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21st Century Evening Auction


Sotheby's New York

May 12, 2021


Basquiat venus medici

Lot 105, "Versus Medici," by Jean-Michel Basquiat, acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on three joined canvases, 84 1/4 by 54 1/4 inches, 1982

By Carter B. Horsley

The May 12. 2021 auction of 21st Century Art at Sotheby's New York is highlighted by a very fine, large, three-part  work by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and a great large work by Anselm Kiefer (1945).

The Basquiat, an acryllic, oilstick and paper collage, has an estimate of $35,000000 to $50,000,000.  It measures 84 1/4 by 54 1/4 inches and was created in 1982.  It sold for $93,105,000.

Sotheby's provided no catalogue for the auction, the third on the same evening, but its website provided the  following commentary about the lot:
 
"Urgent, arresting, and replete with potent symbolism, Versus Medici is a magnificent crystallization of the tremendous graphic force and intricate iconography that have come to define Jean-Michel Basquiat’s revolutionary career. Executed in the crucial year of 1982, when Basquiat was only 22 years old, the present work is among Basquiat’s most emphatic visual challenges to the hegemony of the Western canon. Within the searing figure of the present work, the young artist boldly crowns himself as both successor to and worthy adversary of the artistic legacy of the masters of the Italian Renaissance. Having remained in the same distinguished private collection for over 30 years, Versus Medici is an exceptional and rare example of the artist’s most celebrated motif: the single, warrior-like figure. Pulsing with the energy of his unique and coveted pictorial lexicon, Versus Medici is positioned in the top tier of Basquiat’s immensely impactful cycle of grand-scale male figures from 1981 and 1982, and is undoubtedly one of the most striking and dramatic works of that period. Through a radical approach to figuration borne of his fascination with anatomy, Basquiat breaks down the dichotomy between the external and internal, revealing the cacophonous innermost aspects of psychic life with breathtaking vitality. Befitting its importance, the work has been included in several major exhibitions worldwide, including Intuition at the Palazzo Fortuny during the 2017 Venice Biennale, and most recently, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, the artist’s first comprehensive survey exhibition in Japan. Spectacularly forged in an array of oilstick, acrylic, and paper collage, this painting brings the haptic urgency of Basquiat’s art to life. It is challenging, dissonant, and alluring, as explosive in its execution as it is erudite in its conception. 

"Though maintaining the spontaneity of graffiti in its paroxysmal execution, by the time this work was created in 1982, Basquiat's had fully transitioned from street to studio. Completed shortly after his breakthrough exhibition at PS1 in 1981, New York New Wave, this work was executed once Basquiat had attained the crucial support of Annina Nosei and was able to focus his efforts on monumental canvas painting. Testifying to the significance of the present work, Versus Medici was previously in the collection of esteemed Belgian collector Stéphane Janssen, who was an early champion of Basquiat and acquired it following a visit to Basquiat’s studio shortly after it was painted. Originally one of several monumental standing Black figure paintings that formed the core of Janssen’s storied collection, Versus Medici stands out as one of Basquiat’s most assured early masterworks, and was acquired by the present owners in 1990, where it has remained ever since.

"At once intensely autobiographical and yet deeply rooted in a wider knowledge and appreciation of the past, Basquiat’s work was shaped by his insatiable curiosity and determination to command his own space within the art historical canon. Born to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, the artist was acutely aware of the exclusion of artists based on race from institutional and critical consideration, and often expressed feelings of racialized otherness in a white-dominated art world. With Versus Medici, Basquiat confronts a key cornerstone of Western art history: the Italian Renaissance, a period characterized by great achievements in painting, architecture, philosophy, and culture, nowhere more centralized than in Florence under the patronage and rule of the House of Medici. The movement represents a bastion of art history that through its inherent power structure is exclusionary of the Black body and Black creator; it is an archetypally white and Eurocentric ideal of visual culture which still serves as a model for the visual arts. Ever the iconographic alchemist, here Basquiat absorbs the legacy of Western art history and reshapes it to his own purposes. Within the present work, the Medici become a stand-in for the power systems of the art world at large, as figureheads for a powerful system of art patronage that was echoed in the power structures of Basquiat’s own art world in 1980s New York. Versus Medici presents a searing and heroic figure to oppose that narrative: a monumental Black figure, seven feet in height, stands triumphant as warrior, champion, and king, ordained with the famous three-pointed crown. The anatomical detail of the figure and the intricacy of the body echo the work of Italian virtuosos like Leonardo and Michelangelo, while the radical reimagining clearly stages a battle against the power of their influence. Executed on three joined canvases, the very structure of Versus Medici draws upon Basquiat’s extraordinary familiarity with centuries of tradition by echoing the time-honored format of the tripartite altarpiece, and references the religious and political powers that were associated with them. this gladiator, Basquiat asserts the strength of his African American culture and identity, ambitiously demanding a reckoning with the history of art, and not only claims his own place within this history, but crowns himself as almighty successor to the Renaissance masters.

