8 Defining Works of Jean-Michel Basquiat's Career

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Of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent, and raised in Brooklyn, Basquiat drew from his manifold ancestral background and racial identity to forge a body of work acutely conscious of his contribution to the meta-narrative of an almost exclusively white Western art history. Basquiat’s short yet prolific career as a working artist began in the mid-1970s with his street art pseudonym SAMO, short for 'same old shit,' capturing the punk aesthetic of young New York at the time. The life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat have taken on a renewed importance in recent years as America revisits its relationship with race and identity. Click ahead to for an in-depth look at the works coming to auction representing the breadth of the artist’s career.  

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8 Defining Works of Jean-Michel Basquiat's Career

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Estimate $600,000–800,000.
    Much like Picasso, Basquiat focused just as much energy on his works on paper as he did his paintings. In the first few months of 1982, the young artist produced a series of similarly rendered and equally riveting faces. These existed as individual characters, stagnant and floating in space, yet fraught with motion and expression. Basquiat’s raw, primitive aesthetic recalls Picasso’s captivation with the aesthetic of traditional African art and sculpture. In particular, both artists drew inspiration from ancestral African masks, which has become integral to the discourse on affinity and cultural appropriation in art. Basquiat took a particular interest in Picasso’s abstracted aesthetic, and pursued a similar pictorial approach in his own work. Drafted in a flat, reductive style with minimal facial detail, Untitled evokes the formal qualities of the legendary African masks he would have seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child. 

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Estimate Upon Request.
    Jubilantly demonstrative of the radical creative pinnacle of Basquiat’s career, Untitled offers a ferocious portrait of an artist defined by explosive talent and calamitous brilliance. Ritualistically lining and relining the crude cranium, Basquiat constricts the combustive colour and mark of his figure within a thrumming web of dark oil stick, alluding to an interior realm as richly textured and variegated as the canvas below. Enacting an exceptionally groundbreaking use of figuration, Untitled breaks down the dichotomy between the external and internal, revealing the cacophonous innermost aspects of psychic life with breathtaking dynamism. Visual and emotive forces are fused as, turning to his canvas, Basquiat renders a figure that is raw and aggressive, a cacophonous melee of colour, gesture, light and sound held together by the unwavering confidence of the artist’s line.

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Oreo), 1988. Estimate $700,000–900,000.
    With his ascent to international acclaim came a sudden rock star lifestyle and subsequent drug addiction. Untitled (Oreo) , painted in the year of his tragic, untimely death is an almost serene reflection on the artist's rapid rise and fall, representing in one image the internal struggle of one of the 1980s most prolific and infamous artists. 'Oreo' being a term for a person who has betrayed or forgotten their blackness, black on the outside, white on the inside, this work directly and unambiguously addresses the subject of race, more specifically Basquiat’s experience of his own race in an art world dominated by white Americans and European. Untitled (Oreo) is strikingly straightforward, nearly monochrome and lacking his characteristic ‘primitive’ figures and imagery.

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Antar, 1985. Estimate $3,000,000–4,000,000.
    Sophisticated, confident and radiating a conviction of artistic vision, the extraordinary visual power of Antar is a sheer testament to the thriving talent of a young and brilliant artistic spirit who, by 1985, had truly secured his position at the vanguard of an artistic consciousness. The present work solidified Basquiat as a figure who dashed effortlessly between art historical precedents in order to create a wholly individual painting deeply suffused with personal history, memory and emotion.

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Tobacco), 1984. Estimate $600,000–800,000.
    By 1984, the year in which Untitled (Tobacco) was executed, Basquiat was fully established as the acknowledged prodigy of the international art world. In the year running up to the creation of the present work, he exhibited in seventeen group shows and four major solo shows across America, Europe and Japan, in addition to achieving the honour of being the youngest artist to ever be included in the Whitney Biennial. No longer the precocious outsider, Basquiat’s confidence in his own abilities is readily apparent in the remarkable virtuosity and variance of Untitled (Tobacco) . Expounding upon the frenetic haste that characterises his early output, Basquiat’s line appears almost continuous in the present work, delineating the bold outline of the central figure with a tenacious certainty.

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Santo 4, 1982. Estimate $1,800,000–2,500,000.
    Not only did 1982 bring about extraordinary critical success for Basquiat, it also saw the birth of a celebrated corpus of works stretched over jutting corner supports and exposed stretcher bars. Basquiat and his assistant at the time set about crafting stretchers and frames out of a whole host of found materials such as carpet tacks, rope, canvas and wooden mouldings. Insouciant and purposefully rudimentary, these structures physically dismantle and imbue the grand tradition of painting on canvas with the tribal and primitive, while also referencing a grander art historical tradition of assemblage and collage most influentially advanced in postwar American art by figures such as Robert Rauschenberg.

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, In the Wings, 1986. Estimate $5,000,000–7,000,000.
    Painted in the crucial moment of 1986, just two years before his untimely death, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s In the Wings is undoubtedly one of the most charismatic cultural portraits of his entire oeuvre. Adding to the limited number of important paintings that he dedicated to the greatest jazz legends of the Twentieth Century, here Basquiat enshrines the image of Lester Young – arguably the most influential and innovative saxophonists of all time – and creates a highly personal, devotional icon for posterity. 

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled ('Bird'), 1982. Estimate $500,000–700,000.
    "In Basquiat's figures, this Warholian image of 'life back from the dead' (a zombie-like cast transforming the features of the living into instant ancestral commemorations) takes on a distinctly new form, 'feeling' and content...it becomes both a silhouette and an X-ray. The silhouette of a half-spooky, half-humorous black figure that appeared years ago on many New York walls, particularly on street corners in rundown neighborhoods...it conveyed a striking sense of isolation (and, of course, loneliness), vulnerability that became in itself a shield."  

    Francesco Pellizzi, "Black and White All Over" in Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now's the Time, 2015, pp. 186-187 


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