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Untitled (Pecho/Oreja)
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“Start with the head. (He painted them obsessively). The Hair was a focal point… the dreadlocks, Basquiat’s own version of a crown. He said he took it from The King World Productions trademark at the end of ‘The Little Rascals”, but he made it his own… Next the eyes. There was that look… People said his eyes could eat through your face, see right through you, zap you like the x-ray vision of his comic book heroes.”\n\nPhoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. IX. \nArticulated with unbridled spontaneity and electrically charged visual power, Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) is an astounding example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s precocious artistic vision. Enormous and psychologically powered, a mask-like face stares piercingly out from a cacophony of forceful outlines, gestural marks, dripping colour, text and symbol. Combining the iconic talismans archetypal of Basquiat’s aesthetic with an impressive vocabulary of allusions to key narrative inquiries, Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) delivers an astounding conceptual and pictorial osmosis: overlapping evocations of autobiography, black hero worship, anatomy, graffiti, art history and death are all present, coalescing to form a cohesive composition rich in cultural commentary. Belonging to a small number of intensely compelling paintings centred on a highly-worked portrayal of the human head, Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) stands among the most immediate, arresting and accomplished from Basquiat’s short but productive career. Across the artist’s prolific output, the single heroic figure is the undeniable conceptual anchor; what’s more, as the locus of cerebral activity and marker of cultural identity, the head, in Basquiat’s pantheon of large and looming craniums, stands at the centre of an aesthetic synthesis of biography with a wider existential and racial dialogue. As announced by curator Fred Hoffman: “Basquiat’s representation of a single enlarged head is a breakthrough.” (Fred Hoffman, ‘The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Brooklyn Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 130). Though executed between 1982 and 1983 when the artist was only 22 years old, the present work signals the very apex of Basquiat’s powers of artistic expression. Newly renowned on the international art scene, during 1982 the freshness of Basquiat’s unique emergent talent was met with a confidence fostered by critical success to engender a body of masterworks that are widely considered the very best of his career. Originally acquired in 1989 by U2 and having remained in the band’s recording studio until 2008, Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) freely announces the essentialist perceptive quality and mastery of multifacted expression that places Basquiat as one of the most unique and innovative artistic voices of the Twentieth Century.\n\nTalismanic, iconic and startlingly large, Basquiat’s tortured-looking face appears skull-like yet simultaneously fully fleshed out. Jaw clenched, nostrils flared and staring scarified eyes appear amidst a confluence of text, symbols and strident abstract marks. As though holding the component parts together, repeated rows of horizontal lines evoke stitches, while hollowed-out cheeks expose jawbone and fleshless rows of teeth. Repeatedly delineated against a chalkboard black background, Basquiat’s archetypal human figures deliver a universal portrayal of Black man forged from a wealth of visual citations. Born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents and brought up 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. Evoking the scribbles of a child, Basquiat calls forth elaborate iconographies from ancient cultures. The skull-like format draws from ancient tribal masks, the voodoo witch-doctor make-up of Baron Samedi, while also invoking the traditional deathly symbolism of the skull in Dutch vanitas paintings. Herein, while an evocation of primitive art very much alludes to his ethnic heritage, Basquiat was aware of the work of Picasso for whom primitivism was an antidote to the conservatism of the academies. Aligned with Picasso, but also in critique of him, Basquiat found in primitivism a correlative mode for expressing an overtly contemporary angst tied to his own black identity within a predominantly white contemporary art scene.\n\nIncreasingly engaged with his black and Hispanic roots, in late 1982 Basquiat began to develop an ambitious project that identified with historical and contemporary black figures and events. Invoking the iconography of saintly halos and Christ’s crown of thorns, Basquiat began to induct a pantheon of black dignitaries within the content of his paintings. The recurrent leitmotif of such Christian symbols connotative of oppression and struggle, along with the trademark three-pointed crown and his signature hallmark ‘S’ – a vestige from his early graffito persona SAMO – together perform a seal of admiration and ennoblement for the figures that populate his work. Names from the world of baseball, boxing, athletics, entertainment and music such as Cassius Clay, Sugar Ray Robinson, Dizzy Gillespie alongside the much-venerated Jazz musician Charlie Parker and baseball player Hank Aaron represent the most frequent and venerated in Basquiat’s work. Though drawing attention to and celebrating the success of his contemporary black heroes, Basquiat also alludes to the pejoratively constrained terms of recognition available to the black community: fame and celebrity had previously only been afforded through the entertainment industry or via a superiority of physical ability. In the present work Basquiat sets up a parallel racial dialogue that challenges the binary dichotomy between the physical/cerebral as equivalent to black/white. In