"Emblematic of this struggle between the Black artist and the dominant white-centric power structure, Basquiat utilizes iconography borrowed from the boxing ring. Having recognized from an early age the absence of Blackness from many realms including the arts, he sought heroes in the world of athletics, where he saw Black figures could be successful and celebrated. Boxing became one of his favorite arenas, and stars like Cassius Clay, Jack Johnson, and Joe Lewis feature in numerous paintings, with gloves abstracted into blunt roundels and arms thrust triumphantly in the air. Indeed, even the defiant posture of the raised fist as seen in Versus Medici had huge significance in this context. It is wholly redolent of the Black Power salute, first made famous in the sporting arena by Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith, who protested racial oppression at the Mexico City Olympic Games by raising their fists in defiance of the U.S. National Anthem. In the present work, Basquiat employs the language of the fight – “versus” – and the victorious raised fist to convey the war against repression and racism, his central figure conquering the invisible oppressor within the space of the painting.  In the lower register of the painting, the subject’s body is rendered in an abstracted V-shaped formation, alluding to the way in which mummified Pharaonic kings are typically depicted. This powerful stance is eloquently captured in Basquiat’s repeated calligraphic scrawl of the word “Aopkehsks,” which could refer to the Hellenization of the Egyptian pharaoh Akenhaten, a prominent and idealized king, or to apotheosis, the elevation of the human to the realms of the divine which was widely represented in Renaissance painting. As art historian Robert Farris Thompson has described, “Jean-Michel was turning into art notes taken during a massive and ongoing self-education, not unlike the famous ‘homemade education’ Malcolm X pursued… Basquiat thrilled to the pleasures of the world, and thrilled to the pleasures of the image, and he built a brilliant career upon the two.” (Robert Farris Thomson, “Three Works By Basquiat,” in: Exh. Cat., New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Basquiat and the Bayou, 2014, pp. 31-32) However the viewer chooses to interpret these signs and symbols, Basquiat positions his ferocious figure as a vessel of divine will. Read alongside the symbol of the three-pointed crown – one of Basquiat’s defining and most recognizable motifs – there is little doubt the figure in the painting is depicted as an avenging hero of art history. With these myriad references to ancient depictions of power, Basquiat again aligns himself with almighty royalty, standing defiant against a system that would marginalize him. 

"Further underlining Basquiat’s view of his own position as an outsider in the dominant art world is his revolutionary redefining of figuration. The son of immigrants and the African diaspora, he spent his tragically short career wrestling with a way to convey his own ancestry and the space of Black Atlantic modernity, which was subjected and subjugated by a Western Eurocentric discourse. It is in works like Versus Medici that he is most successful; his remarkable absorption and appropriation of references from history, pop culture, religion, science, folk art and more produce an iconographic language that moves beyond the pictorial values of Western representation. Scholar Marc Mayer explains: “Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador...[his] relationship to the meaning of his references and quotations is less to the point than is his understanding of the pictorial use-value of that meaning." (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat In History,” in: Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum (and traveling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 50) While some external features are described, such as the insinuation of dreaded hair, in other places the form is viewed as if through X-ray, with outlines of internal organs or sinews evoking a favored tome from the artist’s childhood, Gray’s Anatomy. These simultaneous views of external body and internal makeup offer a potent metaphor for the Black experience, eliding the distinction between how a body is perceived and the reality of the individual inhabiting it. By presenting his figure in this way, Basquiat is boldly claiming a new space for the Black body within the white Western artistic tradition.

"Versus Medici exemplifies the artist’s magnificently heroic presentation of the isolated human form, and in this vein can be seen to advance a venerable tradition epitomized by Pablo Picasso’s famed portraits and Willem de Kooning’s corporeally provocative series of Women. Working with an almost vertiginous speed, the tactile qualities of his paintwork – at times scrawled, at others dripped, smudged, or seemingly sprayed – retain and exalt the vital immediacy of graffiti art. Exemplifying the artist’s singular talent as a master colorist, the surface is ignited in a blaze of undiluted yellow, red, pink and blue, which clash and effervesce with the bravura of a firework display. Considering Basquiat’s heady palette, curator Marc Mayer notes, “With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he uses unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda. Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room” (Marc Mayer, ibid., p. 46). Basquiat’s paintings are rich in art historical allusion, and the combustive colors and expressive style employed in the present work are greatly indebted to de Kooning’s revolutionary use of color and abstracted facture. Further, the figure’s face, mask-like in its construction, reveals emaciated, scarified eyes and clenched jaw, hinting at the artist's Haitian heritage and a spiritual, Shaman-like figure. Unequivocally inspired by the Cubism of his great hero Picasso, the figure also looks back to the Spanish master’s own inspiration drawn from African art, itself a validation of Basquiat's own cultural heritage. In particular, Basquiat's figure, with the haptic emphasis on the eyes and teeth, bears striking similarities to African tribal sculptures. For Picasso, primitivism was an antidote to the conservatism of the academies; similarly, Basquiat finds in his own recourse to primitivism a corrective to the chaste intellectual coolness of late modernism and a powerful mode of expressing overtly contemporary angst. With references to these two modern masters, Basquiat again underlines his own position as rightful heir to their artistic throne.

"By absorbing and deploying a multitude of references to the greatest creative geniuses of the past—from Leonardo to Picasso, Michelangelo to de Kooning—Basquiat declares himself the ultimate successor not only to the legacy of the Renaissance, but to all of art history. And yet, by appropriating the hallmarks of those masters into his own unique language and style, he maintains his stance in opposition to the exclusionary systems and demands of that same tradition. He engages without ever ceding to the demands of the institution; as described by scholar Robert Farris Thompson, “There was a kind of deliberate roughness to his paintings, as if to say: I remain a warrior of the streets; behold the world as seen through vernacular eyes.” (Robert Farris Thompson, op. cit., pp. 31-32) To issue such a challenge to centuries of historic tradition – at only 22 years old—is extraordinary, yet the passionate and assertive spirit of Versus Medici stands as irrefutable testament to his triumphant success. Nearly 40 years later, there can be no doubt that Basquiat stands amongst the ultimate modern masters: a Leonardo da Vinci for the contemporary age. Standing before Versus Medici, curator and critic Glenn O’Brien’s succinct summation of Basquiat’s unique brilliance is more potent than ever: “He was the once-in-a-lifetime real deal: artist as prophet.” (Glenn O’Brien, “Greatest Hits,” in: Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s The Time, 2015, p. 18)...

