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Property from an Important American Collection


signed and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981' (on the reverse)
acrylic and oilstick on canvas
50 x 119 in. (127 x 302.3 cm.)
Painted in 1981.
Diego Cortez, New York, acquired directly from the artist
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich
Private collection, Switzerland
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 10 November 2004, lot 48
Private collection, Asia
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, London, 12 October 2007, lot 48
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, p. 247 (illustrated).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, pp. 46-47 (illustrated).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, pp. 42-43 (illustrated).
E. Fretz, Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography, Santa Barbara, 2010, p. 152.
Hannover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Jean-Michel Basquiat, November 1986-January 1987, p. 100, no. 9.
Pully and Lausanne, FAE Musée d'Art Contemporain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, July-November 1993, pp. 23 and 125 (illustrated).
Trento, Castel Ivano, L'Incanto e la Transcendenza, 1994, pp. 84-85 (illustrated).
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Magie der Zahl, February-May 1997, p. 192 (illustrated).
Trieste, Museo Revoltella, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May-September 1999, pp. 4-5 (illustrated).

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Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Painted in 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled displays all the energy, excitement, and ingenuity of a young artist on the verge of art-world superstardom. Completed when he was barely 20 years old, this canvas contains all the hallmarks of his subsequent career: dynamic mark-making, sophisticated paint handling, evocative numbers and symbols, and one of the artist’s most iconic motifs, a large head. This work in particular also pays homage to Basquiat’s origins as one of New York’s most talented and recognizable street artists. At a young age, he became a legend of the Downtown street culture, with his SAMO tag becoming a badge of honor that appeared all over the city. Elements of 1980s New York are visible in the present work, along with the highly sophisticated visual language that would come to exemplify his work. Acquired directly from the artist by his friend, the curator and cultural critic Diego Cortez, Untitled stands as a prescient example of Basquiat’s work as he stood on the verge of greatness.

Across this monumental canvas, Basquiat choreographs many of the visual elements that would become an important part of his oeuvre. Assorted numbers, scrawled words, and eclectic symbols capture the energy of the streets of New York. The grid laid out in the thick black box mimics the markings of a skelly court, a street game whose markings are scrawled in chalk onto the street or sidewalk. Sitting above the grid is another box containing the letter ‘S’ (a reference perhaps to Basquiat’s alter ego SAMO, or Suzanne Mallouk, his girlfriend at the time?) topped off with a curlicue of barbed wire, iterations of which would feature in several later important paintings including, Profit I, and Untitled (Boxer). Opposing this on the other end of the canvas is a comprehensive array of mysterious words, letters, and numbers set against a dynamic painted surface. Anchored by another boxed ‘S’ (set within a warm colored square), the repeated numbers 3 and 4 sit alongside enigmatic words, barely legible in their scrawled forms. This section is further embellished by an array of painterly techniques as, on a white ground, Basquiat applies diaphanous layers of gray, yellow, and pale blue embellished with drips, splashes and smears of paint.

Dominating these active elements is a prominent black head. Seemingly carved out of successive painterly layers, the face provides ample evidence of Basquiat’s innovative approach to figuration. Onto the white ground, he forms the face out of substantial passages of black paint; leaving voids where the eyes, nose and mouth will be, he then proceeds to fill in the details with rapid movements of an oil stick, denoting dark blue pupils, flared nostrils, and a scowl of white teeth. A fiendish quality is added by flashes of red paint around the ears and mouth. To establish the final silhouette, Basquiat traces the outline of the head in white oil stick before surrounding it with a cloud of warm salmon pink.

In 1981, the year Basquiat painted Untitled, the artist was still living the life of a peripatetic artist, spending much of his life painting on found objects such as doors, discarded windows, and other flat surfaces. However, by the end of the year—after his inclusion in several critically acclaimed exhibitions such as The Times Square Show in 1980 and New York/New Wave in 1981—he had become an incumbent art star who had a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei's Prince Street gallery. Evidence of this dramatic shift is present in Untitled, bringing together—as it does—the rawness of the street (the barbed wire, the skelly court) with the sophisticated rendering of the head.

One of the other distinguishing qualities of the present work, along with much of his early work, is the references to the artist’s urban surroundings. Here, the outlines of the skelly court are one of the most prominent components of this composition. The street game was popular in the black neighborhoods of large urban centres, and particularly appealed to Basquiat because of its childlike qualities and graffiti-like origins. The game was popular with kids and was played on a linear diagram that was drawn onto the surface of a street or sidewalk with chalk or paint. Players would then throw markers (rocks, coins, bottle caps etc.) into numbered boxes that are contained within a large square. The goal was to progress from box number one to the final box thirteen, which is located in the center of the court.

What makes [his] work is the intensity of the line. Diego Cortez (D. Cortez, quoted by C. Hoppe, ‘Diego Cortex, A Scene Shaper in Art and Music, Dies at 74, New York Times, June 24, 2001, via⁄06/24/arts/music/diego-cortez-dead.html [accessed: 8⁄23/2023])

Alongside the diagram of the skelly court, the head is the most significant element of this work. As has already been discussed, the complexity of its execution demonstrates the importance of this particular motif to Basquiat, and many of his most proficient paintings contain accomplished studies of both the physical and psychological characteristics contained within the human face. His skull-like masks are often regarded as a vanitas representing the fragility of life—something that would become all too prescient in the case of Basquiat. Just as Leonardo da Vinci was able to capture to a remarkable degree the individual psyche of the person he was drawing, so too was Basquiat able to summon up an almost autobiographical array of feelings, emotions and often frustrated anger in the course of his paintings. Indeed, although the subject of Untitled remains unidentified, it is likely to represent the artist himself, containing all the bravado and youthful exuberance of an artist at a crucial point in his career.

Untitled was acquired directly from the artist by Diego Cortez, curator of the 1981 New York/New Wave exhibition that changed the course of Basquiat’s career. Cortez was a key figure in the Downtown art and music scene in Manhattan in the 1970s and ‘80s, and was the founder of the iconic Mudd Club, a groundbreaking nightclub that saw performances by the likes of Talking Heads and Basquiat’s own band, Gray. In 1981 his legendary show at the cutting-edge P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS 1) brought together the worlds of art and music that he knew so well, showing works by the likes of Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Nan Golding, Andy Warhol, Fab 5 Freddy, and William Burroughs. One participant recalled, “[Cortez] brought uptown and downtown together, graffiti and downtown artists, and he hung it in an unusual way, splattering everything on the walls. It was a riveting show. Diego was the epitome of cool” (C. Hoppe, ‘Diego Cortex, A Scene Shaper in Art and Music, Dies at 74, New York Times, June 24, 2001, via⁄06/24/arts/music/diego-cortez-dead.html [accessed: 8⁄23/2023]). Under Cartez’s influence, Basquiat became the epitome of this cool. Untitled was later included in the artist’s second museum retrospective, at the prestigious Kestner-Gesellschaft Museum in Hanover in 1986, the youngest artist (he was 25) to be honored by the museum at the time.

As such, Untitled sits at a pivotal point in Basquiat’s brief but storied career. Painted when he was on the brink of becoming one of the defining artists of his generation, it contains the painterly qualities, and many of the motifs, that would define the rest of his oeuvre. It virtually pulsates with the bravado of youth, but also displays the maturity that made him stand in an already crowded field of young artists seeking to redefine the New York art scene.

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