the bottom right corner, the intimation of an American football helmet or a catcher’s helmet in Baseball is overlaid and overcome by the dark indigo ground onto which Basquiat’s large head is delineated. Like the marble busts of important political, philosophical or academic white historical figures venerated for their intellectual achievements, Basquiat correlatively empowers his depiction of black subjectivity. In his essay ‘Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the [Re]Mix’, Kellie Jones explains: “In this way the intellect is emphasised, lifted up to notice, privileged over the body and the physicality that these figures – black men – commonly represent in the world. With this action the artist reveals creativity, genius and spiritual power” (Kellie Jones, ‘Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the [Re]Mix’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Brooklyn Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 171). Wearing the crown of thorns, and indeed attended by his autobiographical crown signature, Basquiat not only invokes personal racial struggles but also foregrounds his own intellectual victory over a historically occidental elite.\n\nA reading of the autobiographical is a recurrent motif woven throughout Basquiat’s portrayal of heroic black subjectivity. Self-referential details and childhood memories utterly permeate the artist’s seemingly inchoate stream of consciousness compositions. As inferred by the title, Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) directly alludes to a great fascination with anatomy and the history of anatomical drawing - an engagement that stems from an important incident in the artist’s childhood. At the age of seven Basquiat was hit by a car whilst playing in a Brooklyn street. Severely injured, the young Jean-Michel underwent surgery to remove his spleen after which he spent a month recovering in hospital. Basquiat vividly recalled this memory when interviewed by Becky Johnston in 1985: “It seemed very dreamlike… it was just like the movies, where they slow it down… I had an operation in my stomach, the whole business. I remember it just being very dreamlike, and seeing the car sort of coming at me and then just seeing everything through sort of a red filter… I think I remember pretty much all of it. That’s not the earliest memory I have but its probably the most vivid, the thing with the car, I remember all of it pretty much” (Jean Michel Basquiat interviewed by Becky Johnston and Tamra Davies, Beverley Hills, California, 1985 in: Exhibition Catalogue, Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Jean-Michel Basquiat. 2010, p. XXII). It was during this time that Basquiat’s mother, Mathilde, gave her son a copy of the famous textbook Gray’s Anatomy. In the present work, Basquiat’s conflation of anatomical drawings with Mathilde’s Puerto Rican mother tongue confers an intimately personal reading. Spoken in Spanish, the words ‘Pecho’ (Chest) and ‘Oreja’ (Ear) not only outlines Basquiat’s fascination with anatomy, and evokes the maternal origins of his anatomical obsession but also his creative sensibilities. As outlined by Jones: “Spanish – is a voice of intimacy for Basquiat – it is the voice of the mother who herself was an artist, and inspired and promoted her son’s creativity. As the artist recounted: ‘I’d say my mother gave me all the primary things. The art came from her’. The language of intimacy is thus the same as that of the intellect, and it is read through the accent of the mother” (Kellie Jones, ‘Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the [Re]Mix’, Op. cit., p. 170).\n\nThe diagrammatical articulation of the head, its apparent cross-section of the skull and strong red/blue outlines echoes a graphic style familiar to the explanatory images first introduced to Basquiat by his mother, whilst also invoking the paradigmatic anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. As a constant source of reference alongside Grays, Basquiat’s oversized volume on Leonardo da Vinci, published by Reynal & Company in 1966, provided key anatomical models for emulation throughout his career – most explicitly this is drawn out in the 1982 painting Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits. Exposed and dissected by the power of explanatory labels and arrows, Basquiat’s x-ray vision conveys a portrayal of the human head as simultaneously endo and exo-skeleton; his strident application of line traces neural pathways that electrify an intensely expressive power. Far from an inanimate skull, Basquiat engenders fluidity between internal and external to evoke complex and living sensory processes that are delivered with the powerful shock of a thousand volts. With this series of monumental heads, Basquiat revealed his fascination with a greater reality than first meets the eye; beyond the anatomical, these heads reveal a universal existentialist dialogue: “His work appears to break down the dichotomy between the external and the internal, intuiting and revealing the innermost aspects of psychic life. In this way the artist extends the concern for spiritual truths advanced most notably by the abstract expressionists four decades earlier” (Fred Hoffman, ‘The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works’, Op. cit., p. 131).