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Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled, 1981 poised to achieve the highest price for the artist
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled, 1981. Acrylic, oilstick and spray paint on canvas, 78 x 72in. (199.5 x 182.9cm.). Estimate in the region of $20 million. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2012.
NEW YORK, NY.- On 27 June, Christie's Evening Auction of Post-War & Contemporary Art will present a selection of important works including a pivotal painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, created in the seminal year of 1981. Bursting forth from the canvas in a combustive palette of scarlet red, dusky pink, vermillion and fluorescent yellow, Untitled is an intuitive, gestural maelstrom from the very height of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s practice. Undertaken in 1981 and formerly owned by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Untitled is one of the artist’s earliest masterpieces, marrying the gritty urbanism of his street graffiti with his raw and guttural symbolism. In 2007, Untitled, sold for $14.6 million, breaking the artist’s world auction record at the time, today, the estimate is within the region of $20 million, positioning it to break Basquiat’s record again, which was achieved last May in New York at $16.3 million.

Brett Gorvy, Chairman and International Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art, declared: “This outstanding ‘self-portrait' is a tour de force in Basquiat’s short career and was executed before his recognition and success. His rising energy added to the use of a mix of acrylic, oilstick and spray paint which makes the vibrant intensity of the monumental central figure unrivaled. The art market has never been this strong, and the demand for masterpieces like this work is global. We are happy to offer this work in June in London, following the record auction results achieved in New York a few weeks ago.”

The character standing in the center of the monumental composition is part self-portrait, reflecting the artist’s short, close-cropped hair at the time, and part boxing legend, alluding to those mighty African-American champions Sugar Ray Robinson, Cassius Clay and Joe Louis. Sanctified in Basquiat’s pantheon of black sporting stars, the figure is crowned with a halo of scrawled, meandering paint: yellow, black and white like some radiant effigy or sacrificial martyr.

1981 was a remarkable year for Jean-Michel Basquiat, marking his transition from the streets to the studio. At the beginning of the year, Basquiat had been painting on found objects, discarded windows, doors, pieces of wood and metal; the debris of New York City. By the end of the year, he had become an incumbent star in the art world, installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s Prince Street gallery and showcased in international exhibitions. These included the New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 curated by Mudd Club founder Diego Cortez, which effectively launched Basquiat’s career, and his first show in Europe at the Galleria Mazzoli, in Modena, Italy. New York had been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure; whole swathes of the city were being vacated by white-collar workers and businesses in favour of the suburbs with much of Soho, Tribeca, the Lower East Side and the East Village being abandoned. At the same time popular culture and mainstream art had lost its sense of avant-garde innovation and it is against this background that a new underground creativity began to emerge.

From 1981-1982, Basquiat was becoming increasingly interested in his own identity and genealogy. In particular, he began to focus on those public figures, past and present, which were setting new precedents and changing the fortunes of black and Hispanic people in dominantly white America. Turning to the pantheon of `Famous Negro Athletes’, one of the few professions black people were allowed to excel in, Basquiat made reverential tributes to fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Casius Clay and Joe Louis.






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