signed with the artist’s initials ‘JMB ©’ (on the reverse of the sheet)
acrylic, oilstick and wax crayon on paper laid down on canvas
25 1⁄2 x 19 3⁄4 in. (64.8 x 50.2 cm.)
Executed in 1981. This work is accompanied by a photo certificate and a certificate issued by the Authentication Committee for the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Galerie 1900-2000, Paris
Judith and Abraham Amar Foundation for Art, Geneva
Private collection, Verona
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2008
E. Navarra, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat Appendix, Paris, 2010, pp. 6 and 7, no. 5 (illustrated).
Paris, Muse´e-Galerie de la Seita, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Painting, Drawing, Writing, December 1993-February 1994, p. 33 (illustrated).
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny-Muse´e Maillol, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Work of a Lifetime, June-October 2003, p. 42 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Jean Michel-Basquiat’s Untitled from 1981 vividly exemplifies the artist’s crude yet sophisticated style. 1981 was a momentous year for the preternaturally-talented young artist: René Ricard published The Radiant Child, the piece of writing that arguably launched Basquiat to gallery superstardom, and Basquiat also took part in the seminal New York/New Wave exhibition at MoMA PS1. Simultaneously brooding and playful, Untitled’s half-drawn, half-painted surface confronts the viewer with an explosion of bright yellow-orange which is then balanced out by an encroaching darkness from above. Basquiat’s painterly mannerisms are reminiscent of the Art Brut style, typified by artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Paul Klee, but Basquiat imbues this work with a visual lexicon and flamboyant color palette all his own.
The abstract nature of the work allows for it to be understood in a variety of ways. One option is to read the central black form as a house with a person inside, the bottom third as the outside (or the street), and the upper black strokes as the night sky. Viewing the work in this manner, the fiery orange that seems to emanate from the central structure becomes a warm hearth; the recurring Es that populate the bottom third of the composition, scrawled out in a brilliant yellow that stands out against the light brown background, turn into the sound of traffic that Basquiat (living in Lower East Side New York) was no doubt accustomed to; the dense black materializes into the darkness of night.
The written word is key to understanding Jean-Michel Basquiat and his multi-layered body of work. The artist was an avid reader, and his favorite books included Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans and William S. Burroughs’ Junky. This work is read equally well as a self-portrait. Basquiat, a musician himself who played in the experimental band Gray, revered blues and jazz players and some of his finest works pay homage to greats such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.
The Es we see at the bottom of the work transform into musical notes from Basquiat’s clarinet, the central black forms become the artist’s mind (a place of shelter but also of vitriolic creative energy), and the black strokes on top materialize as the artist’s hair or perhaps a lingering cloud engulfing his psyche. The white etchings at the top of the work look very similar to the halo/crown of thorns that are prevalent throughout Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings and drawings. This crown, which serves as both an indicator of holiness but also of tragic circumstance and perhaps foolishness, almost always accompanies a figure. Thinking about the painting in this way, the red marks that Basquiat shellacked over with orange swaths of paint could have been a face: perhaps the artist’s own.

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