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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Property from the Estate of Anita Reiner
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
acrylic, oilstick and metallic spray enamel on canvas
68 x 103 in. (172.7 x 261.6 cm.)
Painted in 1981.
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1982

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Sandra Sublett
Sandra Sublett

Lot Essay

Please note this work is accompanied by a certificate issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Out of a coarsely hewn landscape of raw, unadulterated, hot reds, pinks and oranges storms a fierce and intimidating figure made up of haptic scrawls and flourishes of black, white and brown oilstick. With glowering red eyes and bared teeth, he lords over us, clenching his weaponry: a gleaming sword and a bunch of arrows. TAR TAR TAR, LEAD LEAD LEAD rise up, war cries chanted from the battleground. The battle won, the figure has been crowned king victorious. This is Jean-Michel Basquiat's warrior, his conqueror of 1981. That year marked the artist's transition from SAMO, the leading figure on the underground art scene, to Jean-Michel Basquiat, star of the international art world establishment. The personification of his success, Basquiat's regal warrior is in part an emblem to this success, embodying the artist's own feelings of triumph after his sudden rise to international art world fame. Just as Basquiat, the 'king of the streets,' had conquered the art world, here, too, has his warrior been crowned king victorious.

Executed on canvas and on a scale akin to the wall expanses he had previously utilized on the street of downtown New York City, Untitled is a masterpiece from Basquiat's most inspired period, created at the precise moment in Basquiat's career when he was channeling the raw energy of his street art into the medium of fine art. Untitled captures all of the unharnessed talent and graffiti imagery that first garnered Basquiat attention during his SAMO days, in a richly wrought work worthy of the artist's place as one of the most iconic artists of the twentieth century. Acting as an almost subconscious nod to how far he had come from his graffiti days on the gritty streets of New York City, Basquiat tagged a scrawl of gold spray paint along the side of his warrior's face, which, along with the repetition of his crown motif, acts as symbols of sorts reflecting his feelings of personal triumph. With the victorious figure emerging from a warm and glowing background, Untitled would seem to capture the particular sentiments of Basquiat at this time of his life. As his friend Valda Grinfelds relayed, "He told me that when he was taking a cab home from my place, he drove down Park Avenue. The sun was coming up, and the Pan Am building was still illuminated. He just said, 'It made me feel like a king'" (V. Grinfelds, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 92). Untitled has been held in the same collection since it was first seen in the artist's studio in the basement of Annina Nosei's gallery in 1982.

Basquiat's first steps on the victorious road that culminated with the execution of Untitled began in January 1981 with the artist's inclusion in the multi-media and multi-disciplinary show celebrating the new 'avant-garde' called New York/New Wave, at the alternative-space gallery P.S. 1 in Long Island City, Queens. Showing alongside murals by graffiti artists including Fab 5 Freddy, Daze, Rammellzee and Futura 2000, Basquiat's raw gestural art of the streets outshone his peers and created an immediate audience for his work. In the aftermath of New York/New Wave, Basquiat was offered his first solo show by the Italian dealer Emilio Mazzoli. That spring, Basquiat went to Modena, his first trip to Europe, where he was provided with more traditional artist's materials, and, for the first time, a large-scale canvas (about 80 x 82 inches) and had his first one-man show at Mazzoli's Galleria d'Arte in May and June. Back in New York, SoHo gallerist Annina Nosei was also captivated by Basquiat's raw street style and offered the artist money to purchase art supplies, a show and even the use of the basement of her gallery as a studio, which allowed him to continue to create his art on large-scale canvas. In October she also included his work in her group show Public Address, which included works by Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger.

By the end of 1981, Basquiat was installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei's gallery at 100 Prince Street and working on prepared canvas. Of this time, Basquiat explained: "She offered me a studio. It was the first time I had a place to work. I took it, you know. Not seeing the drawbacks until later...it was right in the gallery, you know. She used to bring collectors down there, so it wasn't very private. I didn't mind. I was young. It was a place to work, which I never had before" (J. Basquiat, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 87). Basquiat's presence at Nosei's gallery was creating a stir in the art world, as was his unorthodox painterly practice. As Phoebe Hoban notes, "The room was filled with a haze of pot smoke. There was a mound of coke on a table, a couple of funky chairs, and a boom box, playing a steady stream of Charlie Parker' (P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York, 1998, p. 82). It was in this crucial moment, when Basquiat was high, both literally and figuratively, on these new heights of success, that he descended to his studio to exorcise his demons; Untitled is not only a product of this watershed moment in his career, but one which is singular for its personification of Basquiat's inner emotions from the time.

