Lot 25
  • 25

Jean-Michel Basquiat

700,000 - 900,000 GBP
1,706,500 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated 1981 on the reverse
  • acrylic, oilstick and chalk on paper
  • 149.9 by 137cm.; 59 by 54in.


Alexander F. Milliken Inc., New York

Sale: Christie’s, New York, Contemporary Evening Sale, 15 November 2001, Lot 310

Private Collection, New York

Sale: Christie’s, New York, Post-War and Contemporary Art, 8 February 2007, Lot 20

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


Osaka, Kirin Plaza, Basquiat, Haring, Scharf, 1998, p. 14, illustrated


Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works on Paper, Paris 1999, p. 118, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Exuding dynamism and energy, Untitled, from 1981, is a magnificent distillation of the major themes and socio-cultural concerns that epitomised Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work during the earliest stage of his career. The present work features several motifs and symbols of key importance that were to recur throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre, including the prominently illustrated crown at the lower left corner and the repeated ‘S’ encased within the outline of a house. Whilst the reiterated ‘S’ recalls Basquiat’s graffiti moniker, SAMO – symbol of Basquiat’s early work and shortening of the phrase ‘same old shit, different day’ – the crown can arguably be read as a defining symbol of Basquiat’s street graffiti persona. The outline of a crown can also be seen at the upper right corner adorning a string of Roman numerals: although each numeral exists in reality, ranging from 1000 to 1, the entire grouping renders a meaningless number. Two smaller crowns hover above seemingly nonsensical doubles of capitals ‘E’ and ‘N’, accompanied by three emaciated, skeletal heads, a motif that was to be extensively explored by Basquiat within his later work. Basquiat delineates these symbols through highly assured manipulation of colour and line, with the velvety black of the background contrasting to striking effect with vivid orange and blue alongside the pure white of the chalk. Marc Mayer discusses Basquiat’s unbridled prowess with colour, noting that: “Few American artists deserve as much attention for their manipulation of colour…  Colour holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room” (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Brooklyn Museum (and travelling), Basquiat, 2005, p. 46).

Executed in the same vibrant blue as the larger crown, an eight-spoked wheel, perhaps symbolic of the Wheel of Fortune, floats alongside a diagrammatic representation of a skelly court, a street game similar to hopscotch which Basquiat would have encountered during his childhood in Brooklyn. Untitled, in common with other works from this early phase of Basquiat’s career, reveals the influence of New York’s frenetic metropolitan environment. Jeffrey Deitch explains that: “The New York street is one of Basquiat’s most essential inspirations. The work of 1981 reflects the visual and sonic experience of the streets of the East Village and Lower East Side where he was living and the Brooklyn streets where he grew up” (Jeffrey Deitch, ‘1981: The Studio of the Street’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Deitch Projects, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1981: The Studio of the Street, 2006, p. 13).

1981 was a year of seminal importance for Basquiat, marking his elevation from graffiti artist to a celebrated and widely feted member of New York’s cultural scene. Deitch states that it was in this year that Basquiat “made the transition from a profusely talented and promising artist working on the street to a world-class painter, poised to become one of the most influential artists of his time” (Jeffrey Deitch in: ibid., pp. 10-13). Basquiat first came to wider attention following his inclusion in the New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 in Long Island in February 1981. A show followed in Modena in May that year at the request of gallerist Emilio Mazzoli; but it was Annina Nosei’s decision to invite the artist to take part in a group show at her gallery in September that was to have the greatest impact on Basquiat’s early career trajectory. Nosei allowed the artist to use a room beneath her gallery as a studio, which enabled Basquiat to begin working on a larger scale and with a wider variety of materials than previously. A truly remarkable year for Basquiat was crowned by the release of René Ricard’s Radiant Child in December, in which Ricard wrote eulogistically of Basquiat’s early work: “The elegance of Twombly is there but from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet” (René Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child,’ quoted in: ibid., p. 242). Untitled was created during this year of profound artistic advancement and progress: a time that can arguably be considered a golden period of development for Basquiat, a young artist as yet relatively unaffected by the ravages of fame and celebrity,  at the very beginning of a highly promising and ground-breaking artistic career.