"In the lower register of the painting, the subject’s body is rendered in an abstracted V-shaped formation, alluding to the way in which mummified Pharaonic kings are typically depicted. This powerful stance is eloquently captured in Basquiat’s repeated calligraphic scrawl of the word “Aopkehsks,” which could refer to the Hellenization of the Egyptian pharaoh Akenhaten, a prominent and idealized king, or to apotheosis, the elevation of the human to the realms of the divine which was widely represented in Renaissance painting. As art historian Robert Farris Thompson has described, “Jean-Michel was turning into art notes taken during a massive and ongoing self-education, not unlike the famous ‘homemade education’ Malcolm X pursued… Basquiat thrilled to the pleasures of the world, and thrilled to the pleasures of the image, and he built a brilliant career upon the two.” (Robert Farris Thomson, “Three Works By Basquiat,” in: Exh. Cat., New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Basquiat and the Bayou, 2014, pp. 31-32) However the viewer chooses to interpret these signs and symbols, Basquiat positions his ferocious figure as a vessel of divine will. Read alongside the symbol of the three-pointed crown – one of Basquiat’s defining and most recognizable motifs – there is little doubt the figure in the painting is depicted as an avenging hero of art history. With these myriad references to ancient depictions of power, Basquiat again aligns himself with almighty royalty, standing defiant against a system that would marginalize him.

"Further underlining Basquiat’s view of his own position as an outsider in the dominant art world is his revolutionary redefining of figuration. The son of immigrants and the African diaspora, he spent his tragically short career wrestling with a way to convey his own ancestry and the space of Black Atlantic modernity, which was subjected and subjugated by a Western Eurocentric discourse. It is in works like Versus Medici that he is most successful; his remarkable absorption and appropriation of references from history, pop culture, religion, science, folk art and more produce an iconographic language that moves beyond the pictorial values of Western representation. Scholar Marc Mayer explains: “Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador...[his] relationship to the meaning of his references and quotations is less to the point than is his understanding of the pictorial use-value of that meaning." (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat In History,” in: Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum (and traveling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 50) While some external features are described, such as the insinuation of dreaded hair, in other places the form is viewed as if through X-ray, with outlines of internal organs or sinews evoking a favored tome from the artist’s childhood, Gray’s Anatomy. These simultaneous views of external body and internal makeup offer a potent metaphor for the Black experience, eliding the distinction between how a body is perceived and the reality of the individual inhabiting it. By presenting his figure in this way, Basquiat is boldly claiming a new space for the Black body within the white Western artistic tradition.

"Versus Medici exemplifies the artist’s magnificently heroic presentation of the isolated human form, and in this vein can be seen to advance a venerable tradition epitomized by Pablo Picasso’s famed portraits and Willem de Kooning’s corporeally provocative series of Women. Working with an almost vertiginous speed, the tactile qualities of his paintwork – at times scrawled, at others dripped, smudged, or seemingly sprayed – retain and exalt the vital immediacy of graffiti art. Exemplifying the artist’s singular talent as a master colorist, the surface is ignited in a blaze of undiluted yellow, red, pink and blue, which clash and effervesce with the bravura of a firework display. Considering Basquiat’s heady palette, curator Marc Mayer notes, “With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he uses unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda. Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room” (Marc Mayer, ibid., p. 46). Basquiat’s paintings are rich in art historical allusion, and the combustive colors and expressive style employed in the present work are greatly indebted to de Kooning’s revolutionary use of color and abstracted facture. Further, the figure’s face, mask-like in its construction, reveals emaciated, scarified eyes and clenched jaw, hinting at the artist's Haitian heritage and a spiritual, Shaman-like figure. Unequivocally inspired by the Cubism of his great hero Picasso, the figure also looks back to the Spanish master’s own inspiration drawn from African art, itself a validation of Basquiat's own cultural heritage. In particular, Basquiat's figure, with the haptic emphasis on the eyes and teeth, bears striking similarities to African tribal sculptures. For Picasso, primitivism was an antidote to the conservatism of the academies; similarly, Basquiat finds in his own recourse to primitivism a corrective to the chaste intellectual coolness of late modernism and a powerful mode of expressing overtly contemporary angst. With references to these two modern masters, Basquiat again underlines his own position as rightful heir to their artistic throne.

"By absorbing and deploying a multitude of references to the greatest creative geniuses of the past—from Leonardo to Picasso, Michelangelo to de Kooning—Basquiat declares himself the ultimate successor not only to the legacy of the Renaissance, but to all of art history. And yet, by appropriating the hallmarks of those masters into his own unique language and style, he maintains his stance in opposition to the exclusionary systems and demands of that same tradition. He engages without ever ceding to the demands of the institution; as described by scholar Robert Farris Thompson, “There was a kind of deliberate roughness to his paintings, as if to say: I remain a warrior of the streets; behold the world as seen through vernacular eyes.” (Robert Farris Thompson, op. cit., pp. 31-32) To issue such a challenge to centuries of historic tradition – at only 22 years old—is extraordinary, yet the passionate and assertive spirit of Versus Medici stands as irrefutable testament to his triumphant success. Nearly 40 years later, there can be no doubt that Basquiat stands amongst the ultimate modern masters: a Leonardo da Vinci for the contemporary age. Standing before Versus Medici, curator and critic Glenn O’Brien’s succinct summation of Basquiat’s unique brilliance is more potent than ever: “He was the once-in-a-lifetime real deal: artist as prophet.” (Glenn O’Brien, “Greatest Hits,” in: Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s The Time, 2015, p. 18)

Basquiat Soap

Lot 14, "Untitled (Soap)," by Jean-Michel Basquiat, acrylic, oilstick, metallic paint and Xerox collage on canvas, 66 by 60 inches, 1984

Another Basquiat, Lot 14, "Untitled (Soap)," is an acrylic, metallic paint and Xerox collage on canvas that measures 66 by 60 inches and was created in 1984.

