The American athlete and professional football player John Carlos was undoubtedly an influential role model to a young Basquiat having also been born to black migrant parents. Rising to public consciousness as a founding member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), Carlos advocated a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games as a demonstration against the global prevalence of racial oppression. Specifically the boycott campaigned for the withdrawal of apartheid states, South Africa and Rhodesia, from the games as well as the restitution of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title. It was in the wake of the boycott’s failure that Carlos decided to participate in the games and stage a protest along with fellow American athlete Tommie Smith, should they win a medal. Subsequently, when both athletes successfully rose to the winner’s podiums following the 200 meter race, and turned to face their national flag and hear the American national anthem, they each raised a black-gloved fist solidly into the air, remaining in that pose until the anthem had finished. Already a potent visual referent for solidarity, this ground-breaking moment instantly popularised the ‘Black Power Salute’ as a powerful symbol of the Black Power Movement. Receiving their medals shoeless but with black socks to represent the black poverty that, for a moment, stood in the shadow of their victory, this poignantly quiet protest addressed the on-going violation of civil rights both within and outside of the US.
Amidst a background of growing social unrest in which the revolutionary achievements and exhilarating optimism of the civil-rights movement seemed momentarily marred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April that year, this gesture had a profound effect on Basquiat as a formative experience in constructing his visual identity as a black American male of Haitian descent. Indeed, Martin Luther King had supported the Olympic Boycott, making Carlos’ peaceful protest harrowingly timely, penetrating deep into black American consciousness.
As a strident entry into the cultural arena of fine art – in which black identity had been either ill-represented or denied previously – the present work directly references Carlos’s revolutionary gestures through the raised fist of its central figure. It shows Basquiat extending this legacy at a pivotal point in his career; just as Carlos and Smith broke the twenty second barrier for the first time in 1968, a proudly ambitious Basquiat seeks to break the glass ceiling of racial inequality within the art establishment. Notably Basquiat’s gargantuan figure in Untitled stands with a fist that bears a black glove that skilfully bleeds into its surrounds, creating an ambiguous pose between triumph and fury. The leviathan character from the artist’s personal mythology, as a homage to his sporting-activist idol, is composed of consciously naive yet formally discerning techniques. Washes of hazily fused block colours endow the ground with an effervescently abstract under-layer over which figurative details are articulated with Basquiat’s idiosyncratically confident and expressionistic line. Between ground and detail, sonorous harmonies and discords are struck through the calculated weighting of primary colours, creating an unstable sense of vibration through bands of compliment and contrast. In this sense Untitled evokes Basquiat’s forbears: the German Expressionists, as well as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.
As if shooting from this figure’s head we encounter the artist’s much-favoured symbol of the arrow in a strikingly visceral red. Below the sharp angle of the figure’s elbow in graffiti-like scrawl we find the letters ‘S O A P’. At once this harks back to Basquait and Al Diaz’s ‘SAMO’ graffitti tags that once marked the streets of Soho, yet Basquiat also used soap as a racially charged, satirical device: “Basquiat’s inclusion of a drawing about Black Face Soap, a joke item advertised in the back of comic books that turns the users face a black colour, illustrates the internalized racism characteristic of American society and promulgated in young readers.”(Richard D. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects” in Enrico Navara ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, p. 31). Here we see the letters have been crossed out as a firm denial of the racial prejudices that he experienced as still prevalent in American society.
A black ground is emphasized at the figure’s torso to reference the tracksuits that Carlos and Smith wore on the Olympic podiums; a direct reference further accentuated by the blood-red line that mirrors the red trim of their jackets. With seeping drips of crimson paint this appears as a wound to the figure’s side, closely recalling biblical details of the sword incision made into the body of the dead Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross.
Repeated on the reverse of the door but in descent, the arrow motif is also juxtaposed with a far starker skeletal figure. Whilst chiming with Basquiat’s long-standing aesthetic preoccupation with anatomy, the similarly favored symbol of the crown of thorns atop the figure’s head imbues another symbolic purpose: thus redolent of Christ, and creating a spiritualistic symbiosis between these figures on alternate sides of the doors, the x-rayed figure appears as a tragic saviour. With ebullient drips Basquiat’s handling of this figure is arguably among his most varied and advance.
