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Jean Michel Basquiat (1960 - 1988)

Lot 26: l - JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT

Sotheby's

November 12, 2003
New York, NY, US

More About this Item


Description

SIGNED AND DATED (MAKER'S MARKS)
signed with the initials and dated 82

Dimensions

80 by 125 in.

203.2 by 317.5 cm

Artist or Maker

1960-1988

Medium

acrylic and oilstick on canvas

Exhibited

New York, Annina Nosei Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March - April 1982
Los Angeles, Larry Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings, April - May 1982
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Houston, The Menil Collection; Iowa, Des Moines Art Center; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1992 - January 1994, pp. 2-3 and p. 240 (installation shot at Larry Gagosian Gallery, 1982), illustrated in color
London, Serpentine Gallery Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1996
Groningen, Groninger Museum, Azzedine Alaïa, 1998
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April - May 1998, illustrated
Venice, Fondazione Bevilacque La Masa, Basquiat a Venezia, June - October 1999, pp. 68-69 and cover, illustrated in color
North Miami, Museum of Contemporary Art, Mythic Proportions: Painting in the 1980s, February - May 2001, np., illustrated

Literature

Galerie Enrico Navarra, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2nd Ed., Vol. 2, Paris, 1996, pp. 92-93, illustrated in color
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, pp. 104-105, illustrated in color

Provenance

Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
Pace Gallery, New York
Sotheby's, New York, November 5, 1985, lot 74
Quentin Vidor, Los Angeles (acquired from the above)
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above

Notes

Untitled (Two Heads on Gold) is one of Jean-Michel Basquiat's most powerful compositions and certainly one of the most important to have come to auction. It is a quintessential work, one loaded with a dense network of ideas, and dazzling in both its drawing and painting. The present work stands out as an exceptional example of the artist's unique talent.

Violently thrust to the front of the picture plane, two looming heads confront each other and the viewer, their penetrating gazes surveying and scrutinizing all that surrounds them. Both figures are crudely delineated: stick-like arms are thrust into the air, in a gesture of jubilation. This action is mirrored by the two crowns of wildly sprouting hair that adorn the heads of both figures. This, in turn, is in contrast to the simple, block-like constructs that ideogrammatically mark the body, yet are enlivened by fizzing spirals suggesting both a physical and psychological movement. Both heads may be seen as self-portraits. Basquiat often painted himself and the present work shares many of the attributes one finds in works openly designated at self-portraits. The wild dreadlocks on both figures are typical of his works in 1982; the triumphant pose of a young 22-year old man who had 'made it' as an artist can also be seen in other self-portraits at this time. Interestingly, Basquiat depicts himself as if in self-conversation. Both figures seem to engage with each other, with their three-quarter poses inching towards each other and through the positioning of their arms. It is as if the artist engages one side of his artistic temperament and sensibility with another; the Id on the left, spewing ideas in a stream of (un)consciousness, connects with the Ego on the right, calmer and more deliberate.

The meeting of the confident and the vulnerable is typical of Basquiat's pursuit, where 'Self' is always established in terms of the 'Other'. His short career saw the artist in a permanent state of flux, constantly struggling with a number of crucial issues that would fuel and inform his arresting aesthetic and complex personality. His heritage; his extraordinary rise to artistic fame and his own addictions were, in many ways, personal demons for the artist. Given that so much of his art was experientially configured, these 'demons' provided an autobiographical platform upon which he developed his terse, incisive exploration into cultural constructions of 'Self' and 'Other'. Indeed, his monolithic oeuvre may be seen, in totality, as a way of engaging with and chasing such demons, with Untitled (Two Heads on Gold) as one of his most illustrious and complete examples.

The present work is a truly outstanding example of Jean-Michel Basquiat's terse aesthetic, throbbing with a network of impulses that informs his extraordinary means and forms of expression. The present work neatly encapsulates his primary concern with the human figure as well as revealing a direct engagement with his autobiographical struggle to fulfill both desire and need. It also shows Basquiat's interest in, and how he weaves together, art-historical precedents, both from and outside the Western canon. A confluence of interests abounds in the work, powerfully exemplifying the complex nature of his technical, conceptual and polemical energies.

Basquiat here depicts himself akin to one of his favored motifs: that of the skull. Skulls pepper his early production, both painted and drawn, and for the artist this motif was extremely important as an object metonymy, just as cars and crowns were. Indeed, amuletic forces pulsate throughout this painting. Sensitive to art-history, the artist was fully aware of the extant meanings already associated with the skull. For ages past, the skull was a Vanitas Sign; an image or object upon which man could contemplate his own death and, by extension, his own life. Basquiat's skulls are, of course, images of himself, lending another level of Signification to the canvas, outlined below. The two heads are aggressively configured, confronting us as well as each other. Their graphic punch, coupled with the dazzling movement of the brush and the bold passages of gold and green paint, invest this important work with a movement and vitality that elevates it from the dry academy of mere iconography.

The skull is, of course, the artist's, as mentioned above. However, the visages we see do not appear ghostly or pallid. The surface glows with kaleidoscopic, saturated color; the fizzing spirals that move in and out of the heads suggest that this is a mind working on overdrive. The eyes are alive. Paint flashes across the canvas, in bold swathes and drips that counterbalance the precision of the drawing, lending the surface an energetic physicality, as if we see the artist making it before our eyes. It literally vibrates with life, so that one must consider Untitled (Two Heads on Gold) within the body of works he made that contemplate the human figure as both organic and societal being. For Basquiat, his unique depiction of the human figure was a specific delineation of the black man, and his oeuvre is as much a continuing narrative about the position of the black man in the contemporary world as it is anything else. The artist, a man who constantly chased his own demons in his art, perhaps here faces his own mortality head on, and forces us to engage with it as well; his idiosyncratic line fused with his own nerve endings.

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November 12, 2003, 12:00 AM EST

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