Lot 188
  • 188

Jean-Michel Basquiat

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
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  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Untitled (Blue Painting)
  • signed and dated 1986 on the reverse
  • acrylic and xerox collage on canvas
  • 163 by 200cm.; 64 1/8 by 78 3/4 in.


Fred Hughes Collection, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg
Acquired from the above by the present owner


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although the blue is brighter and the white is slightly warmer in the original. Condition: This work is in very good and original condition. The collage elements are stable. There are a few spots of wear to the extreme corner tips and intermittently towards the extreme outer edges. All other surface irregularities such as rubmarks and surface scratches are possibly inherent to the artist's working process. No restoration is apparent when examined under ultraviolet light.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Self-taught and inspired by childhood visits to the many art museums of New York City, the archaeological excavation of Basquiat’s visual lexicon reveals an outstanding absorption of art history’s wider narratives. Basquiat’s incomparable symbolism is enmeshed in a complex referential matrix that is grounded in the indigenous traditions of African tribal art, and mediated through the influence of artists such as Picasso, Twombly, Dubuffet, and the Abstract Expressionists of the likes of Clyfford Still. For Basquiat, the influence of these artists was twofold: both the stylistic emphasis on expressionistic mark-making and gestural abstraction, and the dynamic stimulus provided by the artists’ city, whether New York or Paris.

As with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning before him, Basquiat’s art is inextricably tied to the formative experience of New York’s cultural vitality. The curator Jeffrey Deitch has reflected on the artist: “Basquiat is the classic product of New York’s melting pot, an astounding hybrid that could not have evolved anywhere else. His paintings are a canvas jungle that harnesses the traditions of modern art to portray the ecstatic violence of the New York street. His graft of street culture onto high art is a classic example of how modernism continues to rejuvenate itself” (Jeffrey Deitch, ‘Jean-Michel’ in: Larry Warsh, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, New York 1993, p. 13). Taking inspiration from street graffiti, voodoo and newspapers, Untitled is stylistically akin to Basquiat’s elementary notebooks and preparatory drawings, and is redolent with schematic immediacy and lyrical expressionism.

The visual relation between Basquiat with Dubuffet was first ventured in 1981 by poet and critic Rene Ricard, in his now-legendary article ‘The Radiant Child’. Ricard writes: “If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby, and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there but from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet. Except the politics of Dubuffet needed a lecture to show, needed a separate text, whereas in Jean-Michel they are integrated by the picture’s necessity” (Rene Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, 20 December 1981, p. 43). The present work certainly captures elements of Dubuffet’s renowned Paris Circus series, in which the artist celebrated the vital energy pulsating through the French capital in the 1960s, returning to the city after a six year self-imposed hiatus in the countryside. Further, Untitled is striking for the visual similarities in graphic quality to the Dubuffet’s L’Hourloupe series. The L’Hourloupe style developed from a chance doodle while the artist was on the telephone; the basis of it was a tangle of clean black lines that forms cells, which are sometimes filled with unmixed colour. The French artist believed the style evoked the manner in which objects appear in the mind. In the same manner, these core elements of line and colour are embedded in Basquiat’s grids, patterns and graffiti aesthetic, and resonate with his pared-back compositions of the later 1980s.

Emphatically encapsulating Basquiat’s drawing-based approach, there is no perspectival discipline or spatial recession to the composition of Untitled; rather it is focused on surface, colour and painterly intensity. As the critic Robert Storr has written: “The generally solid, reverberant colours of his backgrounds and the blocky nature of his shapes are the roughly gridded armatures against which one visually measures the spasms of mark-making and painterly abandon that bespeak not only Basquiat’s fluctuating moods in the manner expected of any self-consciously expressive artist, but the temper of his milieu and his moment in abrupt strokes and quivering forms that register the tremors of the 1980s with a hypersensitivity that few of his contemporaries possessed.” (Robert Storr, ‘What Becomes a Legend Most’, in: Exh. Cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Basquiat, 2010, p. xl). This is unequivocally reflected in the manner in which the vast expanse of the rich blue sky acts as a heavenly backdrop for the billowing cumulonimbus clouds, stirring dynamically yet graciously across the painting and highlighting the lone floating head. The suspended head on the left hand side of the composition is evocative of the way in which bodies are represented in Basquiat’s work, with unwavering simplicity yet confident presence.

In this regard, discussing both the physical bodies that populate Basquiat’s work and the gestural expressionism of his marks, Storr continues: “Basquiat’s “body electric” is, correspondingly, both the source and the receptor of his art’s energy and the energy of adjacent bodies inside and outside his pictures. At either its most frantic or its most attenuated, the exact quantity of energy originally infused within each animated form or each rectangular or irregularly configured format remains undiminished and available” (Robert Storr, ‘What Becomes a Legend Most,’ in: Ibid., p. xl). The present work displays Basquiat’s experimental handling of painting techniques and supports, as well as his idiosyncratic vocabulary of signs, symbols, and ciphers. To this end, the curator Klaus Kertess has declared: “Perhaps more than any other member of his generation, Basquiat was responsible for reintegrating drawing into painting. Knowledgeably and fearlessly he brought new life and credibility to the kind of frenetic mark making that preceding generations of the avant-garde had suppressed and/or abhorred” (Klaus Kertess, ‘The Word’ in: Larry Warsh, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, New York 1993, p. 17). Indeed, here Basquiat’s personal visual lexicon is exemplified through the principles of purity and scale, integrated with a particularly rich blue vocabulary. Finally, there is a suggestion of the psychological automatism reminiscent of Surrealism through the work’s heterogeneous pictorial and linguistic elements giving the picture an undeniably dreamy and evocative ambience, a masterful example of Basquiat’s oeuvre.