- Jean-Michel Basquiat
- Untitled (Head of Madman)
- oilstick on paper laid down on canvas
- 109.2 by 78.1cm.; 43 by 30 3/4 in.
- Executed in 1982.
Raphael Blier, Paris
Diego Cortez, New York
Peter Brams, New Jersey
Leo Malca, New York (acquired from the above in 1996)
Christie’s, New York, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 12 November 2013, Lot 6
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Oeuvres sur Papier, 1997, p. 57, illustrated in colour
Havana, Casa de las Américas and La Fundación Havana Club, Basquiat: en la Habana, 2000-01, p. 93, illustrated in colour
New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art; and Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Basquiat, 2005-06, p. 60, illustrated in colour
New York, Van de Weghe Fine Art, Basquiat: Heads, 2006
Chadds Ford, Brandywine River Museum; San Antonio, McNay Art Museum; and Rockland, Farnsworth Art Museum, Factory Work: Warhol, Wyeth, Basquiat, 2006-07, p. 21, no. 55, illustrated in colour
Santander, Fundación Botin; and Rome, Fondazione Memmo, Palazzo Ruspoli, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Ahuyentando Fantasmas / Fantasmi da scacciare, 2008-09, p. 61, illustrated in colour (Santander); and p. 49, no. 3, illustrated in colour (Rome)
Basel, Fondation Beyeler; and Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Basquiat, 2010-11, p. 103, no. 85, illustrated in colour (Basel); and p. 99, no. 80, illustrated in colour (Paris)
New York, Nahmad Contemporary, Poetics of the Gesture: Schiele, Twombly, Basquiat, 2014
Margot Clark, ‘Lamont Gallery, Phillips Exeter Academy/Exeter Collection Peter Brams’, Art New England, May 1987, p. 25 (text)
Richard Marshall, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works on Paper, Paris 1999, p. 163, illustrated in colour
Jean Luc Chalumeau, Basquiat: 1960-1988, Paris 2003, p. 19, no. 13, illustrated in colour
Ruth Davis Konigsberg, ‘Fiction Chronicle’, New York Times, 15 May 2005, p. 37, illustrated in colour
Ben Okri, ‘On Basquiat’, Modern Painters, May 2005, p. 63, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., Milan, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, 2006-07, p. 152, no. 34, illustrated in colour
Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Appendix, Paris 2010, p. 10, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., Buenos Aires, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, Bye Bye American Pie, 2012, p. 18, illustrated in colour
Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. IX
Searing in its electric immediacy, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Head of Madman) is a truly masterful articulation of the virtuoso artist’s groundbreaking reappraisal of the genre of portraiture. Donning the mantle of illustrious predecessors such as Gustave Courbet, Vincent van Gogh, and Edvard Munch, Basquiat here confers upon his male head a frenzied expulsion of artistic energies, broadcasting an innately human form of madness in line with the long established legacy of art historical portraiture. The present work is one of fifteen intensely compelling drawings executed by the artist in 1982, all of which were specifically focused on highly worked and re-worked portrayals of the human head, one of the most pervasive leitmotifs of Basquiat’s astoundingly prodigious career. Untitled (Head of Madman), however, stands solidly apart from this grouping for its utterly arresting dynamism and technically accomplished form. Enduring as both idiosyncratic self-portrait and skull-like talismanic icon, the single heroic figure prevailed as a key conceptual anchor for Basquiat; furthermore, as the focus of cerebral activity and marker of cultural identity, the head, in his output of pronounced and occasionally foreboding scarified faces, is situated at the apex of a fundamental aesthetic synthesis of biography with a wider racial and socio-cultural dialogue. Brilliantly formulated in Basquiat’s definitively innovative artistic psyche and then translated via his preferred oilstick media onto its paper surface, Untitled (Head of Madman) simultaneously presents the macrocosm and microcosm of humanity: as it justly enters the legions of mentally tortured and overtly emotive portrayals of the human consciousness that abound throughout the annals of art history, this stunning work is a profound and intensely intimate reflection of its creator’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
The present work was initiated in a year of unprecedented success for the twenty-two year old prodigy: in 1982 Basquiat had his first solo exhibitions with Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles, Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, and other galleries in New York and Rotterdam. The downtown Manhattan art dealer Annina Nosei became his primary dealer after inviting him to participate in a group show of socio-political art in September 1981. With no studio to work in, Basquiat moved into the basement of her gallery, now a fabled space, where he was at last able to paint freely and to produce an extraordinary group of masterworks. Three years later, in an interview with Cathleen McGuigan for The New York Times, Basquiat described this breakthrough year, where his international renown as well as the quality of his output began to flourish: "I had some money; I made the best paintings ever” (Jean-Michel Basquiat quoted in: Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money’, The New York Times, 10 February 1985, online). Indeed, by the astonishingly early age of twenty-two, Basquiat’s personal style had fully matured and he had seemingly effortlessly arrived at an altogether novel aesthetic vocabulary. The freshness of this unique emergent talent, coupled with the rush of self-confidence brought about by his newfound critical success, engendered a body of works, of which Untitled (Head of Madman) is a part, that are today widely considered the very best of his career.
