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Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face)

Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face)
signed, dated and inscribed ‘JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT NYC 82’ (on the reverse)
acrylic, spray paint, oilstick and Xerox collage on panel
182.9 x 121.9 cm. (72 x 48 in.)
Painted in 1982
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Private Colletion, USA
Sotheby’s New York, 5 November 1987, Lot 209
Galerie Willy D'Huysser, Brussels
Private Collection, Belgium
Private Collection, Paris
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Private Collection
Sotheby’s London, 8 March 2017, Lot 13
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, France, 1996 (illustrated, p. 90, no.5).
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. I, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, France, 2000 (illustrated, p. 148).
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. II, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, France, 2000 (illustrated, p. 138, no.5).
Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Dipinti, 2002 (illustrated, p. 75).
Bilbao, Spain, Guggenheim Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Ahora es el Momento, 2015 (illustrated, p. 61).
Rome, Italy, Chiostro del Bramante, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Dipinti, January - March 2002.
Bilbao, Spain, Guggenheim Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Ahora es el Momento, July - November 2015.

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Lot Essay

‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’ Rene Ricard

A masterwork from the pinnacle of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career, Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) (1982) stands among the very greatest of the artist’s iconic large-scale figure paintings. Over a panel six feet in height, Basquiat has scrawled, sprayed and collaged a tall, bright red being, with his arms raised in triumph, and his head ringed with a halo or crown of thorns. Blazes of blue, yellow and white paint ignite the backdrop, with the right-hand side thrown into black shadow. The surface is electric with texture and movement. In places, Basquiat has incised the thick pigment to reveal dark underpainting. Sinuous black spray-paint animates the figure’s arms and halo, while oilstick loops of black and white course over his red body as if mapping skeleton and muscle. At the painting’s core is the ‘Xerox face’ of the title: Basquiat has applied a photocopied sheet of his own drawing to create the figure’s face, and overlaid it with further marks, including a focal lens of white around its cyclopean eye. A rare early instance of the Xerox-collage that Basquiat would go on to use frequently in his later works, it is perhaps the most striking single use of this technique in his entire oeuvre. To the lower right, Basquiat combines his famous crown motif with another single eye in a large, graphic white symbol, underscoring the retinal emphasis of the picture. Rearing up before us with regal, even holy force, the work displays Basquiat’s command of colour and form at its most visceral and thrilling. The figure smiles with enigmatic glee, bearing his teeth in a doubled red and green grin. Surveying his empire, he is a vision of the old proverb that ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’

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 first 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. 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). Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) was among them.

In portraying the one-eyed man with raised arms, Basquiat echoes the pose of the triumphant boxer: a motif employed in many of his most acclaimed large-scale paintings. Champion pugilists like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis joined jazz musicians, baseball players and others in the artist’s personal pantheon of black heroes. They were men of incendiary talent, risen to positions of greatness despite the racism of American society. In his pictures, Basquiat blurred their identities with his own. Often adorning them with haloes or crowns, he celebrated their glory, calling on the saints, messiahs and kings of art history. With his arms spread wide like wings, Basquiat’s one-eyed man looks almost angelic; the incandescent backdrop heightens his aura of otherworldly power. Like Basquiat’s other towering hero-images, however, this beatific figure is laced with vulnerability. 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: pressures he himself felt all too keenly. Those arms may be raised in exultation, but they might also be seen as a plea for mercy.

While he was in hospital following a childhood car accident, Basquiat’s mother had given him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. It helped him to understand his body as it healed, and went on to become a key touchstone for his art. Many of his figures reveal their skulls, muscles and nervous systems, as if seen through an X-ray. Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) exhibits just such an anatomical vision. With a tense skeletal grin, and baring his body as if flayed or crucified, the figure offers a potentially dark image of the artist as martyr. Basquiat’s attention to internal workings, however, can also be viewed as part of a broader pictorial interest in peeling back the surfaces of the exterior world at large. The inserted Xerox sheet is echoed by TV-like boxes and apertures through paintwork elsewhere in the picture: it conjures an idea of multiple screens, of different ways of seeing (and seeing through). The figure’s block-like depiction even seems to recall Leonardo’s ‘Vitruvian man’, which lays out the divine proportions of the human form within a plan of circles and squares. Gestural exuberance jostles with diagrammatic line, and the sacred with the profane. As well as hinting at self-image, this is a layered, multi-channelled vision of reality, speaking to the process of an artist who sampled, organised and synthesised data from multiple sensory dimensions—movies, music, books, New York street life, art history, his own subconscious— onto a single surface. The eye, the window to the soul, sits at the centre like a vortex.

Towards the end of 1981, the critic Rene Ricard published his essay ‘The Radiant Child’ in Artforum. It was the first extensive examination of Basquiat’s work in print, and a much-quoted assessment of his early oeuvre. ‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel’, he wrote. ‘The elegance of Twombly is there from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet’ (R. Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, Volume XX, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43). Both Twombly’s lyrical scrawl and Dubuffet’s intense, primitivist figuration resound in Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face). The work equally plays with the fractured and overlaid Cubist perspectives of Picasso—whom Basquiat greatly admired, finding irony in his own ‘discovery’ of African art through a European master—and the exuberant paintwork of the Abstract Expressionists, which in turn shares much with the gestural colour of graffiti. In 1980, Jeffrey Deitch had observed in Basquiat ‘a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray-paint scribble’ (J. Deitch, quoted in Jean- Michel Basquiat, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 324).

In the present work, the links are more than skin-deep. Amid Basquiat’s structural swathes of paint, the Xerox-collage parallels the genesis of Willem de Kooning’s seminal series of Women, whose painterly detonations of the female form centred around a collaged woman’s mouth taken from a cigarette advert. It also evokes the work of Robert Rauschenberg, whose ‘combines’ of found objects and silkscreen elements derived poetry from the materials of the street. Like Basquiat, both of these artists incorporated elements of popular culture into their works, hybridising Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism in frenetic, vivid canvases that captured the urban energy of New York City.

While he calls upon a vast range of references, Basquiat’s voice ultimately finds expression in the unique, eloquent force of his own mark-making. From their chromatic assembly to their graphic figural line, his works are charged with a deeply personal outlook. Writing in 1985, the art historian Robert Farris Thompson saw Basquiat as epitomising a postmodern ‘creole’ sensibility, informed as much by the cultural crucible of New York as by his personal background. ‘I think we are witnessing the revelation of an unsuspected form of artistic developmental time,’ Thompson wrote, ‘running faster than ordinary Western archaic-classical-Hellenistic, or early-middle-late … The hurtling velocity of jazz or New York graffiti history derives its energy from the collision of more than two traditions’ (R. Farris Thompson, ‘Activating Heaven: The Incantatory Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat. Mary Boone-Michael Werner Gallery, New York, 1985, n.p). Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) crackles with this syncretic force: it is a concentrated distillate of myriad voices, styles and ideas into one explosively powerful figure, who stands before us aflame with the glories of everything he has seen.

‘Basquiat’s repeated use of anatomical imagery—skeletons, musculature, and internal organs—coincides with an ever more widespread tendency in his work to turn things inside out’ Jeffrey Hoffeld

‘Basquiat has organized not only a diversity of materials into art, but also heterogeneous pictorial and linguistic elements, which are encyclopaedic in range but also deeply personal’ Demosthenes Davvetas

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