Please note that should you be a successful bidder for lots 42, 43
and/or 44, the lot will not be available for collection until Monday,
March 31, 2014. The work will remain on exhibition at Christie's
through March 28, 2014. Payment will not be due for such lots until
March 31, 2014.
Modest, yet no less powerful, Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (Famous Negro Athletes) emerges as one of the artist's most genuine and unaffected manifestations of his self-anointed trinity - "royalty, heroism, and the streets." Long without a permanent address, Basquiat frequently brought his formidable tradition of graffiting walls, signs, and buildings into the apartments of the friends in which he stayed, executing paintings on everyday objects like refrigerators, windows, and this bathroom door from the apartment of Alexis Adler. Possessing some of Basquiat's most fundamental iconographies, Untitled (Famous Negro Athletes) in an honest and raw compilation of the artist's most revered intellectual property: including his signature crown, the phrase "Famous Negro Athletes," and the car, which occupied so many of Basquiat's paintings of the time.
Immensely autobiographical of his early life, the car, which appears frequently in his works from 1980-1981 as a central thematic element, no doubt evolved from one of the most painful, yet influential events in the young life of the artist. As often told, in September 1968, when Basquiat was about eight, he was hit by a car while playing in the streets. Suffering severe internal injuries and a broken arm, the young Basquiat eventually underwent a splenectomy. While he was recuperating from his injuries, his mother brought the precocious youngster the extremely influential textbook on the human body, Gray's Anatomy to keep him occupied. Flipping through the book during his month-long convalescence, the future artist encountered a plethora of anatomical drawings that would later influence his adult graphic style - a style which was almost assuredly further ignited during his stay with Adler, who was focusing on biology in college.
Shortly following his tragic accident, Basquiat and his sisters faced more hardships, as their mother and father separated later that year. Raised by his father, the family resided in Brooklyn for five years before moving to Puerto Rico in 1974. After two years in San Juan, they returned to New York City. Aiding to his difficulties, when Basquiat was only 11, his mother was committed to a mental institution, where she would be in and out of for the rest of her life. It is perhaps these heartbreaking events that caused the young Basquiat to act out in school, and eventually at the young age of 15 run away from home, sleeping on park benches in Washington Square Park until he was arrested and returned to the care of his father a week later. After Basquiat dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School in tenth grade, his father banished him from the family household. It was during this time when, remaining on the streets or "couch-surfing" at friends apartments for several years, that Basquiat and his friends would create a name for themselves through SAMO tagging images and poetic texts that were often sarcastic and humorous throughout the city.
While much of the trauma of the artist's young life can be signaled through the representation of the car. From 1981-1982, Basquiat was becoming increasingly interested in his own identity and genealogy. In particular, he began to focus on those public figures, past and present, which were setting new precedents and changing the fortunes of black and Hispanic people in dominantly white America. As such Basquiat, often turned to the pantheon of his heralded "Famous Negro Athletes," one of the few professions black people had been allowed to excel in, Basquiat made reverential tributes to celebrated sports icons such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Casius Clay, Joe Louis, and Hank Aaron.
Conscious of his own identity as a black artist, fighting to make it within the white-dominated art world, Basquiat sought to introduce the image of the black protagonist, often adorned with a crown that imparts his figures with a sense of authority and respect derived from the symbol's historical and political connotations. Identifying with the personal struggles and inner demons of his pantheon of heroes, Basquiat's loosely articulated, graffiti inspired drawings became a vehicle for melding autobiography with reference to popular culture and black history. A year after the conception of Untitled (Famous Negro Athletes), Basquiat did, in fact, become the anointed king of the art world and his art came to possess a certain visionary relevance. As such, the symbol of the crown was used to impart a sense of identity to his work, so much so that it became a self-styled signature for the artist. Similarly, the Sacred Heart that occupies the center of the loose composition, though most easily identifiable as a Catholic symbol, more closely resonates with Basquiat's Hatian and Puerto Rican heritage as a Voodoo symbol signifying both a blessed and peaceful life.
And yet, of all of the signs and symbols the artist prescribed to the door of his close friends apartment, none seems as aptly poignant as the copyright symbol. Of the many marks Basquiat used, this small sign is one of the most often repeated and most trenchant. A symbol of ownership, it is ironically fitting that door used as a support did not actually belong to Basquiat, but rather stood for a symbol of protection for the artist's higher form of ownership. Found in the artist's works since the days of SAMO, the copyright symbol, the sign of ownership for intellectual property, bears the scar of the artist, who throughout his life had learned that the ownership of things was fleeting and flimsy compared to the emotional and intellectual ownership of thoughts and communications.