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.
Untitled (Olive Oyl) is a rare example of Jean-Michel Basquiat's art in its original form; a visceral example of the raw energy that Basquiat first demonstrated on the streets of New York. As a young artist, Basquiat's canvas was the street and he originally rose to prominence as the graffiti artist SAMO, whose tag began to appear all over the desolate streets of downtown New York in the late 1970s. This large-scale painting contains all the energy and vitality of those early days plus the beginnings of a more considered lexicon that would come to dominate his works in later years. Painted directly onto a wall in Alexis Adler's apartment, this work provides physical evidence of this lineage; Basquiat's unique form of artistic expression from his days as a graffiti artist to his emergence onto the New York art scene as the standard bearer for a new form of neo-expressionism.
Simplicity and spontaneity combine to make Untitled (Olive Oyl) a powerful and striking work. Onto the unprimed cement of the apartment wall, Basquiat has painted a large square of white paint upon which he has then added a further layer of black pigment, creating a sort of canvas within a canvas. On this black layer, he paints two simple, if incongruous, monikers; firstly he scrawls the name Olive Oyl in large sweeping letters across the upper portion of the work, next he complements this with a section of what looks like a white picket fence across the lower portion. They are also what appears to be the early stages of an upright figure in along the left-hand edge - an image which Basquiat appears to disrupt by erasing the signs of its painted presence. Although each of these signs and symbols may seem anomalous, they are all deliberate (even if only to Basquiat's eye) and are the result of the artist constantly searching for inspiration and stimulation in everything he saw around him.
Basquiat's pictorial references are wide and varied, and do not always come together to form a cohesive narrative. In fact the best examples of his work are often made up of a stream of visual consciousness in which he transcribes, onto whichever surface comes to hand, a series of images that come into his head, in whatever order they appear. Here, the reference to Olive Oyl undoubtedly refers to the eponymous cartoon character and girlfriend of Popeye. The star of the popular cartoon series that ran on TV throughout Basquiat's childhood, he may have been attracted as much by the unconventional spelling of Olive Oyl's surname as he was to any traits the character may have had herself. Many of Basquiat's subsequent paintings included the names of other people that were of particular relevance to him and to his heroes from the world of music and sport. Moving down the painting, the lattice pattern that populates the lower portion of the work recalls the white picket fences beloved of the middle classes families who fled the failing in cities of the 1970s and 1980s and moved to the safety of the suburbs, with the stark crispness of the white picket fence protecting them from the unsavory reality of life in the city.
Basquiat's self-revelation and cultural attitude can be found amidst the spontaneous precision of the painting's brush strokes. Representative of his former life within the grime and graffiti of New York City streets, Basquiat uses fast-drying acrylic material to present a spontaneous faade of art brut sensibility. Here, he conceptually combines text and image for an enigmatic message mired in the popular culture of graffiti design. Like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Basquiat took his inspiration from what he saw around him and was also interested in the incorporation of consumer culture in the form of comic books and cartoons for the furthering of mass appeal and invitation of low art into high culture. However, he uses the sociopolitical subtexts differently than the Pop artists' playful message by delving into their remarks on the American institutionalization of racism and prejudice. Having grown up in the New York of the 1970s and 1980s Basquiat drew upon the cacophony of visual stimulation that comprises the modern urban experience. This litany of cultural references, drawn from the worlds of music, television, cartoons, film, art, street culture, black history and graffiti, provided Basquiat with a rich source of visual inspiration, and it is with works such as Untitled (Olive Oyl) that we see the earliest signs of his insightful artistic eye that translated this source material into the rich tapestry of iconography that his work would become.