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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
On occasion, Christie’s has a direct financial int… Read more PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF ADAM CLAYTON
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Untitled

Details
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Untitled
oilstick on paper
42 5/8 x 30in. (108.3 x 76.2cm.)
Executed in 1982
Provenance
Robert Miller Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1990.
Exhibited
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, 1990, no. 13 (illustrated in colour, p. 15; detail illustrated in colour on the front cover).
Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art Devil on the Stairs: Looking Back on the Eighties, 1991-1992, p. 64. This exhibition later travelled to Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum.
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Katharine Arnold
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Lot Essay

‘At the time people were talking about Jean-Michel as being the Jimi Hendrix of painting and I think it’s true – he was an African American artist in a sea of white artists but doing something very different and extremely his own’—ADAM CLAYTON

‘The idea that these young painters without any gallery experience could make their mark on the streets of New York – could go to the hippest night clubs, could mix with musical culture – was very exciting to me. It was where I came from – I always thought music and art went hand in hand together’ —ADAM CLAYTON

‘A man will rise
A man will fall
From the sheer face of love
Like a fly from a wall
It’s no secret at all’
—U2, LYRICS FROM THE FLY, 1991

‘This work stood out because it had a very tragic image – it’s clearly an unobscured self-portrait, with what looks like a tear drop coming from the eye. It seems to me it’s not just about Jean-Michel – it’s about being African American’—ADAM CLAYTON

‘It’s one of the very few genuinely stark images that he ever produced of himself without adding anything else to it. It’s an incredibly disciplined drawing but that’s what makes it so powerful...’ —ADAM CLAYTON


Held for over twenty-five years in the collection of U2 bassist Adam Clayton, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled of 1982 is a deeply poignant self-portrait, offering a rare insight into the artist’s psyche at a pivotal moment in his career. Rendered on an exceptional scale, the work bears all the hallmarks of the raw graphic language that, during this period, propelled Basquiat from anonymous graffiti artist to international superstar. Against a backdrop of painterly smears and traces – residue from his frenzied studio environment – a single figure looms large. Channelling influences ranging from Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci to comic books and cave paintings, the artist performs a rigorous anatomical dissection, wielding his oilstick with the intuitive immediacy of a master draughtsman. In contrast to the heroism of his self-portrait paintings from this period, here Basquiat casts himself as a victim of his new status: an itinerant street artist raised to meteoric heights in an unfamiliar world. A tear drops from his eye; his arms seem to pierce his body like an arrow. No longer athlete, king or prophet, here Basquiat depicts himself as a martyr: a Saint Sebastian-like figure for the contemporary age. Untitled featured on the front cover of the catalogue for the exhibition Basquiat Drawings, held in 1990 at The Robert Miller Gallery in New York. It was here, whilst living in the city, that Clayton came to acquire the work, along with another large-scale painting which subsequently hung in the band’s studio. ‘[The works on paper] were generally very complex, with lots of lines and activity’, he recalls. ‘This work stood out because it had a very tragic image … It seems to me it’s not just about Jean-Michel – it’s about being African-American’.

The story of Basquiat’s rise to fame is now legendary. In 1981, his inclusion in Diego Cortez’s New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 first brought him to the attention of international dealers. By December, critics were already historicising his work in relation to the post-War canon: ‘if Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption’, suggested René Ricard, ‘it would be Jean-Michel’ (R. Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, Volume XX, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43). In 1982, the success of his debut show at Annina Nosei’s New York gallery led to a string of major solo exhibitions worldwide. His rapidly-advancing global reputation resulted in a prestigious invitation to Documenta 7 in West Germany, where he was the youngest exhibited artist in a line-up of established veterans including Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys. During this heady period, self-portraiture became an important means of expression for Basquiat. Where previous attempts had wittily incorporated his own hair and even – on one occasion – his own blood, the self-portraits of the early 1980s explored his growing status as an icon. The crown became a regular feature of his practice, frequently adorning messianic figures with strong, powerful stances. On other occasions, Basquiat placed himself in direct dialogue with his own idols: from Sugar Ray Robinson and Jesse Owens, to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. In the present work, all traces of bravado are stripped away, replaced with an image of isolation, fragility and pathos. ‘It’s one of the very few genuinely stark images that he ever produced of himself without adding anything else to it’, observes Clayton. ‘It’s an incredibly disciplined drawing but that’s
what makes it so powerful … In some ways, [it] is an antidote to all the noise surrounding his work and all the attention it’s had over the years. It brings you back to the artist and his difficulty of fitting into that world’.

When Clayton arrived in New York, less than two years after Basquiat’s death, the buzz surrounding the artist’s work was still very much alive. U2, by this point, were enjoying great success globally, and were exploring a new electronic sound world that would come to fruition in their celebrated album Achtung Baby (1991). ‘I had some time off and had moved to New York to spend time in the art world meeting gallerists and artists’, he recalls; ‘…there was a lot of energy around [Basquiat’s] work’. For Clayton, it was in the works on paper that he came to identify a ‘direct connection’ with the artist. ‘You can imagine him with an oilstick or a piece of charcoal working on a piece of paper over a couple of hours – you can see that concentration’, he explains. Since childhood, drawing had been Basquiat’s most vivid means of expression: from the hours he spent poring over his copy of Gray’s Anatomy, to the notebooks he filled with his ideas. As Fred Hoffman explains, ‘He discovered that he could shut out the myriad stimuli constantly bombarding him from the outside world; and at the same time, he could enable impressions, thoughts, memories, associations, fantasies, and observations formulating in his mind to simply pass through him, making their way onto a sheet of paper. From a very early age, Basquiat discovered that drawing was a process of “channelling” in which he essentially functioned as a medium’ (F. Hoffman, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 33). In Untitled, the artist’s innate graphic impulse is brought to bear on an image of quiet personal resonance: an expression of vulnerability at the dawn of his own urban legend.

