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Phillips Auction

Three remarkable works by Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1981–1982.

Phillips Auction

The symbols seen in the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat form a visual lexicon that has become a ubiquitous part of contemporary culture. From crowns, masks, and skulls to snakes, warriors, and ballplayers, his iconography endures well beyond the canvas, adorning luxury items and mass market goods alike. But what are the connotations of these symbols and are the associations they seem to denote what Basquiat directly intended by them?

Approaching the answers requires the weaving of a complex tangle of associations. Seen as a whole, the various iconographic symbols in Basquiat’s compositions are utterly communicative, but they are so resonant with each other across all his works that it can be challenging to pin down exactly what they express individually. Basquiat was an omnivorous lover of history and lifelong researcher and observer of culture and art — ranging from the Haitian and Puerto Rican cultures of his own background to Medieval Christian traditions, the Warholian notion of celebrity, Rauschenberg’s sense of accumulation, De Kooning and Pollock’s approach to abstraction, Charlie Parker’s improvisation, early hip-hop, modern urban life, and more. Drawing on this myriad of influences, he imbued his works with a diverse and recurring sequence of allusive signs that make viewers feel intuitively clued-in, even if their definitive meanings can remain poetically elusive. This is perhaps the principal reason why his works consume the attention of viewers in any room in which they are placed. In short, they seem to speak with a distinctly human voice, ultimately feeling as ancient as the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, yet as new as anything made today.

To explore these ideas, we look to three magnificent works from the artist’s pivotal years of 1981 and 1982 — Untitled (ELMAR), Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), and Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, each formerly from the original collection of Francesco Pellizzi and the Pellizzi Family. A writer, scholar, anthropologist, and collector, Mr. Pellizzi was the co-founder and editor of the journal Res, Anthropology and Aesthetics, published by the Peabody at Harvard and Chicago University Press. He acquired these works in the early 1980s from Annina Nosei — Basquiat’s first gallerist — and they remained in his collection for decades. They are on offer in public for the first time this May at Phillips’ Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sales in New York and Hong Kong. Together, these three works provide a striking opportunity for us to discover just what Basquiat’s inextinguishable voice intones.








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  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), 1981 (left) and Untitled (ELMAR), 1982 (right) on view at Phillips New York. Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York.
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), 1981 (left) and Untitled (ELMAR), 1982 (right) on view at Phillips New York. Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York.
    Phillips Auctioneers
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (ELMAR), 1982. Estimate $40,000,000 - 60,000,000   Sold for $46,479,000
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (ELMAR), 1982. Estimate $40,000,000 - 60,000,000 Sold for $46,479,000
    Phillips Auctioneers
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), 1981. Estimate $6,500,000 - 8,500,000   Sold for $7,892,500
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), 1981. Estimate $6,500,000 - 8,500,000 Sold for $7,892,500
    Phillips Auctioneers
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, 1982. Estimate HK$90,000,000 - 120,000,000  €10,620,000-14,160,000 $11,540,000-15,380,000
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, 1982. Estimate HK$90,000,000 - 120,000,000 €10,620,000-14,160,000 $11,540,000-15,380,000
    Phillips Auctioneers