Lot 15
  • 15

Jean-Michel Basquiat

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 USD
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  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Untitled
  • acrylic, oilstick and spray paint on canvas

  • 78 1/2 x 72 in. 199.5 x 182.9 cm.
  • Painted in 1981.


Annina Nosei Gallery, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
Eugene and Barbara Schwartz, New York (acquired from the above in 1981)
Gifted to the Israel Museum by the above in 1985

Catalogue Note

The monumental self-portrait figure in Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled confronts the viewer with its penetrating gaze and aggressive stance. Dating from the artist's earliest seminal year, this painting dazzles in its execution just as it is a poignant reflection of the artist's continued turmoil despite his iminenet recognition. As a vehicle for the many tributaries of thought that inform Basquiat's aesthetic process, Untitled stands out as one of the most energetic of the artist's early works; a bravura piece of painting that leaves the viewer spellbound.

Overwhelming the entire picture plane, the raw, violent figure is crudely delineated: stick-like arms thrust in the air, bringing to mind the loaded image of a figure on a crucifix, reinforced by the jagged lines that surround the figure's head almost as in a crown or barbed constraints. This combative figure is the central motif of Basquiat's entire 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 black man in a white society. The brilliant swaths of paint create the implosion of form into pure energy, as the figure is built up with dense, muscular strokes of red, black, and blue, laid over an activated ground of orange, pink and yellow.  Linear lattices and jagged, barbed wire lines animate the figure and swoop through the tableau, conveying movement and a sense of urgency.  Basquiat's genius for mirroring the content of his painting with the manner of its application is never more completely realized than in Untitled, 1981, and the central figure's primitive mask-like face embodies all of the constrained energy of the composition.

1981-1982 were critical years in the emergence of Basquiat as an enfant terrible of the downtown avant-garde in New York. He was first exhibited in The Times Square Show in June 1980 along with other new wave, rap and graffiti artists, followed by a group show at P.S. 1 in Long Island City curated by Diego Cortez in February 1981. The downtown dealer Annina Nosei invited the artist to participate in a group show of sociopolitical art in September, after which she became the artist's primary dealer. With no studio space to work in, Basquiat moved into the basement of the Annina Nosei Gallery, now a fabled space where he was at last able to create freely, resulting in a prodigious group of masterworks such as Untitled, 1981. Eugene and Barbara Schwartz acquired the present work in the year in which it was painted, demonstrating a foresight into the impact of this young artist.

Basquiat's freshly urban and totally unique brand of intellectualized 'primitivism' was informed by a full spectrum of art historical and cultural sources: Jackson Pollock, graffiti art (both modern and ancient), Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, the religious and cultural influences from his Haitian/Puerto Rican family and the gritty urban environment of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.  The present work can be seen as a synthesis of Basquiat's interest in this diverse range of artists.  The fierceness of this painting, as well as the focus on the isolated figure at odds within its own environment recalls the rude urbanism in Dubuffet's paintings before 1950 and the totemic hieroglyphic figures of Pollock's early paintings.  Both artists' raw power and defiance of traditional aesthetic norms appealed to Basquiat. The sheer energy of confrontation evident in the present work also recalls Picasso's fleshy contests between man and woman; self and other; innocence and experience.  Untitled 1981 demonstrates Basquiat's ability as a self-taught artist who used his vast visual and cultural knowledge to create a fresh and entirely unique iconography.

As with much of Basquiat's work from this early period, Untitled may be seen as another fragment of the artist's landscape of autobiography which, in turn, continues to fuel the artist's legend.  He often painted himself and the present work shares many of the attributes one finds in works openly designated as self portraits.  The dreaded hair is typical of his works from the early 1980s; the embattled pose of the figure here represents the vigor of a 21-year old man who had begun to 'make it' as an artist but would remain distrustful of success as he could vividly recall sleeping in Washington Square Park a few years before.

The present work is a truly outstanding example of Jean-Michel Basquiat's terse aesthetic, throbbing with a network of impulses that informs his extraordinary means and forms of expression. Untitled neatly encapsulates his primary concern with the human figure as well as revealing a direct engagement with his autobiographical struggle to fulfill both desire and need. It also shows Basquiat's interest in, and how he weaves together, art-historical precedents. A confluence of interests abounds in the work, powerfully exemplifying the complex nature of his technical, conceptual and polemical energies. His life and art typify the extremes of the early 1980s in New York. Like a breath of fresh air, Basquiat's art broke rank with, usurped and, ultimately, became the canon, and was subsequently devoured by critics, dealers and collectors alike. His legacy continues to this very day: the potent exuberance of Untitled as challenging today as it was in 1981.