Basquiat’s most intriguing paintings, such as the present work, are a fascinating conflation of inspirations – as much as Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold) alludes to Abstract Expressionism in its unrestrained and energetic painterly gestures, it is equally indebted to another of Basquiat’s great heroes: Picasso. In the tradition of the great Cubist collages, the present work calls on primitivism to inform the styling of the figure and presents its viewer with obfuscated visual and verbal clues. As in Picasso’s famed Still Life with Chair Caning 1912, where the letters JOU appear divorced from their original context, free to stand for either “journal” or “joux,” in the present work Basquiat has littered his composition with narrative traces. Though complete and solid in the top left quarter of the work, the golden yellow ground appears to purposefully reveal different markings and colors on the right half of the canvas. It is as if Basquiat specifically painted around the clues he left. In keeping with his artistic approach, these clues are variously narrative and autobiographical – deriving from diverse sources. In the top right corner emerges the black and yellow outline of a crown, the defining symbol of Basquiat’s street graffiti persona SAMO©. Conversely, the patch of red, when associated with the dagger in the figure’s left hand, alludes directly to the story of Julius Caesar and his bloody demise.
Fascinated by anatomy ever since he was hospitalized as a boy after a car accident, the depiction of the human form here evinces Basquiat’s obsession with the inner machinations of the body. Seemingly viewed simultaneously externally and in x-ray, the central figure is a commanding visual manifestation of Basquiat’s personal preoccupation with mortality. In an eerily prescient way, the present work allegorically encapsulates Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame – initiated in earnest in the same year as this work, when the dealer Annina Nosei began to represent him and gave him his own studio space in the basement of her gallery – as well as his imminent untimely death.
Basquiat’s studio was strewn with sketches and notebooks. Seemingly trying to exorcise the demons within, he made numerous frantic and explosively expressive drawings of warrior-figures. These drawings, particularly those from 1980-82 were used and reused as constant reference material. The raw spontaneity captured in these drawings was a visual resource for Basquiat’s works on canvas. Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold) retains much of the immediacy of his drafted expressionistic outpourings, making for a lively and truly affecting canvas. Like a breath of fresh air, Basquiat’s art broke rank with, and usurped, an established canon, subsequently expanding the boundaries of art and bringing to bear a radically new and challenging aesthetic, still resonant today. Marc Mayer continues, “A final exemplar of modernism, Jean-Michel Basquiat also stands among the most consistently interesting artists of postmodern and, ironically, post-internationalist period of what rapidly became an increasingly global art world soon after his death…his sophistication as an artist was exceptional.” (Ibid., p. 55)
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