Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Estate of Helen G. Turner
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
oilstick on paper
42½ x 30¼ in. (107.9 x 76.8 cm.)
Executed in 1983.
Wolff Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1989
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Sandra Sublett
Sandra Sublett

Lot Essay

Please note this work is accompanied by a certificate issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

With his signature quick-fire execution, Jean-Michel Basquiat assembles a dramatic series of lines, marks and gestures to produce this energetic self-portrait. The artist often worked at great speed, disgorging his thoughts onto the graphic surface with great force and vigor. In Untitled, he effortlessly shifts between passages of exacting detail--painstakingly worked to conjure up the features he desires--to more inscrutable zones where only the slightest of references are made to actual objects, the rest being left for the viewer to decipher. This rapidity is also evident in the unworked sections of the sheet, which includes traces of an imprint of Basquiat's sneaker as well as being filled with the vestige of the artist's oilstick that trails in the wake of his swiftly moving hand. Executed in 1983 at the height of the artist's career, this work still bears witness to Basquiat's humble origins as the street artist SAMO, yet it also displays the sophistication that, by this stage in his short but meteoric career, had already made him the undisputed star of the New York art world.

The human head was one of Basquiat's favorite subjects and he always painted them with relish and alacrity. From his incredibly detailed facial renderings in Dustheads, 1982, (which Basquiat built up from numerous layers of frenetically applied paint) to the extraordinary Untitled (Head of Madman), executed the year before the present work, the head was probably the one motif upon which Basquiat lavished the most attention. Untitled is distinguished by the two hypnotic red eyes that stare out manically from the surface of the work. Basquiat fashions these glowing discs out of generous swirls of red oilstick, each rendered differently. The left one is a deep, almost bloodshot, red highlighted with accents of white. The right eye is darker-hollowed looking-with the large black iris acting almost as a gateway into the dark soul within.

The remaining elements of the face are made up from a tumultuous array of quick, successive daubs of Basquiat's oilstick. Strong black lines delineate the head's dramatic profile, which the artist then enhances with passages of brown and blue pigment in an idiosyncratic form of chiaroscuro. The rest is built up from a series of almost expressionistic marks that the artist lays out across the surface. Together, these choreographed scripts produce the other features of the face; hair, ears, even the deep furrows of the forehead, all of which flow from the rapid movements of his energetic hand.

Basquiat's compositional talent has long been admired, but one of his often overlooked skills was his ability as a colorist. The artist deeply admired Jackson Pollock's chromatic masterpiece Guardians of the Secret, 1943 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), in particular the way that Pollock used passages of color to conjure up figurative imagery. Just as Untitled is carefully constructed in compositional terms, the artist's use of color as part of that structure is also important, as curator Marc Mayer notes, "With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he used unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda. ...Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room" (M. Mayer, "Basquiat in History," Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 46.).

Untitled carries evidence of the dynamic energy that helped propel Basquiat from the street kid who survived by sleeping on the floors of friends' apartments to the enfant terrible of the 1980s New York art scene. This period is considered to be the epoch of the artist's career, still displaying the sense of raw energy that first catapulted him to fame whilst matching that with a unique sense of composition to produce this complex figure with the simplest of means. Basquiat, engrossed in the vibrancy of 1980s New York, infused his drawings and paintings with the multiplicity of sounds, sights, and energy of New York street scene together with his own reverence for the rich art historical tradition he found plastered to the museum walls that he visited weekly. Upon his meteoric rise to art world stardom in 1982, Basquiat sought to continue the debate about the nature of painting begun by the great twentieth century masters such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. A skilled draughtsman, Basquiat's contribution was realized through the graffiti-like scrawls translated from his most revered technique-drawing. "Drawing, for him, was something you did rather than something done," Robert Storr once noted, "an activity rather than a medium" (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyler, Basel, 2010, p. 10).

Basquiat had long admired other master draughtsman, particularly the intellectual scope and visual intensity of Leonardo da Vinci and the poetic nature of Cy Twombly's work. Basquiat often "quoted" da Vinci's work in his own paintings; for example, the anatomical proliferations contained within Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits, painted in 1982, the year before the present lot. The lyricism of Cy Twombly was also a big influence on a young Basquiat. From the older artist, Basquiat gained permission to "draw in the raw"--to feel capable of producing work imbued with a uniqueness and intensity that has since become one of the leading factors in Basquiat's unique form of artistic expression.

Conscious of his identity as the most successful black artist within the white-dominated history of art, though not overtly political in his aspirations, he often introduced the image of the black protagonist into his work. Sometimes it took the form of conferring his respect and admiration on a repertoire of black figures that included Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, Charles Parker, Hank Aaron, Mohammed Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. But more often than not, the subject of his paintings was himself. Here, his loosely articulated, graffiti inspired work becomes a vehicle for autobiography. 1983 was a breakthrough period for Basquiat, as the previous year had seen the artist's first solo exhibition at Anina Nosei in New York, which sparked solo exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles and Bischofberger in Zurich. Suddenly possessing the stardom and acclaim he had always sought, Basquiat became the anointed king of the art world and his art came to possess a certain visionary relevance.

Fraught with immediate tension and emotion, Basquiat's meteoric rise as the first black artist to achieve celebrity status, was not dissimilar to the sense of anguish that was often released in his powerful drawings. Dubbed "the van Gogh of the streets," he was never credited for the sophisticated understanding he possessed of the annals of art. Sparely articulated and seemingly transparent, evoking medical X-rays, the very portrayal of the figure in Untitled centralizes the issue; suggesting Basquiat's own fate as the superficially understood mascot of the art world. Caustically reappropriating Modernism's influence of African art, his deliberately crude and faux-naïve rendering of the figure evokes the image of the noble savage for which Basquiat was widely regarded by his contemporaries.

Throughout his all-too-brief life, Basquiat was a prodigious artist who took every opportunity to paint, draw or daub on almost every surface that he could. But it is with works such as Untitled that we see his true spirit shine through in his distinctive combination of sophisticated composition whilst still retaining the energetic verve that characterizes his unique form of artistic expression. Writing in Art in America in 1980, Jeffrey Deitch commented that Basquiat represented "a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway paint scribbles, and he truly did have a knack for merging his traditional, art historical knowledge with contemporary and street art" (J. Deitch, quoted by L. Emmerling, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1960-1988, London, 2006, p. 16). While Basquiat was a knowledgeable student of art history, he stands apart from the regular movements of art historical discourse by avoiding being derivative and instead searching for his own, unique voice. Here, this energetic depiction of himself can be seen in his distinctive mixture of organized chaos, precise spontaneity and playful sincerity.

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