It has an estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000.  It sold for $13,184,00.


The auction's website provided the following commentary:
Presenting an intoxicating array of mysterious figures, enigmatic signs, symbols and cyphers, Untitled (Soap) presents one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s most active surfaces. The painting acts as a guide to the artist’s peripatetic technique, as Xeroxed sheets of the artist’s drawings, energetic gestures manifested in oilstick, and pools of acrylic paint come together in seemingly effortless fashion to present the full range of his practice. Offering both elements of his own life, and that created by his fertile imagination, the present work was executed during a particularly prolific period of Basquiat’s career. Coming off the back of his breakthrough year of 1982, the artist was finally being given the critical attention that his work deserved, and Basquiat had finally migrated from street artist to celebrated wunderkind of the New York art world.

In this cacophonous composition, the viewer is confronted by the full force of Basquiat’s artistic dexterity. In many ways, this painting is dozens of works in one: Xeroxed sheets filled with expressive drawings, overlaid by two dramatic heads, and finally, a motif from Basquiat’s extensive mental library of advertisements and other commercial imagery, namely the titular bar of soap. The Xeroxed sheets offer up an encyclopedic display of the depth and variety of Basquiat’s graphic initiative. Across the more than two dozen sheets, he renders a vast array of objects, both real and imagined. Ranging from fantastical creatures, anatomical renderings, drawings of money, and even firetrucks, these often very personal motifs are drawn from the artist’s lived experience plus his own fertile imagination. Overlaid on this graphic foundation are two examples of Basquiat’s most important expressive device—his iconic animated heads. One dark and brooding, the other bright and vibrant, these offer up the full range of his energetic techniques. Layers of flat acrylic paint are then adorned with details rendered in oilstick; the speed at which the faces are created can be seen in the small drips and splashes that evidence the artist’s rapid painting method. Distinguished by their deep piercing eyes and grimaced teeth, they are accomplished examples of this important motif. Next, Basquiat balances this whole composition by including one of the many objects/phrases/symbols drawn from his extensive memory, specifically a bar of soap. Attracted by their form, their design, or even simply the plosive sound of their names as they are spoken out loud, Basquiat stored up these motifs to use them as and when he saw fit. Finally, Basquiat pulls all these dissonant elements together by joining the prominent graphic forms with a large circular motif, mirroring the smaller round 25cent coins that populate the Xeroxed sheets upon which they sit.

Copied sheets are a consistent and important part of his oeuvre. It began early with his postcards made out of Xeroxes of collaged images which, in 1979, he famously sold to Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler after spotting them eating in a restaurant. Evoking the graffiti and bills posted on sites and billboards all over the city, the sheets provided the artist with a constant supply of visual stimuli. He sought to collage from his everyday life anything he perceived with his five senses. He had a voracious appetite for new source material, and these sheets provided him with an almost limitless source. 'He used his collaged drawings and Xeroxes as a counteract to painting,' writes Dieter Buchhart, 'They counteract formally and materially with his, often intense, painterly work… With a Xerox machine, glue, oilstick, and acrylic paint, Basquiat wove dense networks of information in two- and three-dimensional spaces. His spaces of knowledge not only inspired later generations but also anticipated the present' (D. Buchhart, 'It’s All Xerox: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Spaces of Knowledge Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,' in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Xerox, exh. cat., Nahmad Contemporary, New York, 2019, p. 18).

"His use of Xerox also highlighted Basquiat’s drawing practice, something which remained important throughout his career. Even when he is painting, Basquiat is drawing and drawing becomes the artist’s preeminent mode of thinking and making. 'Drawing, for him, was something you did rather than something done,' Robert Storr once noted, 'an activity rather than a medium' (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyler, Basel, 2010, p. 10). To this end, even the artist's most iconic paintings are derived from his most simplified motions. Frenetically working in his studio against a steady beat of jazz music and cartoon programs, Basquiat's unique amalgamation of dissonant images and 80s street culture resulted in a complex assemblage of the images and symbols constantly coursing through the young genius's mind.

"One aspect of Basquiat’s art which is demonstrated with particular aplomb in Untitled (Soap) is the layered structure of his paintings. Many of the artist’s enigmatic symbols are seen as snatched glimpses of earlier layers of painting that peak through the final veil of acrylic, teasing and tantalizing the viewer with a taste of what has gone before. Mysterious symbols, cryptic glyphs and an almost inscrutable script are all part of Basquiat’s expressive language—almost recognizable to us, yet unwilling to reveal themselves totally to the viewer and withholding their total comprehension at the very last minute. Basquiat often worked at a frenetic pace (sometimes working on several canvases in a single session) and would frequently rework a section of his canvas after the benefit of spending a short period of time working on something else. This pace can clearly be seen in the flurry of drips and flourishes of Basquiat’s brush.

