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Untitled (Self Portrait)

Untitled (Self Portrait)
oilstick and ink on paper
29 7/8 x 22in. (75.9 x 55.9cm.)
Executed in 1982
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York.
Private Collection, Europe.
Anon. sale, Christie’s New York, 17 November 1999, lot 204.
Private Collection, Europe.
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s London, 26 June 2018, lot 3.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
D. Buchhart and K. Hofbauer (eds.), Basquiat by Himself, Munich 2019, p. 74 (detail illustrated in colour, pp. 40-41; illustrated in colour, p. 75).
Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2018-2019, p. 64, no. 7 (illustrated in colour, p. 65).
New York, The Brant Foundation, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2019.
Tokyo, Mori Arts Center Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, 2019 (illustrated in colour, p. 67).
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Keith Haring - Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, 2019-2020, p. 345 (illustrated in colour, p. 208).
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.
Further details
This work is accompanied by a certificate issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Please note this work has been requested for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition “Jean Michel Basquiat: Of Symbols and Signs”, Albertina Museum, September 2022.

Brought to you by

Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord Director, Senior Specialist

Lot Essay

An electric apparition of emotive and figural intensity, the present work is a recently discovered self-portrait by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Created in 1982, at the height of the artist’s creative and critical success, it exemplifies the rich mark-making, vibrant colour and psychological drama of his self-portraiture: a crucial, complex strand of his practice that turns a searing lens on his personal experience as a black man in 20th century America. Against a backdrop of deep black ink laid down in dripping, gestural strokes, a skull-like visage emerges in glowing colour. With turquoise skin, his head and ears are haloed by whirring scrawls of neon red and yellow oilstick. Laser-red lines hint at a body beneath. Spikes and coils spring from his cranium in variegated tones of green, blue, pink and orange; white streaks beam out of his forehead like a crown. The eyes, nose and mouth were depicted in bright primary hues before Basquiat swept black oilstick across the entire face, casting it into shadow. On top, he drew these features again in jagged white strokes, with the wide eyes, triangular nose and gritted teeth hovering in space like a death-mask. Capturing Basquiat’s proud self-possession, vital energy and stark awareness of mortality, Untitled (Self-Portrait) is a thrilling and multi-layered vision.

The work has been prominently exhibited in recent years, including in the major retrospective Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris and the Brant Foundation, New York (2018-2019); in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan at the Mori Arts Center Gallery, Tokyo (2019); and in the dual exhibition Keith Haring Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2019-2020). In 2019, it was also highlighted in Dieter Buchhart and Anna Karina Hofbauer’s Basquiat by Himself—the first publication to be exclusively dedicated to the artist’s self-portraiture. It has been requested for the upcoming exhibition Basquiat: Of Symbols and Signs, to be held at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, from September 2022 through January 2023.

1982 was a watershed year for Basquiat. At just twenty-one years old, and already famed for his personal charisma as much as his creative genius, he completed his transition from street graffitist to fully-fledged sovereign of the New York art scene. He moved out of his dealer Annina Nosei’s basement studio to work in a liberating seventh-storey loft space at 151 Crosby Street, where his work reached new heights of material richness and thematic complexity. Following the success of his debut American solo show with Nosei in March that year, he took the international art world by storm with solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, which were followed by an invitation to Documenta VII, where he was the youngest artist within a line-up of contemporary masters including Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. In October he was formally introduced to Andy Warhol by Bruno Bischofberger, beginning what would become a long-running friendship and artistic partnership. Reflecting upon this exhilarating period, Basquiat recalled ‘I had some money: I made the best paintings ever’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, ‘New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist’, in The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 74).

A sampler and synthesiser by nature, Basquiat channelled information from a dazzling variety of fields—television, music, books, New York street life, and art history from antiquity to Abstract Expressionism—onto the visual planes of his work. With its luminous hues and energetic, sparking lineation, Untitled (Self Portrait) captures the dynamism of the artist in his prime. The trace of a footprint at its base records the frenetic movement of his studio, where drawings and paintings proliferated across every surface. As in many of Basquiat’s drawings, his self-image here goes beyond physical resemblance, allowing line, colour and physiognomy to express a specific state of consciousness. Much like his iconic ‘skull’ painting Untitled (1981, The Broad Museum, Santa Monica), the picture’s X-ray vision of the head—informed by his long-running interest in Grays Anatomy and the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci—seems to picture an artistic nervous system, a brain motoring with cognitive signals. The springs of hair burst forth from the skull like mechanical components, while the white lines blaze out like the lightbulb flash of a brilliant idea.

This nimbus of bright marks around the head also relates to the crowns and haloes that adorn many of Basquiat’s figures. In some self-portraits, Basquiat played graphically with the crown-like silhouette of his distinctive dreadlocks; elsewhere, his famous crown glyph stamped his presence like a trademark, the artist’s image distilled to a symbol of power and glory. In other figural works, Basquiat blurred his own identity with a pantheon of black heroes—the jazz musician Charlie Parker, champion boxers like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, baseball players such as Hank Aaron—whom he also often crowned or haloed, drawing upon the art-historical iconography of angels, saints, messiahs and kings. ‘The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings,’ Basquiat told the journalist Cathleen McGuigan in 1985. ‘I realised that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them’ (J-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money’, New York Times, 10 February 1985). Like Basquiat himself, his idols were men of incendiary talent, risen to positions of greatness despite the racism of American society. While he ennobled these figures and celebrated their splendour, he also laid bare their vulnerability, often depicting them as worn-out, fragmented or threatened. A regal headdress could easily turn to a crown of thorns, and a monarch to a martyr: an inscription on Basquiat’s 1982 painting Charles the First noted darkly that ‘most young kings get their heads cut off.’

With its dramatic pass of darkness across the face, the present work articulates the sense of danger and disintegration that haunts so many of Basquiat’s works. Spotlit and brilliant, the figure also seems menaced by the surrounding void, as if it might be swallowed up by external forces. Whether through rapacious promoters, personal demons or the bigotry of the industries in which they worked, Basquiat knew that many of his idols had been destroyed or burnt out by their fame: he himself felt these pressures keenly, and faced everyday prejudice even as he rose to great heights of celebrity and success. ‘In many of these works,’ writes Dieter Buchhart of the self-portraits, ‘Basquiat’s statement seems to apply: “It’s about 80% anger.” The representations are always of the highest intensity. Threat, fear and decay are inscribed in many of his portraits’ (D. Buchhart, ‘Basquiat by Himself: The Self-Portrait as a Power Figure between Self-Empowerment and Repression’, in D. Buchhart and A. K. Hofbauer (eds.), Basquiat by Himself, Munich 2019, p. 30).

Amid the shadows of memento mori, however, the present work also conjures a persona in constant motion. The face fluoresces with the dynamics of thought and feeling. Its black smear relates to the use of erasure in Basquiat’s works that feature text, where words and lists are often broken up, scored out or concealed: a device that heightens our alertness to the changeable meaning contained in line and shape. Even the most fiery, emphatic marks are unfixed and metamorphic, subject to revision, negation and drawing anew. ‘I cross out words’, he said, ‘so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them’ (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier (Paintings and works on paper), exh. cat. Museum Würth, Künzelsau 2001, p. 54). As in these textual palimpsests, the self-portrait’s dance between revelation and masking makes us look closer. From its layered surface emerges a complex, introspective picture of a creative psyche, and the lasting imprint of a human being.

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