Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (1981) set to break records

Christie’s has announced that a masterful painting from the Neo-expressionist American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is expected to sell for a record-breaking $20 million (approximately £12.9 million), when it goes under the hammer in November.
Untitled (1981), which was produced near the beginning of his ultimately tragic and short-lived career, is considered to be one of the most significant works the Neo-expressionist ever created, and has accordingly appeared in every noteworthy retrospective of his work.
The gaudy, street-inspired, graffiti-infused explosive work of art, which has been in a private collection for nearly twenty years, presents a nonrepresentational, cartoon-like fisherman, electrified and skeletal, like the costumes the bullies wear for Halloween in the original Karate Kid.
He’s been successful, and seemingly, we can see him grinning, through gritted teeth, as he observes his catch, lifelessly dangling from the hook. Around his head is a twisted dark green wreath-like crown, though it doesn’t rest, instead floating around him, like a halo.
Behind him, and across most of the canvas, are sweeping strokes of paint, feverish, as if they were impulsively constructed while intoxicated, otherwise known as pure subconscious feeling. It’s cleverly done. While effervescent, his choice of colours – mauves, pinks, yellows and creams – help to redirect our focus onto the spellbinding fisherman.
Immediately, the allegory is obvious, at least from one informed point of view. This is Jesus. It could be further argued as such, because one of the broad lines of paint beneath the figure is an oceanic blue, perhaps symbolic of when he walked on water, a truth that revealed him to indeed be the Son of God.
It seems almost unimaginable that it could be anything else, given how obvious some of the references to Christ seem, but little details in the composition, particularly the crosshatch and box-like shape of the fish, could suggest other influences.
If the painting was more figurative, then would that fish not be a puffer fish? Knowledge allows us to make such conjectures. Voodoo has always been a big part of Haitian culture, and Basquiat’s ancestry on his father’s side came from Port-au-Prince. The poison from such a fish was valued for its powerful properties, through which a priest, known as a Bokor, could create zombies.
While the figure’s skeletal body is obviously white, his face doesn’t have the same composition, and could be likened to the ash that was daubed over the faces of those who participated in various rituals and ceremonies. What we know then, and what we don’t know, massively impacts on our ability to make a judgement. What are we to say to that? Our inability to answer with confidence reveals the power of this single painting.
“Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador,” wrote the art critic and curator Mark Mayer in a collection of essays banded together under the name of the artist in question.
“We can read his pictures without strenuous effort – the words, the images, the colours and the construction – but we cannot quite fathom the point they belabor. Keeping us in this state of half-knowing, of mystery-within-familiarity, had been the core technique of his brand of communication since his adolescent days as the graffiti poet SAMO.”
It is often said of Basquiat that his early work was his best, but that’s a naive assumption to make. The artist died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 in 1988. While Untitled (1981) is seminal in that it marked a transition from the relative anonymity of the underground street art universe and into the hallowed halls of New York’s bubbling art scene, there were suggestions throughout his work that more was to come.
That’s a reality that sadly will never be known, but legacy, that’s something. It’s not about the quantity of work that is created, but the quality, and Basquiat, in his brief dance with the world, dazzled us with his pithy might.
“Untitled (1981) unites all the elements of energy, freedom and boldness that one looks for in Basquiat,” noted Loic Gouzer, international specialist of Post-War and Contemporary Art.
“The market has been waiting a long time for a work of this calibre and freshness, therefore we expect it to set a new record for Basquiat, an artist who is in the process of being recognised as a classic of Post-War American Art alongside Warhol, De Kooning and Pollock.”
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