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From Unknown to Icon, the Work that Marked Basquiat’s Meteoric Rise

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 26 June will feature New York, New York – an early work by Jean-Michel Basquiat which marked the moment at which he was propelled from relative unknown to internationally recognised artist.

In 1981, following the success of the New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 in 1980, Jean-Michel Basquiat completed New York, New York for exhibition in his first solo show. Prior to the exhibition, he got to work creating a piece that captured the city which had fostered his artistic talent. New York, New York narrates the artist’s dramatic transition from spray painting the streets of Manhattan to painting on canvas in the studio and portrays a city in glorious disarray. One of the artist’s very best works from this period, it captures the gritty atmosphere of the city Basquiat grew up in, a metropolis in economic turmoil that incubated an extraordinarily creative artistic scene at the end of the 1970s.

In New York, New York Basquiat employs a tumult of forms that imply the vertiginous skyscrapers of New York’s famous skyline. Across a divergent landscape of marks, signs and symbols, Basquiat conveyed the world in which he lived, and crucially, how he made sense of it. This is also one of his earliest pieces to feature the later-iconic three-pointed crown: a sign of the coming ennoblement of black subjectivity in Western Art.

I wanted to paint like the Lower East Side and what it was like to live there.
Jean-Michel Basquiat

His first solo show, which took place in May, 1981 at the Galleria Mazzoli in Modena, Italy, marked the start of one of Basquiat’s most productive and successful years, and would establish the artist as a leading 20th century painter. A string of gallery shows followed, and the artist produced a collection of powerful canvases that have achieved almost mythological status, rapidly soaring from unknown street artist to international art icon.

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Basquiat by the Numbers
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