"The figures of strong Black men, juxtaposed next to the imagery of fragmented words, symbols and motifs which Basquiat adopted has been likened to his way of “repelling ghosts,” a favorite phrase of the artist’s. The disjointed words sometimes erased, sometimes “etched” onto the canvas with unequalled force affirm Basquiat’s peculiar situation in which he tried to bridge the abyss between the evanescence of life and its affirmation through the painter’s gesture. With its combination of images both temporal and spiritual (the proliferation of what appear to be ladders throughout the composition, for example), Untitled (Soap) has been likened to a declaration by Basquiat of his world. From the distinctly temporal forms to the more spiritual elements, it becomes a philosophical rendering of the artist as much as a physical one.

"This self-revelation and cultural attitude can be found amidst the themes of his personal symbolism in the spontaneous precision of the painting’s brush strokes. Representative of his former life within the grime and graffiti of New York City streets, Basquiat uses fast-drying acrylic material to present a spontaneous façade of Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut sensibility. He conceptually combines text and image for an enigmatic message of both academic art historical discourse as well as the popular culture of graffiti design. Like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Basquiat took his inspiration from what he saw around him and was also interested in the incorporation of consumer culture in the form of comic books and cartoons for the furthering of mass appeal and invitation of low art into high culture. However, he uses the sociopolitical subtexts differently than the Pop artists’ playful message by delving into their remarks on the American institutionalization of racism and prejudice. Furthermore, he flaunts a freedom of expression in his style that differs greatly from the mechanical and reproductive aesthetic of Pop art.

"The range and depth of Basquiat’s extraordinary talent is clearly on display throughout this magnificent painting. Like an alchemist, he turns simple motifs into a cacophony of riotous color and form. Although never formally trained as an artist, Basquiat’s natural talent as a painter and draughtsman, together with his profound life experiences enabled him to develop his own unique aesthetic language. 'Basquiat’s status as a famous over-acknowledged artist in the media limelight had given American art what has so long been devolved to European artists: the artiste maudit, a sort of absolute criteria, from another world and another society that imposes a language that is so very different that it seems to be the last link of the chain' (J. Prat, The 'Child King' of the Eighties, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 2000, p. 12). Basquiat, a celebrity of both the elite art world and his counter-culture of the New York City streets, helped discover a unique vocabulary for American art through his own form of visual communication. Untitled (Soap) encapsulates the artist’s tragically brief yet vibrantly expressive and extraordinarily significant career."

Condo 107 

Lot 107, "Reclining Blue  Form," by George  Condo,  oil on canvas,  78 by 74 inches,  2011


Lot 107 is a large oil on canvas by George Condo (b. 1957) that is entitled "Reclining Blue Form."  It measures 78 by 74 inches and was painted in 2011.

It hs an estimate of $2;500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $3,771,000.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary: 

"An kaleidoscope of brilliant colors and surging forms, Reclining Blue Form from 2011 powerfully captures the raw painterly dynamism and searing psychic intensity which characterize the very best of George Condo’s celebrated practice. Within the fractured realm of the present work, abstraction and figuration collide with thrilling velocity before the viewer’s eyes. As exaggerated features and disjointed body parts wildly careen across fragmented, abstract planes, we glimpse flashes of each of the artist’s most important touchstones: Old Master portraits, his own brand of ‘psychological Cubism,’ cartoon references, and a commitment to constantly pushing the boundaries that separate figurative and non-representational painting. Evincing an irresistible creative furor, the present work departs from Condo’s more carefully planned portraits and towards a liberated embrace of line, color, and form. Ultimately, Reclining Blue Form revels in the unforeseen beauty and wildly alluring chaos of Condo’s improvisational genius.

"Epitomized in the present work, Condo’s practice is deeply concerned with examining representations of the figure throughout art history, and the genre of portraiture is elevated to a position of tremendous importance within his creative output. Woven into the fabric of his paintings is a renewed interest in inserting art historical tropes in a playful and absurd new context that simultaneously revives, and humorously undermines, the integrity of portraiture. In its masterful contusion of abstracted bodies, Reclining Blue Form evocatively recalls Pablo Picasso’s masterful Cubist facture; yet, where Picasso radically shattered the picture plane to explore multiple viewpoints in the same moment, Condo ruptures his compositions to reveal the multifaceted and kaleidoscopic complexities of human emotion through his aptly self-termed mode of ‘psychological cubism.’ 'I try to depict a character’s train of thoughts simultaneously – hysteria, joy, sadness, desperation,” the artist explains. “If you could see these things at once that would be like what I’m trying to make you see in my art.'

"While Picasso’s fractured and distorted forms have long been a source of influence for Condo, works such as Reclining Blue Form mark new area of exploration for the artist. In the whirling abstraction and sinuous forms of the present work, the influence of artists such as Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner is readily present. However, this is by no means a purely abstract composition. Rather, the painting teeters on the periphery of representation as a myriad of half-formed, clown-like visages and voluptuous feminine silhouettes tantalizingly emerge and recede across the picture plane. As Holland Cotter notes in his review of George Condo: Mental States at the New Museum in 2011: 'Mr. Condo is not a producer of single precious items consistent in style and long in the making… He’s an artist of variety, plentitude and multiformity. He needs to be seen in an environment that presents him not as a virtuoso soloist but as the master of the massed chorale.' (Holland Carter, 'A Mind Where Picasso Meets Looney Tunes,' The New York Times, 27 January 2011) As succinctly described by the artist himself: 'The only way for me to feel the difference between every other artist and me is to use every artist to become me.'...Crushed together in a bizarre yet resolved composition, Reclining Blue Form witnesses Condo breaking down his discrete characters, tinkering with their parts, and welding them back together in new and inventive configurations, ultimately producing a painting that, in its alluring visual chaos, serves as fitting testament to the infinite variety and complications of the modern psyche."
Twombly  110
Lot 110, "Untitled (Rome)," by Cy Twombly, oil based on house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 61 by 76 3/4 inches, 1970

Lot 110 is a large "Blackboard" painting by Cy Twombly (1928 - 2011) that was painted in 1970.  It is entitled "Untitled (Rome)"

The lot has an estimate for this drab work of $35,000,000 to $45,000,000. It sold for $41,628,000.

The website provides the following commentary:

"A breathtaking union of inspired visual lyricism and explosive gestural force, Untitled (Rome) is amongst the most magnificent examples of Cy Twombly’s extraordinary abstract lexicon. Executed in 1970, at the chronological apex of the artist’s celebrated ‘Blackboard' paintings, the present work is amongst the most gesturally expressive invocations of the urgent, interrogatory mark-marking which distinguishes the very best examples of this revered series. Even within that rarified group, the present work rises to the fore: unlike those Blackboards restrained to neat rows of tightly coiled reverberations, or those which dissolve into complete frenetic abandon, the present work sees Twombly express the exact, thrilling boundary between control and anarchy, order and chaos, intention and accident. As it surges, leaps, and whirls across the canvas, Twombly’s line sears with the raw energy of a stripped wire; against the elegant sobriety of the slate-gray backdrop, the looping scrawls of Untitled (Rome) teeter on the threshold of legibility in a masterful interrogation of sign, symbol, and mark. Held in the same esteemed private collection for almost three decades, Untitled (Rome) emerges as a spectacularly realized example of the ever-present tension between legibility and abstraction, gesture and expression, signifier and signified that lies at the very heart of Twombly’s extraordinary artistic practice. 

"In Untitled (Rome), formal restraint does battle with sensuous, hedonistic mark-making as lines swell, peak, and resolve themselves with visceral urgency across canvas. Twombly’s cylindrical forms seemingly reverberate within their own echo chamber, refracting into seeming infinity whilst elegantly restrained within the parameters of the canvas. Increasing in volume and expressive abandon as they progress, the four feverish bands of lassoed lines appear to slowly cede any sense of regularity and control, resulting in thrillingly increased drips, smears, and spatters toward the bottom of the picture; against the subdued elegance of the grey ground, the oval scrawls emerge from and recede into one another in dense relief, teetering on the threshold of legibility. As eloquently described by Pierre Restany, Twombly’s abstraction is 'poetry and reporting, furtive gesture and écriture automatique, sexual catharsis and both affirmation and negation of the self. As full of ambiguity as life itself...Twombly's 'writing' has neither syntax nor logic, but quivers with life, its murmuring penetrating to the very depths of things. The marks are elusive since they instinctively make for the essential.' (Pierre Restany, The Revolution of the Sign, 1961, in: Nicola Del Roscio, ed., Writings on Cy Twombly, , Munich 2002, p. 47) Here, we see the painter leave behind any didactic meaning to his invention, abandoning the safe haven of mythological symbols in favor of a more primal usage of line as a potent transmitter of space, duration, and motion.

"Untitled (Rome) serves as eloquent testament to the profound and enduring inspiration Twombly drew from the cultural, historic, and aesthetic specificities of Rome over the course of his extraordinary career. Upon his first visit to Rome in the early 1950s, Twombly was immediately taken by ancient forms of graffiti that he saw scrawled on the exteriors of historical Roman ruins; echoed with newfound ferocity in the graffiti-like strokes of the present work, the artist notes the profound influence the iconographic legacy of classical antiquity enacted upon his practice: 'Generally speaking my art has evolved out of the interest in symbols abstracted, but never the less humanistic; formal as most arts are in their archaic and classic stages, and a deeply aesthetic sense of eroded or ancient surfaces of time.'...It was in Rome, a city saturated in the talismanic presence of myth and archaic legacy, the artist first conceived of the sparse iconography of his Blackboards.

"Begun in 1966, The Blackboard works marked Twombly's abrupt abandonment of the richly colorful and expressive compositions from the first half of the 1960s known as Baroque Paintings, giving rise to works that would employ a visual language of pure austerity and sublimity. Renouncing the richer figuration and coloration of that earlier work, Twombly shifted his focus back to the restrained monochrome works that he first embarked upon in the 1950s. However, unlike the static, semi-figurative black and white paintings of Twombly's formative years, the inimitable gray works of the 1960s saw the centrifugal energy and erotic charge of Twombly's Baroque-inspired early 1960s paintings transferred into a rhythmic discourse of mood and movement. Within the Blackboards, 'Twombly tries to shatter form as well as its concomitant intellectual and narrative history in a kind of relativism, reducing it to a rationality of 'black and white' that is at the same time the structural sum of all movement.' (Heiner Bastian, ed., Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III 1966-1971, Munich 1994, p. 23) Here, the scrawled spirals invoke a sort of proto-handwriting: a primitive form of expression that strives toward resolution and legibility but is suspended in a perpetual territory of formal symbolism, akin to our contemporary reading of classical mark-making.

"Although Twombly’s mark-making teeters on the exhilarating border between control and pure, hedonistic abandon, the feverish line of Untitled (Rome) never bursts free from the cylindrical reverberations which contain it. Unlike Twombly’s earlier canvases, in which episodes of personal expression are scattered across the canvas, the artist here constricts his activity to a gestural framework—nevertheless, the lassoed bands give way to expressive subjectivity in their vigorously imprecise execution. The pattern of voluminous loops recalls the forced repetition of the Palmer handwriting method, in which the simple gesture of pencil to paper becomes an internalized bodily discipline.


