Lot 182
  • 182

Jean-Michel Basquiat

600,000 - 800,000 USD
855,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated '87 on the reverse
  • graphite on paper


Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in May 1987

Catalogue Note

“Basquiat's work, like that of most of his peers, was based on appropriation…the images he appropriated - whether they were from the Bible or a chemistry textbook - became part of his original vocabulary… Basquiat combined and recombined these idiosyncratic symbols throughout his career: the recursive references to anatomy, black culture, television and history are his personal hieroglyphics.”

Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 332)

Executed in 1987 and acquired by the present owner in the same year, Untitled is an anthology of the rich iconography which flows through Jean-Michel Basquiat’s entire oeuvre. The detailed rows of pictographs laid out in graphite are a map of the artist’s complex language of symbols and code, and act as a key to decipher the hidden meaning in his artworks. Basquiat drew almost constantly throughout his lifetime, creating a vast number of works on paper that were as fully realized as each of his larger paintings. Words and language played a fundamental part in Basquiat’s compositions; Basquiat successfully blended language and image into his unique and innovative visual lexicon, reinvigorating the medium. Looking to Cy Twombly for inspiration, Basquiat seamlessly integrated text into his artistic expression, elevating it to the status of drawing.

Much of Basquiat’s distinctive vocabulary was mined from the visual references around him and evolved from the characteristic markings he left scattered around Lower Manhattan during his early career as the graffiti artist SAMO. In Untitled, Basquiat recalls his street art past by incorporating a series of symbols he came across in Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook, especially the “hobo signs” which travelling vagabonds would use to denote certain areas as safe or treacherous along the road. Many of the repeated sketches in the present work are copied from the “hobo signs”: the cat symbolizes that there is a kind lady in residence, while the large circles warn that there is “nothing to be gained here.” Several of these signs appear throughout his artistic practice, repeated like incantations in his drawings and larger paintings. This language of wanderers is blended with other references to chemistry, anatomy and engineering, juxtaposing street smarts with academic thought, and providing insight into Basquiat’s artistic process and interests. Taken as a whole, Untitled represents a sophisticated mosaic of the artist’s singular pictorial vocabulary, a graphic outline of his interests spilled out onto the page, and a guide for understanding the symbols which populate his entire body of work.