Jean-Michel Basquiat’s dynamic synthesis of graffiti culture and hybrid fine art is vividly encapsulated in Untitled, a work completed at the culmination of the artist’s career in 1983 when he was just 23 years old. Basquiat’s youthful, raw energy is embodied in the present work’s erratic brushstrokes and aggressive use of jet-black, white and red pigments, which together manifest a distinctive style of intellectualised ‘primitivism’ unique to Basquiat’s visual language. Instrumental to his singular style is a profound knowledge of art historical discourse, and a wide spectrum of cultural sources including Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly remain essential influences to Basquiat’s iconography. In Untitled, a black skeletal face is juxtaposed against an impasto white background, its piercing eyes and exposed jawline rendered in apparent speed and imprecision. This distinct aesthetic by means of haphazard brushstrokes and multiple layers is essential to the artist’s technique: “I scratch out and erase but never so much that they don’t know what’s there. My version of pentimento.” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Exh. Cat., Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 14.)
Here, Basquiat substitutes perspectival accuracy and spatial recession for a pronounced flatness and a distinct emphasis upon bold colour and expression. The facial features form a shape reminiscent of a skull, which in turn constitutes a key motif present throughout Basquiat’s repertoire. The image of the skull is seemingly a personal gesture alluding to a childhood incident in which the artist was hit by a car while playing on the street, and subsequently hospitalised for serious internal injuries and broken limbs. While recuperating after the accident, Basquiat received a copy of Grey’s Anatomy as a gift from his mother, and the myriad anatomical and skeletal images exhibited in the book undoubtedly informed his own visual inventory as he became a working artist. While the image of the skull offers a persisting reminder of the fragility of the human body, it is also a significant symbol of Basquiat’s own childhood trauma and near-encounter with death.
Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat was enamoured by the energy and animation of life in New York City. The artist left home after dropping out of high school at the age of 17, at which point the urban streets became both his refuge and his canvas as a poor and often homeless young man. Captivated by the notion of monopolising and appropriating public utility through graffiti, Basquiat’s SAMO persona was thus born, and his poetic, rhythmic written phrases accompanied by the eponymous SAMO graffiti tag began to garner attention across the gritty urban landscape Basquiat called home. The late pop singer David Bowie, an important collector of Basquiat works, once noted of the artist’s graffiti origins, “SAMO, as in ‘same old sh**’, keyed the eye to the new language. Waking up every day to a world of pieces and bits we spend the remaining hours putting it into some kind of form we can deal with. No order, no function. Basquiat takes a cursive swipe and re-establishes the disorder that is reality. The pure joyful miasma of it all” (David Bowie cited in: Dieter Buchhart and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, Eds., Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, New York 2015, p. 20). This curated ‘disorder’ is essential to Basquiat’s unique milieu of street art, and his background in graffiti is evident in Untitled through its simplified figuration and the apparent haste in which it was composed.
Basquiat’s oeuvre is charged with references to popular culture and black history, and images of prominent African American individuals such as Mohammad Ali, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker are prevalent throughout his work. The lushly painted black face in Untitled suggests Basquiat’s reference to such celebrated figures, and while it is impossible to ignore a racial dimension inherent to his work, Basquiat himself critically claimed, “I am not a black artist, I am an artist” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Ibid., p. 20). While the figure in the present piece may allude to famous individuals whom Basquiat admired, it is also feasible that the portrait is a self-representation, as the artist often painted himself as a participant in his own work. Basquiat was similarly conscious of his status as a celebrated artist, and one ostensibly on par with Ali, Davis, Parker and the other personalities instrumental to the innovative and avant garde nature of twentieth century American popular culture.
At the time of the present work’s completion in 1983, Basquiat had already featured in solo exhibitions at Annina Nosei Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery in New York City, Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, and at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, which together manifested Basquiat’s truly international reputation as one of the greatest artists of his generation. Yet despite his rampant success, the mercurial world of fame, fortune and notoriety was not kind to Basquiat, and the nascent young artist passed away due to an overdose at the age of 27. The brevity of his career, as well as the profoundly sophisticated, intellectualised visual approach apparent in the work of such a youthful artist, makes Jean-Michel Basquiat and the pieces he produced all the more remarkable. In his formative 1981 essay ‘The Radiant Child’ Rene Ricard writes, “Yet the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel’s repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it’s his. He won that crown.” (Rene Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, ARTFORUM Magazine, December 1981, online)
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