Lot 205
  • 205


800,000 - 1,200,000 USD
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  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Leverage
  • graphite, acrylic and paper collage on paper
  • 29 7/8 by 22 1/4 in. 75.9 by 56.5 cm.
  • Executed in 1985.


Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner


São Paulo, Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil; Brasilia, Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil; Belo Horizonte, Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil; and Rio de Janeiro, Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Obras da Colecao Mugrabi, January 2018 - January 2019, p. 133, illustrated in color


This work is in very good condition overall. Please contact the Contemporary Department at (212) 606-7254 for a professional condition report prepared by Paper Conservation Studio, Inc. Framed.
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

Riddled with layers of expressive connotation, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1985 Leverage pulsates with creative furor, exhibiting the spectrum of ferocious mark-making for which the artist is celebrated. Executed during the midpoint of Basquiat’s all-too-short career, the present work contends with some of the most potent and fundamental themes addressed throughout his oeuvre, from the exchange of cultural currency, the acquisition of power, and the centrality of language to systems of inequality. The very title of the present work embodies the essence of Basquiat’s artistic project; rife with multiple suggestions of meaning, the word “leverage” denotes power or effectiveness as well as clout. Amidst the present work’s accumulation of notations, scrawling, and arrangements of word-plays, a jet-black head emerges—locked into the rigid space between the edge of the drawing and the sheet of paper collaged onto the center of the composition. Its impenetrable ink, juxtaposed with its hallowed eyes, embodies Fred Hoffmann’s analysis of the human head as motif in Basquiat’s work: "What drew Basquiat almost obsessively to the depiction of the human head was his fascination with the face as a passageway from exterior physical presence into the hidden realities of man’s psychological and mental realms…they not only peer out as if seeing, but also invite the viewer to penetrate within" (Fred Hoffman cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Acquavella Galleries, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Works from the Schorr Family Collection, 2014, p. 74). Absorbing, warping, and reshaping the myriad cacophonous influences of the street, Basquiat uses Leverage as a means to chart his analysis of socio-political injustice and the realities of systemic inequality in 1980s downtown New York. Emblazoned with an array of motifs and word combinations, Leverage synthesizes Basquiat’s influences, channeling the political heft of his messaging into a supremely dynamic composition of frenetic, rampant inscription. Upon close inspection, viewers can discern the work’s several inscribed copyright symbols. In terms particularly evocative of the present work, Richard Marshall writes that “the © is Basquiat’s stamp of approval, authority, ownership, and originality. In an ironic tone, he also used the copyright symbol to undermine the notion of ownership of ideas […] sarcastically commenting on the obsession with legitimacy, ownership, and authorship, even of his often cryptic, subversive, and anti-ownership phrases” (Richard Marshall quoted in: “Repelling Ghosts,” in: Exh. Cat., New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art (and traveling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1992 - February 1993, p. 16). Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat’s mixed heritage comes to the forefront in Leverage through his brilliantly evocative admixture of French, Spanish, and English words—several of which hold fraught connotations. A mask-like bull, a polysemous symbol and a great hallmark of Basquiat’s visual language, crowns the composition. The image self-consciously draws a dialogue between traditional African masks and the work of Western masters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who were greatly inspired by such so-called “Primitive Art.” Leverage reclaims the icon of the mask, heralding its significance and embodying Dieter Buchhart’s argument that “Basquiat’s artistic genius reflects the pulsing setting of his times – New York in the 1980s – as well as attacks against humanity within the context of colonialism, slavery and racism present in his contemporary society” (Dieter Buchhart cited in: Charlotte Jansen, “The Legend of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Fold Magazine, 2018, online).

One of the greatest draftsmen of the Twentieth Century, Basquiat harnessed the graphic aesthetic he cultivated as a street artist while also looking “to the vocabulary of modern art for the technical means and painterly styles that would accommodate his message” (Richard Marshall quoted in: “Repelling Ghosts,” in: Exh. Cat., New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art (and traveling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1992 - February 1993, p. 15). Picasso provided a model of expressionistic portraiture that enabled Basquiat to depict subjects without inhibition: with unwavering, bold distortions and remarkably strong lines. In describing the artistic affinity between Basquiat and Jean Dubuffet, Richard Marshall writes that “Dubuffet, believing that true art could only be found outside the traditions of the artistic elite,” demonstrated a raw and unfiltered view of street life that Basquiat gravitated toward in his similarly brutish examinations of urbanity. Leverage exhibits Basquiat’s admiration of Cy Twombly’s graffiti-esque mark-making and his regard for Robert Rauschenberg’s turn to urban detritus in his multivariate “Combines.” A searing and provocative rumination on the dark underbelly of New York in the 1980s, Leverage speaks in the language of the great modern masters, inviting sustained contemplation of society’s grave injustices.