Lot 33
  • 33

Jean-Michel Basquiat

7,000,000 - 9,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold)
  • signed and dated NY, 81 on the reverse
  • gold paint, acrylic and oilstick on canvas
  • 50 x 50 in. 127 x 127 cm.


Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Cohen Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in February 1999


Milan, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, September 2006  - January 2007, cat. no. 70, p. 198, illustrated in color
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, February - April 2013


Tony Shafrazi, Jeffrey Deitch, Richard D. Marshall, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 79, illustrated in color
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, 3rd ed., Vol. II, p. 88, cat. no. 7, illustrated in color 

Catalogue Note

Confronting us straight on, with arms outstretched in defiant fortitude, and brandishing a weapon in each hand, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold) is an indisputable masterpiece of the seminal 1981 year in his career. At once entirely exposed and also primed for conflict, the central figure becomes a physical embodiment of Basquiat’s formative concerns of race, identity, and mortality. This combative figure is the central motif of Basquiat’s oeuvre, emerging in this Christ-like form just as it would also emerge as the boxing figure, an emblematic stand-in for the struggles of the minority underdog. As he displays his harbingers of death, the main figure – identifiable as a proxy for the artist through his characteristic crown – captivates the viewer with his vulnerability. It is in this contradiction that the essence of Basquiat’s art lies; he confers onto his multifaceted compositions and characters the charge of expressing the manifold influences that inform his aesthetic process.
A spectacular celebration of the dual powers of iconography and expressionism, the present work incites a visceral response from its viewer on both fronts. The canvas, a receptor of emotional content in the heroic tradition of Rothko and Pollock, is made manifest in Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold) with its gestural physicality of brushstroke. The broad swathes of gold and yellow, variously hued and striking in their brilliance, create a powerful and beautiful contrast with the jet black of the warrior, the bright white that describes his physical features, and the sky blue under layer. Punctuated by an almost violent burst of red, the composition resembles the masterworks of Basquiat’s abstract expressionist predecessors. Marc Mayer discusses Basquiat’s unbridled prowess with color when he says: “few American artists deserve as much attention for their manipulation of color…With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he used unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda…Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room.” (Exh. Cat., Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum and travelling, Basquiat, 2005, p. 46)

Basquiat’s most intriguing paintings, such as the present work, are a fascinating conflation of inspirations – as much as Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold) alludes to Abstract Expressionism in its unrestrained and energetic painterly gestures, it is equally indebted to another of Basquiat’s great heroes: Picasso. In the tradition of the great Cubist collages, the present work calls on primitivism to inform the styling of the figure and presents its viewer with obfuscated visual and verbal clues. As in Picasso’s famed Still Life with Chair Caning 1912, where the letters JOU appear divorced from their original context, free to stand for either “journal” or “joux,” in the present work Basquiat has littered his composition with narrative traces. Though complete and solid in the top left quarter of the work, the golden yellow ground appears to purposefully reveal different markings and colors on the right half of the canvas. It is as if Basquiat specifically painted around the clues he left. In keeping with his artistic approach, these clues are variously narrative and autobiographical – deriving from diverse sources. In the top right corner emerges the black and yellow outline of a crown, the defining symbol of Basquiat’s street graffiti persona SAMO©. Conversely, the patch of red, when associated with the dagger in the figure’s left hand, alludes directly to the story of Julius Caesar and his bloody demise.

Fascinated by anatomy ever since he was hospitalized as a boy after a car accident, the depiction of the human form here evinces Basquiat’s obsession with the inner machinations of the body. Seemingly viewed simultaneously externally and in x-ray, the central figure is a commanding visual manifestation of Basquiat’s personal preoccupation with mortality. In an eerily prescient way, the present work allegorically encapsulates Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame – initiated in earnest in the same year as this work, when the dealer Annina Nosei began to represent him and gave him his own studio space in the basement of her gallery – as well as his imminent untimely death.

Basquiat’s studio was strewn with sketches and notebooks. Seemingly trying to exorcise the demons within, he made numerous frantic and explosively expressive drawings of warrior-figures. These drawings, particularly those from 1980-82 were used and reused as constant reference material. The raw spontaneity captured in these drawings was a visual resource for Basquiat’s works on canvas. Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold) retains much of the immediacy of his drafted expressionistic outpourings, making for a lively and truly affecting canvas. Like a breath of fresh air, Basquiat’s art broke rank with, and usurped, an established canon, subsequently expanding the boundaries of art and bringing to bear a radically new and challenging aesthetic, still resonant today. Marc Mayer continues, “A final exemplar of modernism, Jean-Michel Basquiat also stands among the most consistently interesting artists of postmodern and, ironically, post-internationalist period of what rapidly became an increasingly global art world soon after his death…his sophistication as an artist was exceptional.” (Ibid., p. 55)