***

ADAM CLAYTON in conversation with Francis Outred
London, January 2017

Francis Outred: When did you first become interested in Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Adam Clayton: I first started to seriously learn about him in 1990 – I had some time off and had moved to New York to spend time in the art world meeting gallerists and artists. It was just after his death, and there was a lot of energy around his work. He had been quite a character in New York – he would turn up to places in his Comme des Garçons suit splattered with paint and was very much part of the underground night club scene. He was around the same age as the musicians I was interested in, and around the same age as us, maybe by about five years at that time. There was a group of them – there was Basquiat, there was Keith Haring, and obviously Warhol was the granddaddy of the whole movement. The idea that these young painters without any gallery experience could make their mark on the streets of New York – could go to the hippest night clubs, could mix with musical culture – was very exciting to me. It was where I came from – I always thought music and art went hand in hand together.

FO: Can you recall your first encounter with this particular work?

AC: I was on 57th street in the Robert Miller Gallery – they had just taken over Basquiat’s estate and were looking through the inventory. I definitely responded to the kind of work I would call ‘biological’, where there was a lot of archaeology in the skeleton and the bones. I had already selected a large painting that I thought would be a really great piece to share with the band and have in our studio, and we started to look through the works on paper. They were generally very complex, with lots of lines and activity, and this work stood out because it had a very tragic image – it’s clearly an unobscured self-portrait, with what looks like a tear drop coming from the eye. It seems to me it’s not just about Jean-Michel – it’s about being African American.

FO: The scale of the work, and the fact it’s been walked over and lived with for such a long time in Basquiat’s studio, makes it very special. I’m interested that you hung a painting in your studio – did you and the band members share a passion for Basquiat?

AC: The interesting thing is that in New York and in musical culture there was this shift happening towards much more dance orientated music. It was the very early days of rap and hip hop which was a very exciting time because it had a real energy, and it also indicated – finally – that the African American voice within music had a really strong identity of its own. At the time people were talking about Jean-Michel as being the Jimi Hendrix of painting and I think it’s true – he was an African American artist in a sea of white artists but doing something very different and extremely his own.

FO: Obviously your music transformed a lot at this time – Achtung Baby was really a big breakthrough and quite a transition from Joshua Tree.

AC: With Joshua Tree we were looking a lot of US music and trying to reinvent the form and at the same time tackling the darker side of what was going on in America. With Achtung Baby, which came a couple of years after, we were looking at a different sound and the technology at that point meant you could add more computer sounds, you could sample sounds and generate them. These were all sounds that were happening within club culture, so it felt like we were all working off the same palette.

FO: Do you think that living in New York changed your perception of Basquiat’s work?

AC: It was a great time to be in New York as a creative in your mid-20s because everything was possible at that point. There were underground clubs, the gallery system didn’t exist downtown in the way that it does now, and if you were an artist you were pretty much free. There wasn’t a system that you had to be on in order to have access to collectors, and I think that was very much part of Jean-Michel. It’s also part of young artists – they don’t want to work the system as much they actually just want to make the work. It was the very early days of what the art world was about to become.

FO: When I look at this work, the arms remind me of arrows going into the body – it’s almost as if he’s portraying himself as a victim of the society he had grown up in. This is a portrait of Basquiat having just exploded onto the art scene in 1982, and possibly feeling the repercussions of this new world. Did you as musicians, who had a similar kind of growth, find that kind of exposure troubling, or were you more prepared for it?

AC: I think whether you’re prepared or not you understand that the idea is to get your work to the greatest number of people possible because you want to share it. I think the art world works a bit differently in that you want to get it to an influential number of people and you want to get it into museums, so you have a different relationship with it – I think that’s where the two goals separate. I think you’re right about the arrows in this work – it’s one of the very few genuinely stark images that he ever produced of himself without adding anything else to it. It’s an incredibly disciplined drawing but that’s what makes it so powerful. He represents himself with the crown in a lot of his works but this picture has a pathos and, in some ways, is an antidote to all the noise surrounding his work and all the attention it’s had over the years. It brings you back to the artist and his difficulty of fitting into that world.

FO: It’s true – a lot of his portrayals of himself are very confident with his arms raised, powerful and athletic, and here you have the direct opposite: a fragile figure who’s coming to terms with a new kind of normality for himself. How do you see the relationship between Basquiat’s paintings and drawings?

AC: I think the drawings were where he worked out ideas – a lot of images migrate towards the paintings, but I think the drawings are a direct connection with him. You can imagine him with an oilstick or a piece of charcoal working on a piece of paper over a couple of hours – you can see that concentration.

FO: This was a time of great success in your career – how does this work fit into that story?

AC: My antidote to being on the road or in the recording studio has always been the opportunity to get out and see artworks. It’s a much more meditative environment for me so when I see works that really speak to me I like to acquire them if I can. By bringing them into my home, they become something I have a direct relationship with them – I went and saw them, I went and bought them, I brought them into my space, and they keep on giving. It becomes a cyclical relationship and that was very much true of this particular drawing. Being in New York was certainly the beginning of my ability to understand and follow contemporary art, and I’ve continued to build on that.



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