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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
acrylic, oil, oilstick, ink, wax crayon and paper collage on metal
36 x 41 ½in. (91.4 x 105.4cm.)
Executed in 1980-1981
Diego Cortez, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1982.
Galerie Enrico Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, Vol. II, p. 55, no. 7 (illustrated in colour, p. 54).
Galerie Enrico Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, Vol. II, p. 81, no. 7 (illustrated in colour, p. 80).

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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘His hand was swift and sure. The images that trailed behind it crackled and exploded like fireworks shot from the back of a speeding flatbed truck’
–Robert Storr

Painted in 1980-1981, Untitled is an exhilarating work by Jean-Michel Basquiat that captures the artist’s visual, verbal and material genius at his pivotal moment of transition from cult graffitist to global superstar. The work, which has been in the same collection for over thirty-five years, was first owned by Diego Cortez: curator of the groundbreaking ‘New York/New Wave’ exhibition at P.S.1 in February 1981 which launched Basquiat, then just twenty years old, to widespread acclaim. Painted on a square panel of scavenged metal and collaged with fragments of paper torn from his notebook, it exemplifies the streetwise ingenuity that caught Cortez’s eye. The background is painted gold, giving the salvaged support an aspect of Byzantine icon; a broad swathe of black consumes the centre, and a jagged section of pale blue covers the right. Explosive accents of red ignite the surface. The work displays some of the most important elements of Basquiat’s symbolic vocabulary. His iconic crown glyph sits dead centre, adjoined by another signature motif, the baseball, and a schematic human face. An outlined house to the left contains the letter ‘S’, an allusion to his previous graffiti identity as SAMO©. More mysterious signs are scattered throughout, including the enigmatic name or invented word ‘ASPURIA’, which appears in other works of this era, and a lozenge containing what appears to be the number 6. The sheets of paper, pasted to the surface like urban advertisements, contain further resonant symbols: a second crown; numerous cars and spoked wheels, which echo the logo of a spare tyre store on Fourth Avenue; a list of mercantile produce (‘CORN, OIL, STEEL, HOGS’); and the name ‘AARON’, paying homage to the baseball player Hank Aaron, who may be depicted in the head to the lower left. This dizzying synthesis of text, picture and sign is typical of Basquiat’s work, which draws on a vast range of visual and literary sources, overlaying and remixing myriad registers of image and voice. Untitled’s raw, layered materiality further speaks of his historic shift from downtown streets to gallery walls – a story in which Diego Cortez played a crucial role.

‘New York/New Wave’ was perhaps the most important exhibition of 1980s New York. Aiming to seriously examine the crossover between music and visual art in New Wave culture with a focus on punk and graffiti-associated visuals, Cortez featured 119 artists including Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring. Basquiat’s erstwhile alter-ego SAMO© showed a work on metal in a room with other graffiti artists; confident in the then largely unknown young artist’s talent, Cortez also gave Basquiat his own wall for new works signed with his own name. The influential critic and curator Henry Geldzahler, who shared an apartment with Cortez, recalls being blown away by Basquiat’s display. ‘I bought a painting on the spot … I could see how incredibly sophisticated the work was and how young the kid was. I overpaid: I gave him $2,000 for a collage on a door to show him he could trust the world a bit’ (H. Geldzahler, quoted in P. Hoban, ‘Samo is Dead,’ New York Magazine, 26 September 1988, p. 40). Gallery representation and the interest of other major dealers swiftly followed, and Basquiat’s road to glory had begun.

The artist’s biographer Eric Fretz writes that ‘The wall given to Jean-Michel was covered with drawings on paper, paintings on canvas, spray paint on foam rubber, works on wood, and other materials. Jean-Michel had by now developed his own iconography; his simple images of crowns, heads, airplanes, tepees, cars, and car crashes populated several works, along with his familiar lettering’ (E. Fretz, Jean-Michel Basquiat: An Autobiography, California 2010, p. 68). While Untitled was not on display in ‘New York/New Wave’, its chromatic vigour and vivid use of metal, paper, paint and pen situate it directly amid this seminal outburst of creativity. As Cortez himself has written, Basquiat ‘constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake”’ (D. Cortez, quoted in R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 1, Paris 2000, p. 160). The iconic drive, nervy scrawl and near-Abstract Expressionist brushwork of Untitled clearly appealed to Cortez as exemplary of the young artist’s astonishing power.

Untitled’s visionary use of found materials and mythic evocation of Hank Aaron also set out themes that would be developed throughout the year of 1981, during which Basquiat matured into a fully-fledged king of the art world. Among Basquiat’s pantheon of black heroes, which included other baseball players, boxers such as Joe Louis and jazz artists like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, Hank Aaron stands out as one of the most frequent cast members: his name is also echoed in the streams of iterated ‘A’s that sing throughout Basquiat’s early oeuvre. In elevating African- American athletes and musicians to royal or saintly status with his crown, Basquiat also frequently applied these associations to himself, conjuring a compound identity of majestic black personas. While his vibrant rehearsals of his heroes’ identities enabled him to celebrate them as champions, conquerors and kings, they also let him evoke the complexities of racial history in the United States. Intricate, intertwined strata of personal and cultural pasts are embedded in the pictograms, hieroglyphs and physical layers of his art. An icon of Basquiat’s own story, Untitled has a talismanic power. It resounds with the depth of his engagement with the world around him, and is alive with the unparalleled creative energy that would fuel his meteoric rise and fall as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

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