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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
These lots have been imported from outside the EU … Read more PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF MARCIA MAY
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
signed and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982?' (on the reverse)
felt tip, wax crayon, charcoal, ink and graphite
14 x 11in. (35.6 x 27.9cm.)
Executed in 1982
Collection of Marcia May, Dallas (acquired directly from the artist).
Thence by descent to the present owner.
Dallas, Pollock Gallery, Southern Methodist University, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works from the May Collection, 2003.
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Katharine Arnold
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Lot Essay

‘He constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake.” The figure is electronic-primitive- comic’

Executed at the height of his powers, Untitled (1982) is a bold and vivid drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The skull-like visage hovers on blank paper, features set in a tragicomic grimace. Behind its epic visual punch lies an intricate construction. From a cranium scrawled in thick black pastel emerge bristling crimson lines that could be hair, a halo, or a crown of thorns. Square sockets surround squinting square eyes, their pupils shining with spider-thin rays. A frenetic linear network can be seen inside the skull, like a brain buzzing with activity. Where the nose might be, a box-like aperture reveals a toothy grid. Below, rows of tombstone teeth and jaw outlined in black, carmine and fluorescent pink are doubled, tripled, shattered and shuttered, becoming cruciform glyphs as form disbands into line. The face, as dual subject of physiognomy and psychology – of appearances and what lives beneath – was a central subject for Basquiat. Through his distinctly anatomical gaze (first sparked by a copy of Gray’s Anatomy and a 1966 book of da Vinci’s drawings that he read while hospitalised as a child), Untitled not only presents an intense mask-like apparition, but also reveals the interior realms of the mind and pulsing vital functions. This X-ray approach strikes a keynote for Basquiat’s practice at large, which exposed the soul of contemporary American life through its layered, kaleidoscopic and polyvocal staging of word and image. In a wry nod to his emergent status as superstar, Untitled also bears the inscription ‘DVSLLE.’ Upon her acquiring the work in 1983, collector Marcia May observed that the work was unsigned: Basquiat responded that he knew how much she liked the artist David Salle (a key member of the figurative painterly vanguard of 1980s New York, whose vibrant tableaux of juxtaposed visuals share some ideas with Basquiat’s own), and signed the work accordingly.

In 1982, the twenty-two year old Basquiat completed his transition from street graffitist to undisputed king of the New York art scene. He moved out of his dealer Annina Nosei’s basement studio to work in a liberating seven-storey loft space on Crosby Street. He cemented his position in the international art world with solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, which were followed by an invitation to Documenta 7, where he was the youngest artist within a line-up of contemporary masters including Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. Amid this rising fame, he created what Fred Hoffman calls ‘an outpouring of unique and haunting images of heads in the first months of 1982. Most of these works were relatively small in scale … With a few exceptions, each work presents a fully frontal head seeming to float against the white background of the paper. While the works share the physiognomy of overly large, almost bulging eyes as well as an enlarged, wide-open, teeth-bearing mouth, each image is distinct, presenting a completely different and individualised personage’ (f. Hoffman, ‘Heads,’ in Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schott Family Collection, exh. cat. Acquavella Galleries, New York 2014, p. 71). Untitled clearly takes its place within this important body of work. In its superimposed vision of inner and outer life, it also relates to the face of Untitled (1981), an iconic large-scale painting now held in the Broad Collection. Framed with the linear precision of scientific drawing, this work’s cavernous cranium jostles calligraphic sweeps of colour, primitivist mark-making, Cubist perspectival play and crackling lines of energy: Basquiat’s virtuoso channelling of disparate styles seems to figure the feverish workings of his own mind, and indeed embodies the physical vitality of his technique. As Diego Cortez puts it, Basquiat ‘constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake.” The figure is electronic-primitive-comic’ (D. Cortez, quoted in R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 1, Paris 2000, p. 160). Wired with luminous pink, Untitled manifests just such a direct presence, creating a captivating portrait of a state of being.

It is tempting to search for elements of self-image in all of Basquiat’s skulls and faces. The skeletal grin and structural breakdown of Untitled offer an all-too-easy reading of the young artist haunted by the spectre of early death. More complex than mere vanitas motifs, however, these heads are perhaps better viewed as a pictorial investigation into individuated mental or spiritual states, and as part of Basquiat’s wider uncovering of the disjunctions, links, boundaries and echoes between outer appearances and what might be concealed within. As Jeffrey Hoffeld observes, ‘Basquiat’s repeated use of anatomical imagery – skeletons, musculature, and internal organs – coincides with an ever more widespread tendency in his work to turn things inside out. Inner thoughts are made public in graffiti-like litanies of words and other bursts of expression; distinctions between private spaces and public places are dissolved; past and present are interwoven, and levels of reality are multiplied and scrambled; the imagined realms of paradise, hell and purgatory become indistinguishable’ (J. Hoffeld, ‘Basquiat and the inner self’, in Jean Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier (Paintings and works on paper), exh. cat. Museum Würth, Künzelsau 2001, p. 27). The eyes and mouth – respectively the windows to the soul, and the exit point for words and thoughts – are typically oversized in the present work, opening up the face’s expressive potential to fever pitch. As if dissected for a medical textbook, we glimpse inner mechanisms aglow beneath the heavy strokes of black. Basquiat’s work is as alive with the rage and grit of graffiti as it is busy with the illustrative fervour of a laboratory blackboard. With striking economy, Untitled captures the practice of an artist who plumbed vast reservoirs of imagery, energy and voice to charge his every line with the electric life of the mind.

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