"Twombly was himself taught to write through the Palmer method, an infamously strict method that requires pupils to repetitively practice rote drills keeping their fingers and wrists rigid while only moving their arms. Within Untitled (Rome), Twombly seemingly invokes yet denounces these punishing typological drills; far from ceding to methodical repetition, the charged strokes of the artist’s hand leap across the page with furious intensity, their rhythmic cadence and raw, kinetic energy unhampered by methodical restraint or canonical impetus. As described by scholar Robert-Pincus Witten, 'Handwriting has become for Twombly the means of beginning again, of erasing the Baroque culmination of the painting of the early 1960s… it has been drowned in a schoolmaster’s blackboard. It has been reduced to rudimentary exercises… With it, Twombly casts down all that was grandiose in his mature style, rejecting a lush manner for simple and stringent exercises.'...Indeed, the experience of the present work – begun in the upper left, and coursing across the canvas again, and again, and again – is one of increasing abandon, surging towards a fever pitch that is never completely realized. As they progress, Twombly’s loops grow in scale, density, and anarchic force, as if to reach a final point of definitive expression. Yet ultimately, as flawlessly summarized by the artist himself: 'Each line now is the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate - it is the sensation of its own realization.' (The artist cited in: Exh. Cat, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1994, p.27)"


  Kiefer 134
Lot 134, "Salz, Merkur, Sulfur," by Anselm Kiefer, mixed media and lead boat on canvas in two parts, 149 1/2 by 220 by 23 5/8 inches, 2011

Lot 134, "Salz, Merkur, Sulfur," is a wonderful mixed media and lead boat on canvas in two parts by Anselm Kiefer.  It measures 149 1/2 by 220 by 23 5/8 inches.

It has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000.  It sold for $867,000.and was created in 2011.

The auction's website provides the following commentary:


"Viscerally charged, intellectually demanding, and visually stunning, Anselm Kiefer’s Salz, Merkur, Sulfur from 2011 endures as a distillation of the essential conceptual aims and visual gestures of Kiefer’s oeuvre. Superimposed over a bleak landscape rendered with a terrestrial impasto, the radiant colors of the artist’s palette dominate the composition, illuminating the scene, coalescing to produce a both physical and symbolic blend of mythology, history, science, and language. Suffused with a multiplicity of associations, the present work is a monumental display of Kiefer's aesthetic forged from the evisceration of the past and symptomatic of the psychological affliction of warfare. Through the transformation of quotidian constituents into something of extreme metaphorical significance, the German artist emphasizes the transformative potential of matter to become an object of intensely evocative power. The title of the present work – Salz, Merkur, Sulfur – references the alchemical trinity of principles: salt, sulfur, and mercury, which in alchemy is thought to be the basis of all matter, and into which all matter can be divided.

"Rendered on a monumental scale and entirely immersing the viewer in its desolate, unearthly landscape, Salz, Merkur, Sulfur presents an overwhelming sense of decay and anguish. The lead submarine which lays stranded on the surface has begun to decay too, as crystallized formations adhere to the surface, suggesting the fragility of the boat, and symbolically condemning the futility of war. And yet, through Kiefer’s masterful use of symbolically loaded materials and imagery, Salz, Merkur, Sulfur also hints at redemption. Above the lead boat etched into the surface of the painting, the elemental symbols for Salt, Mercury, and Sulfur are presented in a triangular configuration: NaCl, Hg (atomic mass 200.59), and S (atomic number 16, atomic mass 32.055). Within alchemy, Salt is the earth element, the element of non-action and stability, representing the body; Mercury the water element, the principle of fusibility and volatility, representing the spirit; and Sulphur the fire element, the principle of inflammability, representing the soul. In traditional alchemy, lead is an impure metal associated with death and also the impurities, or sins, of mankind. This reading aligns with Kiefer’s critique of war. However, when purified with fire, lead can be transmuted into gold. In this regard, lead represents the potential for the absolution of sin and rebirth. Kiefer has been fascinated by lead throughout his career as he believes it is a material capable of capturing the ambiguity of life: “I feel closest to lead because it is like us. It is in flux. It’s changeable and has the potential to achieve a higher state” (Anselm Kiefer cited in: Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, 2005, p. 37). 

"Rich layers of paint, plaster, debris, crystallized elements and other earthly materials that reference the subject of the painting introduce a sculptural element to Kiefer’s work. In the conflation of temporal specificity and the spatial perspectives of sea and sky, Kiefer delves into mystical narratives as principally emphasized by the submarine-like vessel floating at the center of the composition. The surface of the composition is activated by visually stunning crystalline formations in pink and blue. The artist’s archetypal use of lead acts as an homage to his teacher, the iconic German conceptualist Joseph Beuys, who created revolutionary sculpture using similarly symbolically charged materials. That the iconic submarine, which is a reoccurring symbol throughout Kiefer’s oeuvre, is made of lead in this work is of great significance: Kiefer frequently commented that this soft metal has a much stronger effect on him than any other material and has become itself a source of ideas. Heaving with matter and conceptual weight, Die Argonauten delivers a complex display of Kiefer's unique aesthetic."


Washington Delaware

Lot 108, "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook," by Robert Colescott, acrylic on canvas, 78 1/2 by 98 1/4 inches, 1975


Lot 108, "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook,' by Robert Colecott (1925-2009) is an acrylic on canvas that measures 78 1/2 by 98 1/4 inches.  It was painted in 1975.

It has an estimate of $9,000,000 to $12,000,000. It sold for an astounding $15,315,900
.

