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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Figures of a King: Property from an Important Japanese Collection


signed, inscribed and dated '82 NYC Jean Michel' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oilstick on paper
29 7/8 x 22 in. (75.9 x 56 cm.)
Executed in 1982. This work is registered in the archives of Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, as no. PC-B182.
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Akira Ikeda Gallery, Nagoya, 1985
Private collection, Kobe, 1989
Fuji Television Gallery, Tokyo
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2003
Sale Room Notice
Please note this work is registered in the archives of Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, as no. PC-B182.

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Lot essay

If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there [and] from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet. Except the politics of Dubuffet needed a lecture to show, needed a separate text, whereas in Jean-Michel they are integrated by the picture’s necessity.”

Rene Ricard, The Radiant Child, 1981

Emerging through a smoky gray miasma, the head of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled looms into view, its fierce grin piercing the darkness. Painted in 1982, at the peak of the artist’s meteoric rise to art-world supremacy, the painting clearly demonstrates Basquiat’s unique graphic ability, which resulted in thrilling and dynamic works that exude a visceral power with every gesture. Basquiat’s ‘heads’ are among the artist’s most celebrated works; part self-portrait, part homage to the artist’s pantheon of personal heroes, they are among Basquiat’s most intimate incarnations. Originally sold by Basquiat's preeminent supporter and dealer in New York, Annina Nosei, to Akira Ikeda Gallery in Nagoya, Untitled, which has been in the same private hands for almost two decades, is a remarkable example of this distinguished body of work. From the collection, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Figures of a King: Property from an Important Japanese Collection, this work is one of three examples of distinguished works on paper on offer.

Defined by a single stroke of the artist’s brush, the profile of the figure in Untitled sits boldly against a field of gun-metal gray. While his silhouette might be simple, the rest of his facial features are made up of a complex array of layered gestures. Ruddy cheeks are defined by fields of striking red paint, upon which Basquiat defines the contours of the face with black oilstick. High cheekbones, a prominent ear and strong jawline are all created by the swift movement of the artist’s hand. Particular attention is paid to the wide grin, flayed nostrils and the deep pools of the figure’s black eyes. Below the face, hints of the figure’s body are glimpsed through the swaths of muted tones. Fleeting glimpses of what appear to be the fingers of a clenched hand can be seen through the gray clouds, together with sneaked glances of the yellow and the pale blue-green shirt worn by the mysterious figure.

Basquiat worked at tremendous speed, constantly adapting—working and reworking—the surface of his paintings until he was satisfied with the result. In Untitled, evidence of this process can be seen all over the surface of the work. From the rapid broad brushstrokes that make up the fields of gray to the splashes of blue paint in the upper left quadrant, these enigmatic areas become vivid reminders of the artist’s constantly shifting imagination as he constructs his visual narratives. In addition to the deliberate marks Basquiat made, evidence of his feverish working style can also be seen in the array of incidental marks that are scattered throughout the work. Drips and daubs of paint, smudges and sometimes even scuff marks from the soles of his shoes often adorn the surface, showing the artist’s dynamic creative process.

Conscious of his identity as the most successful Black artist within the white-dominated history of art, though not overtly political in his aspirations, Basquiat introduced the image of the black protagonist, who is often adorned with a halo that imparts his figures with a sense of superiority and religious aura, into his often self-referential drawings and paintings. Identifying with the personal struggles and inner demons of his pantheon of heroes, Basquiat conferred respect and admiration to his repertoire of Black figures that included Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie and Charles Parker, as well as African gods, Mohammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. As such, his loosely articulated, graffiti inspired works on paper became a vehicle for melding autobiography with reference to popular culture and Black history. A breakthrough year for Basquiat, congruent to the execution of the present work, 1982hosted the artist’s first solo exhibition at Annina Nosei in New York, which later sparked solo exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles and Bischofberger in Zürich. Suddenly possessing the stardom and acclaim he had always sought, Basquiat became the anointed king of the art world, and his art came to possess a certain visionary relevance. Reminiscent of the self-portraits by predecessors, including Vincent van Gogh, Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele, Untitled pulsates with life and goes beyond representation to express subjectivity.

It was a far cry from the origins of Basquiat’s artistic career in 1981, where—as a graffiti artist—he called the streets home. His now infamous tag, SAMO, made the artist notorious amongst a new generation who represented an “anti-golden age” sentiment that proliferated the art, music and literary community in a city left to ruin as a result of middle class “white flight” to the suburbs. From the trash and grime of the street emerged a new aesthetic that incorporated the harsh realities of a young and destitute population.

It is in this vein that Basquiat oscillates between the streets and the gallery in this unique composition that remains true to his graffiti roots in its simplified color palette and its stylistic impulsiveness. A proxy to the traditional and historic nature of canvas, Untitled seems hastily composed, as if the artist was moving quickly to complete the work on a wall before being caught by the police. The work possesses the urgency of the street combined with the primitive or childlike aesthetic characteristic of Jean Dubuffet’s art brut. In a similar way to which these artists strived to create art that was free from culturally constructed aesthetics and traditional artistic conventions, Basquiat’s position as an artiste maudit, or one living outside of accepted society, set him apart from other artist of his time. Free from the confines of traditional artistic production, he rebelled against the established and mainstream art world, and, in doing so, he himself became the poster child for an entire generation of artists who positioned themselves against the status quo.

Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).

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