Artist Spotlight: Jean-Michel Basquiat
One of the most influential American artists of the latter part of the twentieth century, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) never favored a single medium to channel his explosive and irresistible interpretations of reality. Over the course of his tragically short but intensely-lived career, Basquiat worked with immediacy and vigor with the materials at hand and rendered traditional hierarchies of painting and drawing irrelevant. Between 1980 and the artist’s death in 1988, it is estimated that he created 850 to 1,000 works on paper; exceptional among these is Untitled (1987), distinguished in provenance, content, and the fact that it is signed and dated — gallerist and Basquiat scholar Fred Hoffman writes that Basquiat typically “would neither title nor sign a work until it left his possession. As such, many were neither titled nor signed.”
This artwork arrives at auction from the collection of American screenwriter and friend of Basquiat, Becky Johnston. Johnston is known for the award-winning films Seven Years in Tibet (1997) and The Prince of Tides (1991), and in 1985 had the opportunity to conduct a rare interview with Basquiat, who was 25 at the time. Noted especially for the candor with which Basquiat spoke, the interview was filmed by mutual friend and film director Tamra Davis. Davis would go on to direct her 2010 film Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child based on the momentous exchange, titling the documentary after Rene Ricard’s 1981 Artforum article that introduced Basquiat to the upper echelons of the New York art world. Johnston herself appears in Davis’s film portrait.
During Johnston’s interview, the young Basquiat touched upon his need for “source material,” noting that he frequently worked in front of the television. This lot brims with allusions to mass media, from the weather report-esque sun and text in the drawing’s upper left corner to Basquiat literally spelling out “Television program” in the upper right quadrant. Sweeping through the bottom half of the field are the two lines of a river or road, suggesting Basquiat’s navigational impulses. In their interview, Johnston and Basquiat also discussed the artist’s transition from graffiti to more traditional surfaces. Basquiat, born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican and Haitian immigrants, first gained notoriety for his anonymous graffiti under the moniker SAMO. He moved swiftly from working directly upon the built environment — walls and detritus gleaned from the streets — to canvas and paper, explaining to Johnston that “graffiti has a lot of rules in it as to what you can do and what you can’t do and I think it’s hard to make art under those conditions.” Regardless of his chosen surface, Basquiat’s spatial and environmental sensibilities would remain critical to his work going forward.
Acting as social cartographer, Basquiat translated both his internal and external experiences by synthesizing language, symbols, and other cultural references on the page. As Hoffman writes, “[Basquiat] discovered that he could shut out the myriad stimuli constantly bombarding him from the outside world; and at the same time, he could enable impressions, thoughts, memories, associations, fantasies, and observations formulating in his mind to simply pass through him, making their way onto a sheet of paper. From a very early age, Basquiat discovered that drawing was a process of ‘channeling’ in which he essentially functioned as a medium.”
While many of Basquiat’s drawings appear chaotic and densely packed with text and figures, Untitled stands out for its relative sparseness. Rendered in colored pencil and oil stick, this work is a clearly defined and uncluttered space inviting the viewer to meander through words, symbols, and organizational schema — at least several of which take on a totem-like quality through their repetition within the artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, the pairing of the word “NKISI” — a spirit-imbued fetish object originating in the Kongo —with the copyright symbol appears twice within Untitled. This motif references both the African diaspora and the commodification of culture, two topics of fascination for Basquiat, who used the copyright symbol from his earliest days as SAMO. The draw to rampant commercialism (elsewhere indicated through phrases like “Per capita” and “E. Pluribus Unum) is further emphasized within this drawing by green dollar bills and text including “Silver Nugget (Casino) Las Vegas” and “Free sample.” Semi-obscured by a vaguely phallic sketch, “Simbi of the leaves” is likely refers to syncretic snake spirits of Kongolese and Haitian origin. Crossing out was a frequent device for Basquiat, who once explained “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
Beyond physically moving through — and altering — New York’s urban landscape, Basquiat possessed an “innate capacity to function as an oracle,” according to Hoffman. The impact of Basquiat’s entwined trajectories through geographic and psychic space is still resounding today, not least in this rare drawing.
Davis, Tamra, dir. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. 2010. Amsterdam: Fortissimo Films.
Davis, Tamra and Becky Johnston, “Becky Johnston and Tamra Davis Interview Basquiat.” Interview by Tamra Davis and Becky Johnston. 1985. http://www.basquiat.cloud/becky-johnston-and-tamra-davis-interview-basquiat/
Hoffman, Fred. The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York: Enrico Navarra Gallery, 2017.
Jean-Michel Basquiat. Lugano, Switzerland: Museo d’Arte Moderna Cittá di Lugano, 2005.
Koehler, Robert. “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.” Review of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, dir. Tamra Davis. Variety, January 29, 2010.
LDK. “Basquiat, Brooklyn Museum, New York.” Accessed September 17, 2020. https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/basquiat
Van de Weghe. “Jean-Michel Basquiat Works on Paper.” Accessed September 17, 2020. https://www.vdwny.com/exhibitions/jean-michel-basquiat-works-on-paper
Colored pencil and oil stick on paper
Signed and dated sheet verso
Composition/sheet: 42″ x 29.5″
Provenance: Harry “Coco” Brown (acquired directly from the artist, 1987); Rebecca Johnston, California (gifted directly from the above, 1989)
October 18, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction