Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
oilstick on paperboard
60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm.)
Drawn in 1982.
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Private collection, Tokyo
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 18 November 1997, lot 437
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, November 1990, p. 7 (illustrated in color).
New York, Stellan Holm Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Large Drawings, November-December 2009.
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

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

The feverish torrent of energy that is unleashed by Basquiat’s Untitled, with its signature rapid-fire strokes and frenetic oilstick markings, reveals an artist poised on the brink of greatness. Arms raised, eyes wide, teeth bared and ready to take on the world, this heroic figure is the full-scale embodiment of every saint, hero and martyr in Basquiat’s short but remarkable oeuvre—an iconic emblem of his greatest ambitions and deepest fears. This monumental, full-bodied presentation belongs to an elite group of large-scale master drawings and typifies Basquiat’s self-portrayal from the key year of 1982. Having been featured in the 1990 survey of his drawings at the Robert Miller Gallery, Untitled was recognized early on for its significance. This important depiction bears witness to Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame, as he attempts to grapple with the success of his new-found celebrity status.

In Untitled, Basquiat depicts many of his most iconic personal motifs. The crown of thorns is featured directly above the figure’s head, encircled in alternating bands of dark blue, red and light blue. Further up the paper sheet, a separate crown of thorns contains the letter “R” repeated three times (“R” represents “registered trademark” and is related to Basquiat’s oft-repeated “©” copyright symbol). His presentation of the figure displays a pictorial sophistication that rivals his best paintings. Its hulking mass is centered on the sheet, rendered in two viewpoints simultaneously, while its flesh alternates between light-blue, pale-pink and blood-red with the underlying skeletal framework drawn in black oilstick. Merging formal aspects of Egyptian hieroglyphics with the anatomical drawings of Grey’s Anatomy and the raw graffiti-style for which he is known, this work bears witness to Basquiat’s celebrated skills as a draftsman. He lavishes considerable attention to the figure’s menacing face, whose skull-like features protrude from the sheet with a visceral alertness. Its wide eyes, bared teeth and demonic appearance make it a force to be reckoned with.

By 1982, Basquiat had become an overnight critical success. A year earlier in 1981 he was sleeping on friends’ couches and painting on discarded windows and doors, but by the end of 1982 he worked feverishly to prepare for upcoming exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles and Europe. In a spacious loft on Crosby Street in SoHo, Basquiat created some of the best work of his career. He said ‘’I had some money; I made the best paintings ever. … I was completely reclusive, worked a lot...’’ (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in R. Marshall, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 241).

Basquiat’s swift ascent left him searching for models with which to measure his own success, and he naturally looked to other legendary black men whose talent thrust them into the limelight. The pantheon he created, including Jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis as well as athletes like Sugar Ray, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, showcases his momentous attempt to grapple with his newfound fame. As a black artist in a predominantly white art world—not to mention his youth and inexperience—Basquiat lacked mentors to guide him, so he painted them in his work and inserted himself along the way. As the curator Gianni Mercurio writes, “His need for the recognition he never felt he had in his private or family life was a sort of spur that fueled his creativity during his time...” (G. Mercurio, “The Moon King,” The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, Milan, 2006, p. 19). Saints, martyrs, kings, heroes, gods—the many masks that Basquiat adopted allowed him to circumvent the pressures of his newfound fame and establish his own mythology.

Basquiat’s best work often conflates a wide array of sources that results from the artist’s prodigious knowledge of esoteric topics that ranged from Haitian voodoo to Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings to jazz and bebop. Although it appears straightforward, Untitled conflates several possible themes. A close inspection reveals several key alterations made to Untitled during its execution. An underlayer of light-blue indicates an earlier figure whose face has been obliterated by a thickly-brushed red “x.” This figure stands with one arm raised, its head encircled by a crown of thorns and its outstretched hand displaying a torch-like element. Centered on the white sheet, the blue figure emerges from a rectangular platform simply drawn in black oilstick, which is surrounded by a series of undulating marks—the pictorial shorthand for water. Taken in this light, it is plausible that Basquiat attempted to depict the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, but then decided—as he frequently did in 1982—to render his own self-image instead. Basquiat adds a new skull-like face, and thick, hulking limbs, raised arms and hands that grasp two box-like forms that read alternately as boxing gloves, basketballs, stereo speakers or blazing guns. He adds a new crown of thorns and draws two halo-like forms beneath the figure’s feet—which may allude to Christ’s walking on water.

Like most of the work Basquiat produced during this crucial period, Untitled can be interpreted as a self-portrait in which Basquiat places himself at the very heart of the life that he most desperately craved yet struggled to maintain. The figure’s body, with its hulking, outsized limbs and monstrous, skull-like features present an artist whose literally standing up against the forces that try to bring him down. Arms raised, teeth bared, Basquiat depicts a guns-blazing outlaw, a powerful black warrior, and an angry, defiant god. Like the great black heroes he identified with, this one won’t go down without a fight.

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