80s New York Cityscape in the Eyes of American Graffiti Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

An early masterpiece by Jean-Michel Basquiat depicting the urban energy of New York city in the 80s will be offered at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London. It is estimated at £7m-10m (US$9.4m-13.4m).

Jean-Michel Basquiat's New York, New York

New York, New York was painted by American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1981 when he was transitioning from spray painting the streets of Manhattan to painting on canvas. It captures the gritty atmosphere of the city Basquiat grew up in, encapsulating a metropolis in economic dire-straits that bore forth an extraordinarily creative artistic scene at the end of the 1970s.

New York in the 1980s

Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81

The present canvas was made for Basquiat’s debut solo exhibition, SAMO, which took place at Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena, Italy in 1981. Since then, it has been kept in private collection and never been seen outside Italy.

Invitation for Basquiat’s first solo show at Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli, 1981

Though Basquiat moved his art from streets to canvas, graffiti was still an important part to him as it encompassed a whole range of associations and meanings for the artist. Painted in white on the right hand side of New York, New York is the depiction of a skelly court – a children’s street game. The collaged element on which the skelly court has been painted evokes peeling subway posters and commercials. While the criss-crossing of spray painted lines and architectural passages of white and black paint imply the vertiginous skyscrapers of New York’s famous skyline.

New York, New York is one of the first of Basquiat’s works in which the soon-to-be iconic three-pointed crown plays a central role. The crown is repeated twice in this work, emblazoned in metallic-silver spray paint and flanking the left and right sides of the composition.

This work is loaded with Basquiat’s trademark talismanic symbols. Sitting at the bottom of the composition, towards the right-hand side, the word MILK reinforces the sense of an urban environment – perhaps Basquiat refers to the milk trucks that he may have seen early in the morning – while it also compounds the artist’s critique of commerce.

The letter S is silver spray painted next to the totemic head. This symbol could be read as a reference to SAMO© and, like a labelled trademark, Basquiat has laid ownership to the canvas as if it were a graffiti-tagged New York wall.

The SAMO© Graffiti

Lot information:

Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York, New York

Lot no.: 19
Created in: 1981
Size: 128.4 x 226.2 cm

  • Emilio Mazzoli Gallery, Modena
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1981

Estimate: £7m-10m

Auction details:
Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Lots offered: 44