NEW YORK, 15 June 2020 – Sotheby’s will offer Jean-Michel Basquiat’s masterwork on paper Untitled (Head) from 1982 as a highlight of our Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York on 29 June 2020. The superlative work comes to auction this month with an estimate of $9/12 million.
An explosion of vivid color and frenzied mark-making, Untitled (Head) is a tour de force that stands as one of the most accomplished of Basquiat's ‘Heads’. The urgency and strength of the composition reflect the frenetic energy and creativity that characterized New York City in the 1980s, and the balance and fullness of the work are testament to the artist’s genius.
Untitled (Head) bears close resemblance to the seminal painting Untitled from 1981 in the collection of The Broad in Los Angeles and, like that work, ranks in the top echelon of the artist's practice. Held in the artist’s collection alongside many of his greatest pieces until his untimely death in 1988, the present work took pride of place in the storied Robert Miller Gallery exhibition of Basquiat’s drawings in 1990 – the show that cemented the works on paper as a cornerstone of his oeuvre.
Grégoire Billault, Head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department in New York, commented: “Untitled (Head) encapsulates the very best of Basquiat’s brilliant career. There is a sense of urgency and immediacy in this work that is truly exceptional – a prescient piece that captures and defines 1980s New York, and demonstrates the young artist’s profound psychological awareness. This is one of the greatest of Basquiat’s iconic Heads, and was the standout work of the Robert Miller show that helped illuminate the genius of his work on paper. With a key work like this, Basquiat locates himself within the lineage of great American painters.”
Enduring as both idiosyncratic self-portraits and skull-like talismanic icons, the single ferocious figures of Basquiat’s ‘Heads’ prevailed as a key conceptual anchor for Basquiat throughout his career, appearing in and dominating the majority of his best-known works. Remarkable for its extraordinary intensity, arresting coloration and visceral aesthetic impact, Untitled (Head) embodies the overwhelming power of Basquiat’s creative insurgency, and epitomizes the very best of the artist’s practice.
Reaching its apex in 1982, Basquiat’s exploration of the human head is his crowning achievement. He realized the universal relatability of this subject, recognizing that his viewers would see themselves in these works, using the intensity of his line, suppressed energy of his composition, and exuberance of his coloration to experience a degree of catharsis. In the case of the present work, its scorching gaze, bared teeth and fiercely delineated physiognomy express a degree of emotional intensity.
Basquiat was always drawing, whether he was working on paper or canvas, and it is as a function of this that his works on paper became a cornerstone of his practice. From 1983, as collage became one of his principle media, Xerox-ed drawings from his studio would become the substrate for his paintings. Rather than studies for his paintings, Basquiat’s drawings were literally foundational to his practice, and would provide the stimulus needed to work on a larger scale.
This reliance on drawings as a source of inspiration is further evidenced by his retention of several pivotal works on paper in his own collection until his untimely death in 1988. This group, which included the present work, were exhibited together in his celebrated posthumous show at Robert Miller Gallery in 1990, the show that cemented the reputation of Basquiat’s works on paper as a pivotal part of his career.
Vibrating with immediacy, consummate draughtsmanship and undeniable self-reflection, Untitled (Head) is a masterful example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s revered corpus of works on paper. Its creation was a moment of enlightenment, and it remained an enduring inspiration to the artist throughout his life, a perfect combination of fury and balance.