\n\nIn many ways Basquiat’s extraordinary reinterpretation of figuration represents a critical retort to the intellectualised and pretentious minimalism that permeated the Manhattan gallery scene during the early 1980s. Basquiat explained in 1985: “The art was mostly minimal when I came up and it sort of confused me a little bit. I thought it divided people a little bit. I thought it alienated most people from art” (Jean Michel Basquiat interviewed by Becky Johnston and Tamra Davies, Beverley Hills, California, 1985, Op. cit., p. XXIII). In reaction against intellectualised snobbery, Basquiat forged an aesthetic that combined a Pop integration of comic book imagery with gestural abstract passages very much attuned to a contemporaneously outmoded high-art language of Abstract Expressionism. Possessing a sophisticated knowledge of art history Basquiat infused his painting with a defined instinctual understanding of the language of abstraction. In the present work forceful painterly strokes are deployed with an assured command, over which layers of erased, painted over and liberally confident mark making recast an innovative symphony of abstract expressionism’s pictorial vernacular. Basquiat commands, combines and synthesises these paradigms of American art with spectacular faculty: the schematic background, interlocking blocks of deep indigo, red, black and orange, is laid down with intense, gestural brushwork. The artist's brute force of application and layering of paint and line through brush, collage and oil stick confers a remarkably paroxysmal yet deliberate harmony via a structural and exuberant formalism. There is no spatial recession or perspectival logic to the composition; form and ground mesh together to confer an implosion of form to pure energy. Imbued with the frantic exertion and the poured, dripping aesthetic of Jackson Pollock; the exuberant colourism and dramatic painterly gesture of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline; combined with the integration of text and blackboard-like surfaces of Cy Twombly, Basquiat's grasp and deployment of Twentieth Century American art history is impressive and manifold. Speaking with Henry Geldzahler in 1983 Basquiat cited specifically both Twombly and Kline as his "favourites" (the artist in: Henry Gelzahler, 'Art from Subways to Soho' in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1999, p. 48). With Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) Basquiat deftly weaves the machismo painterly attitude of Kline with ethereal Twombly-like ciphers of text and line. Indeed, it is the influence of the latter that particularly reverberates within the present work.\n\nOutside of the purely visual, the significant integration of words plays a vital role. Scribbled out and unfathomable text and symbols at once invokes the poetic and literary cut-up method synonymous with the beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg and another of Basquiat’s favourites, William Burroughs. Surrealist stream of consciousness permeates Basquiat’s oeuvre with crossed out words affording a visual equivalent to systems of semiotic meaning. In this respect the pictorial and linguistic deconstruction inherent within the work of Twombly was perhaps the most inspirational for Basquiat. From the late 1950s Twombly’s abstract expressionist gestures were ingrained in an act of dislodging meaning from an ancient and well-trodden art historical dialogue with ancient mythology. Furthering this mantle, Basquiat’s treatment of word, line and symbol operates in an analogous way – where we are invited to understand channels of representation, perhaps biographical or historical, lucid understanding is utterly thwarted in an overload of symbolic juxtapositions. In Basquiat's canon art historical and semantic visual idioms are recast, cut-up and remixed to give form to an entirely new language anchored by the artist's own tripartite ethnicity but also grounded in his understanding of a contemporary moment for which all cultures and all eras of art history are up for grabs as valid avenues of expression. In Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) the maternal implication of Spanish language and anatomy, coalesce with ancient art, American sport, and death to engender a mythology that is utterly Basquiat’s own. Enigmatic and omni-lingual in meaning, his works invoke a postmodern confluence of visual idioms and cross-cultural implementation of divergent pictorial and spoken languages: herein, Basquiat’s expressive heads form the iconic locus of an astonishing command of pictorial semantics.\n\nThe present work is an absolute expression of Basquiat's full artistic powers of creation. Sophisticatedly confident and radiating a conviction of artistic vision, the vivacious iconographic power of Untitiled (Pecho/Oreja) is sheer testament to the thriving talent of a young and brilliant artistic spirit who, by 1983, had truly secured his position at the vanguard of a global artistic consciousness.
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medium

Acrylic, oil stick and paper collage on canvas

creator

Jean-Michel Basquiat

condition

Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although the overall tonality is deeper and richer and fails to fully convey the richly textured surface of the paper collage. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Close inspection reveals some minor wear to the top right and bottom right corner tips. Very close inspection reveals a small and unobtrusive loss in the white paint next to the bottom right of the skull. No restoration is apparent under ultraviolet light. "In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue. NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE."

dimensions

183 by 183cm.

literature

Kyoichi Tsuzuki, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kyoto 1992 Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Loius Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, p.173, illustrated in colour Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Loius Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, 3rd Ed., Vol I, p.145, illustrated in colour and Vol. II, p.176, illustrated in colour

provenance

Robert Miller Gallery, New York The Collection of U2 Sale: Sotheby's, London, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 1 July 2008, Lot 48 Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

consignmentDesignation

Property of a Private European Collector

creator_nationality_dates

1960 - 1988


*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.


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