Robert Storr described the artist during this early critical period of his career: “Jumpy, angry, driven, Basquiat was in a terrible and terrifying hurry” (Robert Storr in: Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, 1990, n.p.). Contemporaneous sources paint a picture of Basquiat as possessing an insatiable creative drive, and his vast and varied output certainly conveys an impassioned, almost compulsive intensity to his practice: the drawn image, voraciously applied swathes of paint, and wild application of language that poured forth from him seeming to carry with them the demons he wished to exorcise. Indeed, Basquiat’s oeuvre, above all else, is a pictorial solution to the multicultural milieu he inhabited. Deeply rooted in myriad sources of art historical inspiration – from the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, to Picasso’s problematic primitivism, Cy Twombly’s ciphers of text and freedom of line, and the overtly Abstract Expressionist machismo of Franz Kline – the artist’s greatest concentration of source material came from his own narrative history. Born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents and brought up in Brooklyn, Basquiat drew from his manifold ancestral background and racial identity to forge a body of work acutely conscious of its contribution to the meta-narrative of an almost exclusively white Western art history. Moreover, visual evidence of Basquiat’s individual life experiences constitutes the mainstay of his artistic lexicon: the oft-cited story of his hospital stay and spleen surgery as the result of being hit by a car while playing outside his Brooklyn home at the age of seven, and resultant fascination with the human anatomy that arose from his mother’s gift of a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, is just one example and has become the stuff of art historical legend. The fascinating amalgamation of these diverse source materials resulted in a corpus that is as intrinsically autobiographical as it is an acutely aware yet broad portrayal of black male subjectivity.
Untitled (Head of Madman), though expressed via a limited colour palette of black, white, blue, red, and orange oilstick, and with a remarkable compositional economy describing the majority of its untreated paper surface, nevertheless depicts a figure that appears ready to burst with pulsating vitality. This ‘madman’, his crudely delineated visage traced over and reconfigured repeatedly so that the anticipated appearance of his biological features – as witnessed in the initial smoothly curvilinear outline of his cranium and tracing of jaw and teeth that are visible as the first layers of applied oilstick – are wholly overcome in the end by an exaggerated, almost inhuman, anatomy. Basquiat’s layering of facial composition atop facial composition elicits a pronounced sense of instability and, while almost certainly used to depict his own mental state to some extent, provokes in the viewer a profound and innately human insecurity: that our mind has the ability to turn against us, make us into something we don’t recognize, make us mad. Significantly, the only feature that Basquiat did not directly tamper with is the figure’s eyes, which seem to broadcast equal parts manic frenzy and paralysing fear. The artist’s strident application of line here traces an almost neurological pathway that electrifies an intensely expressive power. Far from an inanimate skull, Basquiat engenders fluidity between internal and external in Untitled (Head of Madman) to evoke complex and living sensory processes that are delivered with the powerful shock of a thousand volts.
At the dawn of a decade that has since come to be regarded as peculiarly retrospective, its artistic landscape described by a tendency toward reprisal as demonstrated most fiercely by the Neo-Expressionists, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the singular embodiment of a new spirit, someone capable of reinvigorating the visual arts. In a blaze of significant achievement, he initiated a tragically short yet seismically groundbreaking mature career, effectively re-calibrating, within the span of just eight years, the way the world around him thought about the nature of contemporary art-making. In Basquiat's canon art historical and semantic visual idioms are recast, cut-up and remixed to give form to an entirely new language anchored by the artist's own tripartite ethnicity but also grounded in his understanding of a contemporary moment for which all cultures and all eras of art history are up for grabs as valid avenues of expression. Untitled (Head of Madman) is imbued with a thrillingly raw intensity and a visceral physicality which sets it on par with some of Basquiat’s most celebrated representations of the masculine cranium and claims its rightful designation as an absolute expression of his full artistic powers. Unequivocally, this deft and incisive portrayal of human nature constitutes what is possibly the most radical benchmark for the contemporary portrait to have emerged in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Robert Storr’s description of the artist’s masterpiece works on paper presents an apt and definitive portrayal of the process of viewing the enduringly phenomenal Untitled (Head of Madman): “What remains is the scattered benefaction of an amazingly wised up, wound up intelligence. So watch the artist use it. For even now – and especially in drawings such as these – it is all still happening right before your eyes” (Robert Storr in: Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, 1990, n.p.).