“In Basquiat’s drawing there is rarely any breathing room. Rather, you are sucked in and carried along an often intricate and complex journey through a maze of references which oftentimes make little rational sense but nonetheless feel like they have a reason to exist.” (Fred Hoffman in Exh. Cat., New York, Acquavella Galleries, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawings: Work from the Schorr Family Collection, 2014, p. 37)
Executed in 1986, at a critical apex of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s revolutionary career, Untitled is a singular example of the artist’s prolific corpus of works on paper. Evincing an intense scrutiny, precision, and focus, the drawings that comprise a fundamental element of Basquiat’s oeuvre present the ultimate aesthetic counterpoint to his paintings and are thus essential to a comprehensive understanding of his significance to contemporary art history. Despite the celebrity, notoriety, and tragedy that have come to define Basquiat’s legacy in the years following his death at just twenty-eight years old in 1988, he was, to his very core, an artist in the classical sense. Throughout his brief but groundbreaking career Basquiat maintained a rigorous studio practice wherein he tirelessly and often obsessively pursued new and innovative modes of artistic expression. Untitled, in the complexity of its graphically dense surface, reads as a singular manifestation of this elemental quest. Moreover, the precision of Basquiat’s interconnected web of words, signs, and symbols reveals a concentration and intimacy that opens our eyes to the very nature of his inimitable practice.
Untitled’s surface is rife with landmarks of its creator’s distinctive lexicon: a column comprised of “MISSISSIPPI,” meticulously repeated sixteen times in the top right corner, recalls the artist’s masterful multi-panel composition Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1983), while the proliferation of references to Monticello indicate the continuous inspiration Basquiat drew from history. The numerous allusions to the human form that rise to the fore as the predominating compositional theme of Untitled relay the artist’s incessant fascination with anatomy stemming from his earliest lived experiences as a young boy whose mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. Basquiat’s mother Matilde recalls the artist with a pencil in his hand from a very early age, bent over a notebook while other children his age played outdoors. As Fred Hoffman concluded, “He discovered that he could shut out the myriad stimuli constantly bombarding him from the outside world; and at the same time, he could enable impressions, thoughts, memories, associations, fantasies, and observations formulating in his mind to simply pass through him, making their way onto a sheet of paper. From a very early age, Basquiat discovered that drawing was a process of ‘channeling’ in which he essentially functioned as a medium.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Acquavella Galleries, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection, 2014, p. 33) Through seemingly disparate iconographic references culled from years of personal experience, Basquiat here creates a rigorous roadmap to his own unique vernacular, unparalleled and unrepeatable by any artist before or since.
Moreover, as an artist constantly on the move from the earliest moments leaving his graffiti mark on the streets and buildings of New York City, through the inception and continued acclaim of his professional career, drawing as a medium was inherently more complementary to Basquiat’s quasi-nomadic lifestyle. As part of the inherent intimacy of creating a drawing, Basquiat would bend over his paper surfaces so that his compositions occupied his entire realm of vision – eliciting a strong communion with the work and an intense introspection that his paintings, in their often monumental scale, are unable to achieve. Working on paper, therefore, served a significantly more profound and personal end for Basquiat than for his contemporaries who more or less turned to paper as a preparatory tool. Hoffman declared, “With the exception of Picasso, few acclaimed painters of the 20th century invested the same time or energy to works on paper that is evidenced in their painting.” (Ibid., p. 33) Untitled is brilliantly demonstrative of this concentrated energy; in its seamless integration of writing and drawing, image and text, the present work reads equally as a composition of depthless intricacy and curiosity while affording us a privileged glimpse into the deepest inner-workings of its genius creator’s mind. Robert Storr extolled the unequivocal power of Basquiat’s drawings within the scope of his oeuvre when he described how, “Drawing, for him was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium. The seemingly throw-away sheets that carpeted his studio might appear little more than warm-ups for painting, except that the artist, a shrewd connoisseur of his own off-hand and under foot inventions did not in fact throw them away, but instead kept the best for constant reference and re-use. Or, kept them because they were, quite simply, indestructibly vivid.” (Robert Storr, “Two Hundred Beats Per Min,” in Exh. Cat., New York, The Robert Miller Gallery, Basquiat Drawings, 1990, n.p.)
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