Pissing on Basquiat: Christie's to sell Warhol's oxidation portrait for first time

The 1982 portrait, made using Warhol's own urine, will be offered in New York in November, with an estimate in excess of $20m

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982 © Andy Warhol, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2021

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982 © Andy Warhol, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2021

Andy Warhol’s 1982 oxidation portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat—made with urine—is to go on sale at Christie’s this November.

The portrait will be included in Christie’s 20th century evening sale in New York with an estimate in excess of $20m—it is also guaranteed.

Measuring 40 by 40 inches, Warhol’s portrait of the 21-year-old was the result of one of the first ever meetings between the two artists, whose friendship has become art world legend.

The portrait was made on 4 October, 1982, after a meeting brokered by Bruno Bischofberger, who represented the pair. The artists, at this stage, know each other, but had not yet begun to collaborate. Bischofberger arranged the meeting with the express purpose of exchanging portraits of each other

After the exchange, the pair began to collaborate before dying within a few months of each other in 1987; Basquiat of a heroin overdose at age 27, Warhol at aged 58 from complications surrounding negligent surgery. Their work has jointly gone on to break art market records repeatedly ever since.

Whilst Basquiat completed his portrait of Warhol that same day, Warhol took a few polaroids of the artist 32-years his junior before returning to The Factory. There, he put Basquiat’s portrait through the politely-named oxidation process, which involved the artist urinating onto a support coated with copper paint onto which Basquiat’s face had been transferred from the Polaroid image via silkscreen. The uric acid from Warhol’s body discoloured the metal, creating pockmarks of rust, black and green, and fusing the bodies of the two men in both form and content.

In Pissed On or Pissed Off: Andy Warhol's Oxidized Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anthony J. Morris writes: "The works are recognised as the least representational paintings of Warhol's career and embody the dynamic gestures associated with Action Painting. But instead of expressing philosophical seriousness, they can also be seen as a camp critique of the hypermasculinity associated with Abstract Expressionism.”

The painting on sale has been in the collection of the American magazine publisher and industrialist Peter Brant for nearly two decades, and was most recently exhibited at the Whitney Museum’s 2018-2019 Warhol Retrospective, Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. The portrait is thought to be the only image currently in private hands, and the only known portrait executed in oxidation form. One of its sister paintings is housed in the permanent collection of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th and 21st century art, says: “Warhol’s fame is closely tied to the fame of his subjects—Marilyn, Liz, Elvis, Brando. But these four portraits exist as relics of the past.

"This portrait of Jean Michel-Basquiat was created when the young artist was at the precipice of entering the New York art world and changing it forever. Basquiat symbolised a new generation, and Warhol recognised this earlier than anyone. His unmatched ability to capture celebrity, fame, glory and tragedy culminates in this portrait. It is one of the most exciting paintings to come to the auction market.”

The Christie’s sale will also include works from The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism, which Christie’s calls “one of the greatest American collections to ever appear on the market”. Paintings by Caillebotte, Cézanne and Van Gogh will also go under the gavel that night.

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