In its large expanses of brushed, dribbled, splashed paint, oilstick scrawls and spray, Untitled manifests the same immediacy with which Basquiat executed his street graffiti, as documented in Downtown 81, onto canvas. Much of that self-assurance is captured in the painterly application of Untitled, the broad swaths of vibrant color put down in a fashion that does not convey one moment of hesitation or second-guessing on Basquiat's part. Indeed, it isn't just his self-assured handling of a plethora of painterly techniques that conveys a sense of Basquiat's personal triumph from the time, but his rendering of a strong and regal warrior-figure as well. Indeed, Basquiat's aesthetic is a unique fusion of spray paint street style spliced with a stripped-down art historical lexicon derived from childhood visits to museums and his consumption of modern art monographs. An embodiment of Basquiat's self-characterized subject-matter of "Royalty, Heroism and the Streets," Untitled captures the artist's nuanced appropriation of iconography based on such diverse sources as African masks, voodoo figurines and Western religious symbols, such as angels, halos, devils, saints and martyrs, as conduits to explore ideas surrounding power, myth-making and his everyday existence. Emerging from this richly wrought backdrop, Basquiat conjures his large-scale warrior figure with equal parts menace and humor, partially revealing its skeletal makeup and internal organs, which recalls the artist's deep and recurring interest in anatomy. Laid down on peach ground, Basquiat's illuminates his warrior from within. This haloed aura, along with punctuations of yellow and black paint, as well as metallic spray paint come together to form a mandorla of sorts, thereby ensconcing his warrior in a typical motif used in Christian iconography to render Christ in Majesty. Extending from the warrior's outstretched arms are a slew of arrows and a sword, a sort of balance between European monarchical and African tribal power symbols. Specifically, Basquiat may have been influenced by African Rock Art by Burchard Brentjes, the many photographs and diagrams of which appealed to him not only because of their African locale, but also because of his predilection for raw, unschooled drawing, and his underlying preference for graffiti, of which cave art is arguably the first. In a similar fashion to other large-scale single figures from the period, including Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981, Acque Pericolose (Poison, Oasis), 1981 and Pater, 1982, here Basquiat has conveyed his warrior's strength anatomically. Richard Marshall notes that Basquiat may have been encouraged to incorporate such brashness and aggression into his canvases upon seeing Picasso's "Avignon" paintings, which were shown at the Pace Gallery from January through March 1981. In these late works, Picasso returned to drawing anatomically graphic and distorted figures in bold colors, a style Basquiat undoubtedly felt an affinity for.

Picasso was one of a number of modern masters Basquiat admired and studied. Indeed Nosei recalls that she gave Basquiat books on Picasso, Pollock and Twombly when he began using her gallery basement as a studio. In many ways Untitled reflects Basquiat's admiration for Twombly's work, whose use of elementary graphics using verbal fragments appealed to his imaging of everyday urban experience. Even those passages that seem nonsensical like the 'EOSO RED' or the 'OEOEE' toward the top of Untitled's canvas have meaning intimately connecting us to Basquiat's existence. As is often the case, such combinations of letters denote the sounds of Basquiat's environment at the time of execution, perhaps the blare of Charlie Parker's saxophone heard from a record just as the artist came into contact with his canvas. As graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy recalled, "If you read the canvases out loud to yourself, the repetition, the rhythm, you can hear Jean-Michel thinking" (Fab 5 Freddy, quoted in I. Sischy, "Jean-Michel Basquiat as Told by Fred Braithwaite, a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy," Interview, vol. 22, October, 1992, p. 120).

Replete with this graffiti-inspired text and imagery, Untitled typifies the ways in which Basquiat continued to engage with and revel in his street heritage even after making the leap into fine art. In 1976 Basquiat had begun 'writing' his unique brand of graffiti throughout Manhattan under the name of 'SAMO' consisting of conceptual and enigmatic combinations of words and symbols. These word-plays would go on to inform his aesthetic, becoming a nuanced trademark of his art in tandem with his lexicon of iconography. Untitled exemplifies this unique element of Basquiat's art; in Untitled we see how his text constitutes the very fabric of his imagery, becoming 'brushstrokes' as he described them, upon which his haptic anti-narratives emerge. Through his practice, Basquiat continually selected and injected into his works words that held charged references and meanings-particularly surrounding his deep-rooted concerns about the creation and abuse of power and wealth. In Untitled, Basquiat has repeated the words 'tar' and 'lead,' imbuing the work with a host of meanings. In Untitled, lead not only plays on notions of commodities of trade, of material as a resource to be owned, seized and depleted by man, but it also has affinities with alchemy in the subject's supreme quest to transmute lead into gold. Alchemy was a subject and practice that Basquiat was aware of and spoke about with Henry Geldzahler in January 1983, noting that of course his use of the word 'lead,' along with 'tin' and 'asbestos,' as well as his use of gold paint, points to an affinity with the artist's ability to create something of value. Indeed, Basquiat could have been speaking about this work, with its gestural scrawl of gold spray paint framing the side of the king's face, when he explained to Geldzahler in relation to alchemical qualities in his work, "I was writing gold on all this stuff, and I made all this money right afterwards" (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler, "Art: From Subways to SoHo, Jean-Michel Basquiat," Interview, vol. 13, January, 1983).

Using his own ambitious vocabulary of symbolic marks, subjects and images derived from his urban existence, Untitled reinforces Basquiat's street heritage and rejoices in it with the framing of this work with his crown emblem. Using successive layers of black and white paint, Basquiat defines his figure's large crown, imbuing his 'king' with an element of superiority, and royal aura. Flanking the royal figure, Basquiat has repeated the crown motif in totems to his figure's authority, using it not only as a symbol of the respect and admiration that he bestows on the figure that dominates this work, but also as an enforcer of his own trademark. As Rene Ricard notes of Basquiat's use of this motif, "the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel's repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it is his. He won that crown" (R. Ricard, "The Radiant Child," Artforum, December 1981, p. 37).

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