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

Untitled 

Details
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Untitled 
signed and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 86' (on the reverse) 
wax crayon, glue and coffee stains on paper
23 x 29 in. (58.4 x 73.7 cm.) 
Executed in 1984-1986. This work is registered with the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat under number 60710.
Provenance
Vreg Baghoomian, New York
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, St. Louis
Private collection, Houston
Anon. sale; Christie’s, New York, 11 November 2004, lot 430
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Literature
“ARTISTS’ PAGES: Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Artscribe, no. 47, July-August 1984, p. 36 (illustrated).
Sale room notice
Please note the correct date is: Executed in 1984-1986. Please note the additional literature: “ARTISTS’ PAGES: Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Artscribe, no. 47, July-August 1984, p. 36 (illustrated).

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Alex Berggruen
Alex Berggruen

Lot Essay

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, created two years before his passing, renders a kaleidoscope of imagery, highlighting his transcendent personal iconography. The surface is packed with a rich litany of skulls, eyes, crowns, animals, flags, and text–resulting in a vibrating synthesis of symbols that invite viewers to decode meaning. Executed in wax crayon (and with traces of glue and coffee stains denoting the artist’s frenetic working method), the drawing celebrates the artist’s use of line and form. Much like Basquiat’s paintings, his imagery evokes a stream of consciousness; a torrid outpouring of imagery which catapults us directly into Basquiat’s urban, gritty, and yet ultimately exhilarating New York of the 1980s.

Like his other works, Untitled, is ultimately biographical, combing African inspired imagery with street art, concealing heavy subject matter with his unique style. Basquiat’s combination of high intellect and urban art through an amalgamation of dichotomies speaks to the dualities in his life and career. He emerged from New York City’s “Punk Scene” in the 1980’s when the city’s downtown was buzzing with creative energy from intellectuals and artists. Like his contemporary Keith Haring, Basquiat was able to promote his own style through the act of downtown graffiti that transcended from street art into uptown fine art galleries. Labeled as a pioneer of the Neo-Expressionist movement with artists like David Salle and Julian Schnabel, Basquiat re-introduced figurative painting into contemporary art, rejecting the dominant movements of conceptual and minimal art in the 1970s.

Basquiat’s impetus to draw was insatiable, and Fred Hofmann remembers how the artist ignored the traditional artistic hierarchy of paper versus canvas drew on whatever surface was to hand. "In many ways, Basquiat felt most at ease when working on paper…” Hofmann said, “In contrast to the production of a painting on canvas or a mixed media assemblage, both of which a priori required Basquiat to have studio space, he could work on paper virtually anywhere, at any time. And in many ways this is precisely what occurred. Probably one of my most indelible impressions is that when he was awake he always seemed to be at work. Whether in a restaurant, car, or hotel room, he often had an oilstick or pencil in his hand, and a sheet of paper either beneath or out in front of him. Drawing could be focused on no matter where he found himself" (F. Hoffman, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawing, exh. cat., Acquavella, New York, 2014, p. 34)

Unlike his paintings, Basquiat’s drawings elicit a notion of immediacy, for he spent more time drawing than painting, both as a precursory step and as a final product. To the uninitiated, his work might look naïve and child-like, but an intense amount of thought and detail accompany the work, producing a visual collage that was his personal iconography. As a child, Basquiat was given a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, and he studied the human anatomy and form with veracity, eliciting his interest in skulls, a motif that became central to his work. In Untitled, he emphasizes eyes with eyes on skulls, floating eyes, and even the word “eyes”, possibly suggesting an all seeing eye, creating characters with an elevated spiritual guise. Those with the eyes may also suggest the persona of a West African griot, or story-teller, which referenced his own Afro-Caribbean family heritage. Also present and often most iconic in Basquiat’s work is the crown symbol, which often stands in as his artist’s signature. Together these scrawled linear characters hovering in the pictorial field reflect spontaneity that recalls the work of Cy Twombly, the collages of Robert Rauschenberg and characters that have the childlikeness of a Jean Dubuffet.

Although his career ended tragically early, Basquiat’s straightforward, unique style has held strong and has become increasingly relevant to today’s political and artistic climate. His work combines art historical and sociological references with a rawness and power that is evocative, even today. As Robert Storr explains, “Heads, often skulls, chant his words. Or rather inhale and exhale them through gritted teeth, as if sucking in the variously dense or diffuse atmosphere they create, only to cough it out again in great gusts. Eyes wide and spinning, his figures twitch and jerk like those, who, starved and gasping for oxygen get the bends or end up dizzy from hyperventilation. In these sheets as in his schematic renditions of body parts and exposed and labeled organs, Basquiat was an anatomist of sensory excess and psychic overload. There is an intrinsic ugliness to such an appetite for self-intoxication, self-revelation and self-expression. Desperation is never pretty. It can by stylish, however, and Basquiat understood this completely” (R. Storr, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, exh. cat., Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1990).
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