The auction's website provided the following commentary:

"A veritable masterpiece of unparalleled formal rigor and graphic grandeur, Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook from 1975 stands as one of the most iconic paintings of Twentieth Century Art. Providing a satirical intervention in American history, culture, and politics, Colescott confronts the canon of Western art history upon its own terms, boldly commandeering the grand artistic genre of history painting. Both in title and composition, George Washington Carver references Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware from 1851, held in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In the present work, Colescott boldly takes on an iconic image that within the public imagination represents American ideals of freedom and political liberation, unveiling its inherent racial bias. While in Leutze’s iconic scene Washington is dramatically depicted as the hero and father of America at its inception, captured at the turning-point of the American Revolutionary War, Colescott’s adaptation radically rewrites the American national self-mythology, parodying the grandeur of historical genre painting while exposing the structural racial divides of the United States. Colescott turns the original image on its head, holding a mirror to American culture using essentialized racial caricatures to underscore the glaring omission of the African-American narrative within the prevailing representations of American history, and highlight how that history is built on a legacy of racism and inequity. Teeming in a melee of animated forms, vibrant, garish hues, and sumptuous painterly marks, Colescott enacts the racial tensions prevalent in American society; simultaneously highly familiar and distinctly uncanny, his characters serve as cartoonish allegories for complex social issues, employing satire to critically engage questions of implicit bias which implicate its viewers and society at large....

"As the definitive embodiment of Robert Colescott’s revolutionary and highly acclaimed painterly oeuvre, the present work has been included in nearly every text on the artist, and is presented as a touchstone of American art in virtually every survey on Twentieth Century art history. Further testifying to the painting’s importance, the work has been included in every major exhibition on the artist, and has been exhibited alongside other masterworks of art history in numerous seminal exhibitions of the twentieth century, including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1978 exhibition Art About Art, and Thelma Golden’s seminal 1994 exhibition The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, also at the Whitney Museum. Recently, the work was prominently included in important exhibitions including Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas at the Seattle Art Museum in 2018 and We Fight to Build a Free World at The Jewish Museum in New York in 2020-21.

"In George Washington Carver, Colescott re-imagines Leutze's iconic scene with George Washington Carver as the focus, replacing his namesake at the prow of the ship. A Black man born into slavery in the 1860s, Carver went on to become a pioneering agricultural scientist at the Tuskagee Institute whose innovations in the field would help struggling sharecroppers in the South, many of whom were themselves former slaves. Surrounding Carver on the ship, Colescott paints a rowdy cast of Black characters whose caricature-like representations are clearly informed by racist popular imagery and meant to represent common racist stereotypes of the twentieth century that have informed mainstream (glaringly White) consciousness, including a cigar-smoking banjo player, a servantly chef, an inebriated farmer, and a 'mammy' figure, among others. Unapologetic, brash, and at times even vulgar, Colescott exposes the stereotypical portrayal of African American people in our country's history: while the pejorative caricatures are immediately recognizable to the viewer as they have been widely seen and ingrained in our consciousness, less recognizable and known is the story of George Washington Carver....

"Born in Oakland, California in 1925, Colescott grew up during the Great Depression. After serving in World War II in a segregated army, he embarked on a career in art and earned his BFA at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied European Modernism. During this time, Colescott traveled to Paris to study with Fernand Léger, whose influence is readily apparent within the chaotic yet highly structured composition of the present work. In the early 1960s, Colescott travelled to Cairo, Egypt, where he spent several years studying and teaching. His time spent in Egypt was transformative for both his personal outlook and his art: he was exposed to a new perspective on race, and artistically was reintroduced to a refreshing attitude toward figuration and color. When Colescott returned to the United States in the mid-1960s, he came home to a county embroiled in the social and political tensions of the Civil Rights Movement.... 

"The magnificent panorama of the present composition thunderously and radically declares the arrival of Colescott’s mature artistic project. Speaking to the inception of this painting, Colescott explains: 'Ever since I started doing those appropriations, there's been criticism. . . . I started doing that in '75 when I painted George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware—which is a much more complicated painting than a lot of people think. . . . It's a lot more than a one-liner . . . it's about white perceptions of Black people. It's the satire that kills the serpent." (Robert Colescott, quoted in an oral interview with Paul Karlstrom, April 1999, Tuscon Arizona, courtesy Smithsonian Archives of American Art).

"The world Colescott depicts within George Washington Carver is one of searing dichotomies—between tragedy and comedy, respect and degradation, high and low, visible and invisible, Black and white, past and present. Yet within the painting, these juxtapositions are blurred, making distinct opposites more multidimensional and intricate than previously assumed. The figures that Colescott presents here serve as satirical allegories, allowing the viewer to explore difficult, uncomfortable inquiries via charged figuration. Underscoring Colescott’s incisive analysis is his decision to include the American flag, its familiar iconography and usual connotations both diminished and reframed by its presentation within the present work. Typifying the very finest of the artist’s oeuvre, George Washington Carver lures the viewer into Colescott’s vibrant, painterly world by the overpowering formal strength of the painting itself, the richly painted forms so urgently potent as to almost leap off the canvas. Once drawn in, Colescott confronts us with and exposes the underbelly of American visual culture, stopping us in our tracks and challenging us to re-think the tenets upon which our visual imagination is founded. Subverting conventional social, cultural, and artistic narratives, George Washington Carver is an enduring testament, not only to the singular potency which characterizes Colescott’s distinctive graphic vernacular, but to his extraordinary contribution to the development of Contemporary American painting. With its social and political resonance and sheer pictorial force, today Colescott's painting rivals the iconic quality of its source image, offering a critical reckoning with the history of American art." 

The grandiosity of his commentary is a bit exaggerated.  It is not a great work of art even if it is a potent political statement.


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