Lot 38
  • 38

Jean-Michel Basquiat

7,000,000 - 10,000,000 USD
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  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Onion Gum
  • titled on the reverse
  • acrylic and oilstick on canvas
  • 78 1/4 by 80 in. 198.7 by 203.2 cm.
  • Executed in 1983.


Mary Boone, New York / Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Private Collection, United States
Sotheby's, New York, November 13, 2012, Lot 42
Private Collection, New York


Mälmo, Rooseum, Jean-Michel Basquiat & Julian Schnabel, April - May 1989, p. 33, no. 15, illustrated in color 
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Houston, The Menil Collection; Des Moines, Des Moines Art Center; and Montgomery, Alabama, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1992 - January 1994, p. 149, illustrated in color
Trieste, Museo Revoltella, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May - September 1999, p. 73, illustrated in color 
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna della Città di Lugano, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March - June 2005, p. 50, no. 20, illustrated in color and p. 160, illustrated
St. Moritz, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Jean-Michel Basquiat, December 2010 - January 2011
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, February - April 2013, pp. 125 and 205, illustrated in color


Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 2nd Ed., Vol. II, p. 100, no. 2, illustrated in color
Mauro Covacich, La poetica dell'Unabomber, Rome, 1999, illustrated in color on the cover (detail)
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, 3rd Ed., Vol. II, p. 154, no. 2, illustrated in color


This work is in excellent condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at (212) 606-7254 for the condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon. This canvas is framed in a blonde wood frame.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

“Onion gum makes your mouth taste like Onions”; through this intriguingly enigmatic dictum, repeated twice in capitalized scrawl, we enter into the exuberantly particular symbolic world of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Indulging in the realm of child-like automatism, across the surface of Onion Gum, the artist endows the most peculiarly quotidian of phrases with mantra like statuses, creating a strange poetry in his tautologically nonsensical repetition. Akin to the surrealist poetry of André Breton, the linguistic elements offer us a window into the racing thoughts of a mind rapidly inspired by its immediate surroundings. As noted by Jeffrey Deitch, “Basquiat’s canvases are aesthetic dropcloths that catch the leaks from a whirring mind. He vacuums up cultural fall-out and spits it out on the stretched canvas, disturbingly transformed.” (Jeffrey Deitch cited in Larry Warsh, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, New York 1993, p. 13) Painted in 1983 during the heightened escalation of his success and in the most productive years of his tragically short artistic career, Onion Gum is an accomplished vision of Basquiat’s engagement with advertising and commercial signs, presenting the profoundly enthralling semiotic play that makes his work a unique and significant contribution to the history of painting.

Following the laudation of his arrival to the New York art scene through René Ricard’s seminal 1981 text ‘Radiant Child,” the years of 1982-1983 represented a watershed moment for Basquiat. At first he produced a landmark solo show at Annina Nosei Gallery and participated in Documenta in Kassel.  Exhibiting there alongside the greatest figures of twentieth-century art, including  Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly, he became the youngest artist to ever partake in this historic exhibition. The year in which the present work was created, 1983, marks a solidification of institutional recognition as Basquiat participated in the Whitney Biennial, which in turn crystalized his commercial success. At the Whitney dinner he met Mary Boone, the “New Queen of the Art Scene” who would soon represent the ambitious artist propelling him further into the cultural spotlight. Concerning this period Basquiat remarked: "I had some money. I made the best paintings ever.” (the artist quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, "New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist," The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p. 29)      

In 1983, Basquiat also strengthened bonds with his iconic mentor, Andy Warhol, from whom he rented a studio. The two famously began their “collaboration” paintings in this year and inaugurated a short-lived but fruitful artistic exchange. Whilst Warhol established an eminent career through the glorification of iconic symbols from advertising and everyday consumption, in the present work we see Basquiat taking a far more sardonic view of the world of commerce. Onion Gum sees Basquiat unpicking the tricks and tactics used to sell products, including that product in which he had the most vested interests: art. At the heart of Onion Gum is a multifaceted joke base on this idiosyncratically cryptic phrase. ‘SOAP’ is an analogous motto that Basquiat utilized in other works, referring to a common prank that he reformulated as a racially charged, satirical device: “Black Face Soap, a joke item advertised in the back of comic books that turns the users face a black color, illustrates the internalized racism characteristic of American society and promulgated in young readers.”(Richard D. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects” in Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, p. 31)

‘Onion gum’ is a novelty item which holds the appearance of regular gum but has an intensely foul taste.  Basquiat’s use of esoteric prank items and childish jokes epitomizes his movement of quotidian commerce into the realm of high culture, typified in the gallery space.  In this case, the artist plays a pointed joke on the rigid art establishment over which he had conflicting desires regarding his position within and outside of it. Just as an alluring ‘onion gum’ leaves a surprising taste, Basquiat’s paintings, though fast becoming the most coveted works of his time,  still bear a rough aesthetic with a sarcastic edge. They circulate around an air of mystery, typifying Basquiat’s position as a semiotic sorcerer, alluding to meaning that may or may not be there.

The artist makes poetry of obscure chemical compounds, isolating letters and phrases within them: the particular graphic attention paid to a ‘T’ drawn from ‘thiamine’ evokes an element of the periodic table; “mononitrate” gives birth to “onio”- a whimsical mutation of the painting’s namesake. Words are crossed out and sentences stop in the middle, testifying to the erratic nature of his creative frenzy. This tactic is crucial to Basquiat’s allure and his semantic trickery: “I cross out words so you will want to see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” (the artist quoted in Robert Farris Thompson, "Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat" in, Graham Lock and David Murray, Eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Culture, Oxford, 2008, p. 262) The rhythmic dispersal, rupturing, and repetition of words also finds kinship with the contemporaneous innovation of the re-mix and sonic methods of early Hip-Hop, which was breaking out of the Brooklyn vanguard music scene at this time. Recalling the ‘SAMO’ graffiti tags that Basquiat marked the streets of Soho with as a youth, the idea of tagging and branding also comes to the fore with Basquiat’s trademark use of the copyright symbol.

At the center of the wordplay, a crude head is articulated with a uniquely gestural splattering of blue, evoking Abstract Expressionist forbears such as Jackson Pollock and exhibiting the versatility of Basquiat’s painterly hand. Visibly disgusted, this unworldly character is tormented by another symbolic figure atop his head dangling two wily snakes; we see the victim of the prank latent in the piece. The red accents of the serpents’ tongues mirror the text as well as the red eyes, fiery mouth and steaming vapor off the pained mask. Obsessed with Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Source Book, the medical connotations of the serpents would not be lost on Basquiat, nor would their biblical symbolism as facilitators of the original sin. Through a masterful collision of aggressive acid tones, Basquiat creates a sensorially overwhelming allegory of the psychological aggravation of consumer culture, embodied in this Pagan symbol of advertising. The inherent clashes between the stark yellow ground and the blood red scrawl go against all traditional understanding of color balancing, as Basquiat courts his growing patrons through an array of visual tricks.  It proclaims a new vibrant aesthetic that the public was hungry for. At the height of his commercial success Basquiat serves 'onion gum’: something seemingly delicious yet inherently distasteful.