984.
Provenance
Vrej Baghoomian, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1989
Literature
R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, p. 41 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited
New York, Vrej Baghoomian, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October-November 1989, pl. 66 (illustrated in color).
Overland Park, Johnson County Community College Gallery of Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, September-October 1994.

Lot Essay

"CHEW. STOMACH JUICES. DO NOT PASS GO. LIBERTY. RED. PHALANGES." Scrawled in block letters as though being shouted across city streets, these are just a few of the many words that make up the artistic vocabulary of Jean-Michel Basquiat in Untitled. This work declares the lexicon of the themes and language surging through Basquiat's oeuvre, a confluence of contemporary art traditions that were in play during the 1980s and that succeeded in a complex convergence of tradition and rebellion within Basquiat's own visual aesthetics vocabulary. Untitled reconstructs the landscape both of Basquiat's urban existence and his art world experience. It is a scrapbook of his idiosyncratic drawing technique, his unique motifs, and his copyrighted images and words--a veritable autobiographical "portrait of the artist." Basquiat remained confident in his thematic decisions throughout his career, maintaining a steady focus on issues of identity, racism, classicism, comics, popular culture, anatomy, mortality, and graffiti. He drew his source materials from everyday life, particularly media, street grit, African-American culture, and art history.
Primitive, mask-like faces leer ominously from the painting. The intimation of human mortality becomes omnipresent in hollow eye sockets and bared teeth of the colorful skulls or death masks. Basquiat's obsession with anatomy is revealed in the clinical array of skeletal elements and body-part references as well as these heads, which recall the influence on Picasso of the contours of Pre-Columbian masks and African sculpture and their cultural context. Furthermore, the faces announce Basquiat's personal dealings with mortality and issues of identity as a cultural icon and artist by claiming a sense of immortality through his artistic production.
Vehicles of Basquiat's urban life populate the cityscape of this work of art with the implied sound of sirens and squealing tires; however, the scene is dominated by language. While the white areas of the canvas connote the blank areas of flat color left unarticulated by windows that mark the sides of buildings, words and phrases bring a unique depth to the work, extending the meaning beyond that of solely visual images. With an unpretentious attitude and a determination to assert his purpose, Basquiat described his affinity for this type of painting by remarking, "I like the ones where I don't paint as much as others, where it's just a direct idea" (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler, "Art: From Subways to Soho: Jean Michel Basquiat," Jean Michel Basquiat: Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh. cat., Vienna, 1999, p. 21). In Untitled, Basquiat uses words to accompany his major motifs, which chronicle autobiographical events, anatomical interests, urban references, and the spectre of mortality.
Basquiat draws further attention to his intent through the act of erasure: "I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them" (J-M. Basquiat, "Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat," an interview with Robert Farris Thompson, March, 1987, in R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992-93, p. 32). Basquiat was inspired by Cy Twombly's amalgam of drawing, scribbling, graffiti, painting, and writing as well as the bold scratching and erasing of his compositional elements. However, where Twombly strove to eliminate previous marks through overpainting, Basquiat endeavored to reassert the message obscured by his decisive scratches and blots. As he explained, "I scratch out and erase but never so much that they don't know what was there. My version of pentimento" (J. Basquiat, quoted in D. Buchhart and S. Keller (eds.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2010, p. XIII).
Through these acts of erasure, Basquiat self-consciously referenced the iconic masters of Western art using pentimento to expose his artistic process. Caught between everyday life, art historical tradition, playful myth, and modern aesthetic choices, in Untitled, the rebellious Basquiat boldly works simultaneously within art historical tradition and the innovative style that had already launched his success story as the rags-to-riches celebrity of the 1980s.
Of a more intimate scale than his grandiose panel paintings, Untitled is a precious stone amidst the treasure chest of Basquiat's oeuvre. Although never formally trained as an artist, Basquiat's natural talent as a draughtsman and his labrynthine life experiences are reified in his aesthetic language, tracing a trajectory of a time and place in society that include tensions of race, class, identity, and culture: "Basquiat's status as a famous over-acknowledged artist in the media limelight had given American art what has so long been devolved to European artists: the artiste mauditi, a sort of absolute criteria, from another world and another society that imposes a language that is so very different that it seems to be the last link of the chain" (J.L. Prat, "The 'Child King' of the Eighties," in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 2000, p. 12). Basquiat, a celebrity of both the elite art world and his own counter-culture of the New York City streets, helped discover a unique vocabulary for American art through his own form of visual communication. Untitled materializes the artist's tragically brief yet vibrantly expressive and extraordinarily significant career.

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