Glenn O’Brien, “Greatest Hits,” in Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 180
Richly saturated with bold, fiery red, painterly tangerine and steel gray passages of oilstick amidst a sea of frenzied cobalt blue, scarlet and charcoal black gestural marks, Untitled from 1983 intrepidly exhibits Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mastery of expression through his own innovative visual language by this point in his career. Bursting with expressionistic fervor, the present work, with its complex labyrinth of inscriptions beneath a fully composed figure, contains all the necessary qualities of Basquiat’s most outstanding compositions. The artist’s adept ability to pack a visual punch while also skillfully incorporating a multiplicity of references that he developed through his vantage point of the socio-political climate as an artist coming to fame in early 1980s in New York is remarkably on display in Untitled. As renowned Basquiat scholar Richard Marshall notes, “The work Basquiat began in late 1982 signaled a new phase of intensity and complexity that focused on black subjects and social inequities and incorporates a growing vocabulary of popular images and characters…The effect was raw, askew, handmade–a primitive-looking object that recalled African shields, Polynesian navigation devices, Spanish devotional objects, and bones that have broken through the surface skin” (Richard Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in Exh. Cat., Palacio Episcopal de Malaga, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1996, p. 140). Untitled, created in this ‘new phase of intensity and complexity,’ is a testament to Basquiat’s unique ability to bring together not only references from the past but also creatively mesh them with those of his contemporary world to create something entirely new and truly groundbreaking.
A multiplicity of meanings exists in Untitled. A viewer is captivated not only by the powerful, lone protagonist but also intrigued by the purposeful scrawls surrounding him. Is he a warrior like his spear suggests? Is he a king or a martyr with a crown or halo? Is he a skeleton–his anatomy visible in his stomach and right leg? Is he the artist himself or perhaps another young, black man who has risen to fame? Basquiat often portrayed athletes and musicians he admired and indicated their identity by symbols, visual cues and different references that are sometimes overt but often times encoded. Beyond the figure’s head in Untitled a viewer can see the outline of a boxing ring the lines of which are almost identical to those in one of Basquiat’s first paintings, The Ring from 1981. That work depicts a strong, young boxer raising his spear triumphantly in the air like a warrior who has just won a battle. This subtle reference to the artist’s earlier work proves that the spear-bearer is not just a warrior but also perhaps a boxer. This is one of many examples in the present work where Basquiat layers significance into one seemingly simple compositional choice to create a nuanced, self-referential explosion of meaning.
The present work is not only referential to Basquiat’s own oeuvre, but also draws on a plethora of art historical references: “Basquiat goes beyond simple collage in these references to African, Greco-Roman and American art. He rewrites art history, drawing connections from these cultures into his experiences as an artist and as a visitor to this museum” (Jordana Moore, Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, Los Angeles 2014, p. 53). While the evocation of primitive art very much alludes to Basquiat’s ethnic heritage–born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents and brought up in Brooklyn, Basquiat's art habitually draws on his triangular cultural inheritance–the artist was also intensely influenced by Picasso for whom primitivism was an antidote to the conservatism of the academies. Similarly, Basquiat finds in primitivism a correlative mode for expressing an overtly contemporary angst simultaneously tied to his own racial identity and his position as an artist responding to the cool minimalism that permeated the gallery scene in Manhattan during the early 1980s. Basquiat also drew on artist’s that came to prominence in the second half of the 20th century such as Robert Rauschenberg whose integration of gesture and figuration and inclusion of text helped shape Basquiat’s practice. As Dieter Buchhart writes, “Rauschenberg’s transformation of popular source material into aestheticized content became an important precedent for Basquiat. In Rauschenberg’s work, Basquiat found the license to move from the representation of an image, the placement of a text, and the gestural stroke of paint or drawn line. Basquiat would have found validation for his own developing practice of integrating representational image, text, and non-referential pictorial gesture. Not only was Rauschenberg’s integration of figuration and abstraction important for Basquiat, but also in the old master’s work the young artist discovered a fluidity of aesthetic moves which became an essential aspect of his full pictorial expression” (Dieter Buchhart, “Against All Odds” Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 21).
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