The most famous and widely distributed image of the 1968 Olympic salute was taken by photographer John Dominis and shows a central Smith between Carlos and Australian silver medallist Peter Norman. Composed as a triad, the depiction resonates with a mixture of glory and suffering achieved through Old Master representations of Christ flanked by two convicts, with one pledging allegiance to him, as they are crucified at Calvary. Through their stand for equality and black civil rights Carlos and Smith too sacrificed their lives. After their remonstration they were publically condemned and banned from the Olympic village. For decades after they were socially and economically ostracized, losing friends, job opportunities and subjected to psychological assaults. Even Peter Norman, the white Australian athlete who participated in the protest by wearing an OPHR badge was chastised by his country’s Olympic authorities and media. Four years later, having qualified more than 13 times Norman was still not picked to compete in the Summer Olympics.
Within Untitled, the strong use of blood red binds both figures with intimations of both passion and violence. Hence, Basquiat makes sacred his cultural pioneers of civil rights, promoting their equivalence to Christ through parallel histories of successes intertwined with pain. The sacrifice that Christ ostensibly makes for humanity is coupled with the sacrifices that Carlos and Smith made to their careers and their Olympic honors through their political activism for human rights.
Basquiat’s melding of the greatest themes of both religion and art with politically charged references from recent history is made even more personal through his playfully unrefined choice of materials. Basquait noted how “the first paintings” he ever made were on the ad-hoc surfaces of doors and windows: “I used the window shape as a frame and I just put the painting on the glass part and on doors I found on the street.” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in ‘I have to have some source material around me: Jean-Michel Basquiat interviewed by Becky Johnston and Tamra Davis, Beverly Hills, California, 1985,’ in Exh. Cat., Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Basquiat, 2010, p. xxiii) The use of unconventional surfaces references his early involvement in graffiti culture as well as his initial financial inability to afford traditional art materials. To boost his income Basquiat is known to have sold customized jewelry on the street and painted designs on sweatshirts and coveralls.
As long term friend Mary Ann Monforton reported, “Basquiat painted on anything he could get his hands on: refrigerators, laboratory coats, cardboard boxes, and doors.” (“Interview with Franklin Sirmans,” January 31, 1992, in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling) Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1992 p. 235) Spending much of his early career without a fixed address and staying with friends and lovers, in 1979 the still unknown artist transformed his girlfriend Alexis Adler’s East Village home into a living installation, covering one wall in a large scale mural.
Basquiat’s accelerated rise to public veneration in the early 1980s made such ad-hoc surfaces no longer a necessity. Nevertheless, the present work undoubtedly pays homage to the earlier modifications of such domestic spaces as he continued this tradition throughout his career. When dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch visited Basquiat in 1980 the first thing he saw “was a battered refrigerator that Basquiat had completely covered in drawings, words and symbols, the lines practically etched into the enamel […] it was one of the most astounding objects I had ever seen” (Jeffrey Deitch in Cathleen McGuigan, “ New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist,” The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 26)
From 1981, Untitled (Helmet) shows an early fascination with found objects, using a football helmet and hair clippings to similarly make astute comments on Afro-American identity. Subsequently doors and shutters became the favored found objects for supporting the artist’s visions, as evidenced in his late piece Gravestone 1987, which combined three separate doors and to which the present work is a vital precursor. The present work also boasts a richly variegated texture, which provides additional challenges for Basquiat’s brush. The door resists acting as an appropriate ground for the depiction with inherent fractures to the cohesion of the image resulting from various holes and fixings. Yet Basquiat welcomes the inherent formal deviances, playfully incorporating the brass door-knocker into an eye of his triumphant figure, whilst the reverse keyhole forms the hollow socket for his skeletal figure. Whilst Robert Rauschenberg’s use of doors in his early combines (for example, Interview 1955) can be cited as influential, Rauschenberg’s Duchampian reification of the found object’s ontological properties stands in contrast to Basquiat’s overwhelming appropriation of the surface to encompass socially provocative pictorial narratives.
As a double-sided image inherently schizophrenic in its mood, itself grafted onto an object that traditionally occupies liminal thresholds, Untitled represents semiotic strata that engage with historic complexities in the development of black identity in the post-war period. This work is profoundly emblematic of the artist’s inherently nomadic existence as a politically engaged transgressor of cultural boundaries, underlining the unique and profoundly influential space that he holds within art history.
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