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A brazen horned devil commands our gaze, dominating the center of a monumental masterpiece composed of ferocious drips and fervent splashes of vivid and delicate colors erupting from the canvas.
At nearly sixteen-and-a-half-feet wide, the monumental painting executed in Modena, Italy, at the height of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s short but stellar career, Untitled (1982) explodes with visceral exuberance. Captivated by Basquiat’s work on view at the New York/New Wave show at New York’s PS1 in January 1981, Emilio Mazzoli invited Basquiat to Europe for the artist’s first one-man show.
The 21-year-old Basquiat conveys a mastery of brushstrokes that draw comparisons to Jackson Pollock. The monstrous self-portrait underscores the young artist’s meteoric rise to fame, six years before his untimely death.
“I think it's one of the most ambitious, bold paintings that Jean-Michel painted during a time when his fame was growing exponentially,” Scott Nussbaum, Senior International Specialist, 20th Century & Contemporary Art at Phillips, said in a phone interview. “I think it just speaks to his ambition, his power, his talents as an artist. And I don't know very many other paintings that combine scale and technique quite so strongly as in this work. It’s a dream picture. And it's such a great time to be offering a work like this.”
The exquisite painting that awakens myriad emotions among mesmerized viewers, is expected to fetch about $70 million on May 18 at Phillips’ Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art.
“Although we anticipate strong interest from Asia, interest in Basquiat is not constrained by geography and the masterpiece market is truly global,” said Nussbaum, reinforcing the decision to show the work on an international tour in London, Los Angeles, and Taipei, before going on display at Phillips’ expansive New York headquarters on 432 Park Avenue.
Selected for the cover of the Basquiat’s catalogue raisonné, Untitled has been featured at every major Basquiat retrospective.
“What I admire about Basquiat’s work is that no matter when, where, or which art piece I see, I instinctively recognize his work from the distinct character that is conveyed through his work,” billionaire entrepreneur and art collector Yusaku Maezawa said via email. “When standing in front of Untitled, it is overwhelmingly powerful yet melancholic, and this makes me feel a sense of euphoria and despair at the same time. I believe that art pieces put fire to one’s imagination and creativity and they are essential to our lives.”
Maezawa paid $57.3 million for Untitled at Christie’s in New York in May 2016, making it the most expensive work by Basquiat sold at auction. That record was shattered in May 2021, when In This Case (1983), from the collection of Valentino cofounder Giancarlo Giammetti sold for $93.1 million, and in May 2017, when another Untitled (1982), depicting an an enormous skull, sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s.
“I believe that art collections are something that should always continue to grow and evolve as the owner does and so my selling of Untitled was relative to that,” Maezawa said. “Living with this art piece has made my love and interest for art deeper and stronger. I cannot begin to explain the influence that this art piece has had in my life, and I am certain it will be an unforgettable piece for me.”
The blazing market for Basquiat is amplified by ubiquitous interest in his work. Tickets went on sale last week for Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©, opening April 9 at RXR’s Starrett-Lehigh Building in New York City’s West Chelsea neighborhood.
Organized by Basquiat’s family, the exhibition will showcase more than 200 paintings, drawings, ephemera, and artifacts that have rarely or never been shown in public. King Pleasure© will recreate Basquiat’s studio at 57 Great Jones St., and the Michael Todd VIP Room of the legendary Palladium nightclub, adorned by two Basquiat paintings.
Basquiat is the top trending artist, ranked ninth of all artists on Phillips’ Articker, the first technology platform that aggregates real-time, open-source data on modern and contemporary artists and artworks.
“I think there's this confluence of events. There's the market side, which is just continuously trending upwards. … There have been some incredible private sales. They're all part of the market momentum, and there is this cultural momentum as well, with the King Pleasure exhibition,” said Nussbaum. “He frequently appears in all sorts of pop culture, whether it's music, design, fashion. He's an artist that captivated the world and his influence, his impact, his legacy, just continues to grow. He’s that rare, generational talent that speaks to so many people on so many different things.”