Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
signed with the artist's initials 'JMB' (lower right)
oil pastel and wax crayon on paper
30 1/8 x 22 ¼ in. (76.5 x 56.5 cm.)
Executed in 1982.
Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
Private collection, Dallas, 1982
Private collection, Dallas, by descent from the above
Fred Hoffman Fine Art, Santa Monica
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Los Angeles, Larry Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April-May 1982.
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

An electrifying vision dating from the height of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame, Untitled is an extraordinary work that showcases the virtuosic force of his graphic practice. Ablaze with fiery orange tones, a maniacal figure looms large, his red-cloaked hand outstretched against the void. His eyes swirl like kaleidoscopes; his mouth hangs open in ecstasy, revealing scant rows of colored teeth. Skeletal lines quiver like x-rays, while sparks and stars circle his head as if reeling from a knock-out. Rich swathes of pink and yellow create a vibrant backdrop, punctuated with lines and symbols that explode into space like fireworks.

Rendered with all the chromatic and textural drama of an oil painting, the work demonstrates the vast, ambitious range of Basquiat’s draughtsmanship in the heady early stages of his career. Multiple influences collide: from the works of Pablo Picasso and Egon Schiele, to the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, ancient cave art, comics and anatomical textbooks. Loosely suggestive of Basquiat’s self-image, it is a vivid portrait of his creative process, conjuring the raw carnal energy with which he channelled his whirring imagination. Other elements of the artist’s symbolic universe shift in and out of focus: the messianic crown of thorns, the saintly halo and, perhaps, the glory of the boxing ring. It is a testament to the multiple personas—hero, martyr, victim and victor—through which he would present himself to the world.

1982 is widely considered to represent Basquiat’s breakthrough moment. It was during this year, amid a vital period of renaissance for painting, that he transitioned from anonymous graffitist SAMO to undisputed king of the New York art scene. In 1981, his inclusion in Diego Cortez’s New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 had brought him to the attention of numerous dealers. By December, critics were already historicizing his work in relation to the postwar canon: “if Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption”, suggested René Ricard, “it would be Jean-Michel” (R. Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, Artforum, Volume XX, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43).

In 1982, aged just twenty-one, the success of his debut show at Annina Nosei’s New York gallery led to a string of major solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam. His rapidly-advancing global reputation resulted in a prestigious invitation to Documenta 7 in West Germany, where he was the youngest exhibited artist in a line-up of established veterans including Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys. That year, he moved out of the studio he had been occupying in Nosei’s basement, taking a large loft space at 151 Crosby Street in SoHo. There, he would produce some of his finest works, throwing himself into painting and drawing with new intensity.

Much of Basquiat’s output during this time was concerned with his own image. Catapulted into the limelight at a young age, his complex feelings of elation and uncertainty found expression in a variety of visual tropes. Though not always “self-portraits” in an explicit sense, the works of this period were saturated with introspection. One particularly dominant motif was the three-pointed crown – culled from a production company logo – which quickly became something of a trademark for the artist. Though Basquiat had prophesized to his father that “I will be very famous one day”, he was also painfully aware that “most young kings get their head cut off”. The present work offers a variation on his signature regal motif, perhaps alluding more strongly to the crown of thorns as worn by Christ on the cross. The latter was evoked repeatedly across Basquiat’s oeuvre, frequently resembling a halo or – in some readings – an electricity circuit. The artist’s true deities, however, lay elsewhere: most notably in the fields of jazz and sports, where black icons reigned supreme. Inspired by figures such as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson, the boxer became a frequent spectre in his paintings, cast as the ultimate champion. In the present work, the figure’s red-gloved hand, along with his seemingly bloodied face, dazed head and aggressive stance, might be seen to invoke the heroic narratives of the ring.

Basquiat’s works on paper formed a vital strand of his practice, offering an immediate laboratory for his free-wheeling visual impulses. As a child, he had fallen in love with drawing, filling notebook after notebook with sketches. As the curator Fred Hoffman explains, “[Basquiat] discovered that he could shut out the myriad stimuli constantly bombarding him from the outside world; and at the same time, he could enable impressions, thoughts, memories, associations, fantasies, and observations formulating in his mind to simply pass through him, making their way onto a sheet of paper. From a very early age, Basquiat discovered that drawing was a process of ‘channelling’ in which he essentially functioned as a medium” (F. Hoffman, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 33). With this in mind, it was perhaps appropriate that Basquiat’s 1982 works on paper revolved around one subject in particular: the human head. In examples such as the present work, the pulsations of the psyche seem to spill out from his eyes, ears, mouth and cranium, blasting the surrounding space with lines, symbols and vivid colour. Many of these works also offer a thrilling insight into Basquiat’s physical process, strewn with auratic traces of studio debris. Indeed, an alternative interpretation of the figure’s red hand might posit it as a cipher for the creative act itself, invoking the heated stream of consciousness that flowed from his mind to his fingertips.

Basquiat’s fascination with anatomical structures may similarly be traced to his childhood. Hospitalized after a car accident at the age of seven, he pored over a copy of Grays Anatomy given to him by his mother, finding inspiration in its diagrams of skeletons and muscles. A book of da Vinci’s drawings provided further distraction, sparking what was to become a lifelong fascination with the artist’s work. As a teenager, he stood before Picasso’s works in the Museum of Modern Art, and studied the tribal artefacts housed in the Met. Gradually, other sources began to infiltrate his imagination: from Burchard Brentjes’ book African Rock Art, to cartoons, advertisements and symbols found in graffiti tags. In the present work, these eclectic influences combine with further art historical echoes. The figure’s wiry, visceral form invites comparison with the works of Schiele and Alberto Giacometti, while his gaping mouth conjures Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes. The abstract gestures of Willem de Kooning linger in Basquiat’s application of color, whilst his schismatic use of line evokes the work of his ancestor Cy Twombly. The result, as Diego Cortez so eloquently put it, “reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand ‘shake’” (D. Cortez, quoted in R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 1, Paris 2000, p. 160). It is a vision of the chaotic, inarticulate alchemy that, for Basquiat, brought head and hand into explosive alignment.

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