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Christie's New York to offer a previously unseen masterwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 68 x 103 in. (172.7 x 261.6 cm.). Executed in 1981. Estimate: $20,000,000 – 30,000,000. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2014.

NEW YORK, NY.- On May 13th, Christie's Evening Auction of Post-War & Contemporary Art will present a major painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, created in the seminal year of 1981 and carefully preserved in the same private collection since it was acquired to Annina Nosei in 1982. Untitled is estimated to realize in the region of $20-30 million.

The year 1981 marked Jean-Michel Basquiat’s transcendence from the leading figure on the underground art scene, SAMO, to the established world of international art stardom. Untitled, 1981 is an emblem to this success, created at this precise moment in Basquiat’s career when he was channeling the raw energy of his street art into the medium of fine art. Executed on canvas and on a scale akin to the wall expanses he had previously utilized on the street of downtown New York City, Basquiat’s menacing warrior basks in a vibrant orange and crimson backdrop built up from broad swathes of acrylic paint. Laid down on peach ground, the anatomical makeup of Basquiat’s warrior emerges from scrawls of black, white and brown oilstick. Illuminating the figure from within, this haloed aura along with punctuations of yellow and black paint as well as metallic spra-paint come together to form a mandorla of sorts, a typical motif found in the rendering of Christ in Majesty. Fierce and intimidating, Basquiat’s regal warrior with glowing red eyes and bared teeth embodies the artist’s own feelings of triumph after his sudden rise to international art world fame. Just as Basquiat, the “king of the streets” had conquered the art world, his warrior too has been crowned king victorious. Replete with the graffiti-inspired text and imagery that first garnered Basquiat attention during his SAMO days, Untitled reinforces Basquiat’s street heritage and revels in it with the framing of this work with crowns, a motif that, along with the copyright sign and comic book seal, signifies Basquiat’s own personal emblem and seal of approval. Untitled has been held in the same collection since it was first seen in the artist’s studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery in 1982.

By the end of 1981, Basquiat was installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery on 100 Prince Street and working on prepared canvas. Of this time Basquiat explained: “She offered me a studio. It was the first time I had a place to work. I took it, you know. Not seeing the drawbacks until later... it was right in the gallery, you know. She used to bring collectors down there, so it wasn’t very private. I didn’t mind. I was young. It was a place to work, which I never had before” (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 87). Basquiat’s presence at Nosei’s gallery was creating a stir in the art world.

Much of that self-assurance is captured in the painterly application of Untitled, the broad swathes of vibrant color put down in a fashion that does not convey one moment of hesitation or second-guessing on Basquiat’s part. Indeed it isn’t just his rendering of a strong and regal warrior-figure which conveys a sense of Basquiat’s personal triumph from the time, but the palette as well. Extending from this, friend Valda Grinfelds noted that at the time, “he told me that when he was taking a cab home from my place, he drove down Park Avenue. The sun was coming up, and the Pan Am building was still illuminated. He just said, ‘It made me feel like a king’” (V. Grinfelds, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 92).

Untitled is situated in the heart of what many critics and art historians consider the first critical phase of Basquiat’s career, that is between 1980-1982. In its bright palette and conflation of painting and drawing, it exemplifies works from this period which were created using bold, painterly gestures on canvas, centered on skeletal figures and mask-like faces, signaling his interest in black subjects and imagery derived from the street and the environment of New York City. In the roughly hewn buildup of raw, unadulterated, hot reds, pinks and oranges, Untitled exemplifies his painterly technique from this period: broad aggressive strokes and flat expanses of color.

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