The present lot, along with Tuxedo and Back of the Neck, are the largest silkscreened works Basquiat produced during his tragically short career. Untitled is the second of these three silkscreen editions executed in collaboration with Fred Hoffman in Venice, California while Basquiat was exhibiting at Gagosian Gallery in late 1982 and early 1983. Untitled is based on a collage of twenty-eight drawings mounted to canvas, which Basquiat had enhanced with oil stick, pencil, crayon, and gouache. Drawings were essential to Basquiat’s artistic process, and were frequently used as a visual resource for his larger works on canvas. The silkscreen medium forces the marriage of text and image, thereby eliminating any existing hierarchy in this work’s complex tumult of visual data. The crisp, flattened picture plane is alluringly juxtaposed with Basquiat’s primordial rawness of mark making, and the unadulterated spontaneity of his meandering thoughts.
As perhaps a self-portrait, the enigmatic central figure acts as the protagonist in Untitled, and is the source from which the composition’s manic entirety emanates. The figure looms over a visual manifestation of the artist’s consciousness and acts as a stamp of ownership similar to the recurrent use of copyright symbols. The jaw-line has consciously been left incomplete, breaching the bold gestural mark describing the iconic totemic head. Voraciously acquired knowledge violently spews from the central figure’s gaping mouth.
Klaus Kertess incisively articulates the artist’s use of words: “He liked to say he used words like brushstrokes; and, indeed, his drawings and paintings are frequently moved and made moving by fluttering flocks of words flying into and out of visual, aural, and oral sense” (Larry Warsh, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, New York, 1993, p. 17). Successive themes in the present work are alternately punctuated or enveloped by dynamic lines and arrows, resulting in a visual record of hundreds of individual synapses. Basquiat endlessly circles, underlines, numbers, lists, quotes, copyrights, corrects, emphasizes, and obliterates interrelated information as a technician of the written word. The visual syncopation of his personal lexicon is used as a bridge to drive the eye of the viewer towards yet another symbolic reference. The canvas is like an organism of inextricably intertwined ideas, where each fragment’s identity is asserted by that of another.
By 1983, at the age of twenty-two, Basquiat had already secured himself as a permanent icon of contemporary popular culture, having just completed six solo exhibitions and becoming the youngest artist ever represented at Documenta. As one of Basquiat’s earliest uses of silkscreen, Untitled stands as an exemplary model for an increasingly utilized technique in the artist’s most prodigious masterpieces.
Sotheby’s is greatly indebted to Fred Hoffman for his insights and contributions to this essay.
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