New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, April - June 1998
Tony Shafrazi, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 1999, p. 97, illustrated in colour; and p. 335, illustrated in colour (in installation at Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1998)
Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, p. 98, no. 4, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, February - April 2013, pp. 58-59, illustrated (in installation at Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings, Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles, 1982)
Jean-Michel Basquiat, cited in: Exh. Cat., London, The Barbican Centre, Boom for Real: Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2017, p. 21.
“The traditional substructure of Basquiat’s art is Abstract Expressionism. He piles up rich palimpsests of paint over black grounds or snazzy oranges that are structured with architectonic solidity… there is never any sense that Basquiat is faking.”
William Wilson, ‘N.Y. Subway Graffiti: All About of L.A.’, Los Angeles Times, 16 April 1982.
1982 was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Annus Mirabilis. Within the space of a year – from the moment his work as SAMO© was prominently showcased in the legendary P.S. 1 show New York / New Wave in February 1981 through to his first solo exhibition as Jean-Michel Basquiat with Annina Nosei in March 1982 – he had gone from underground street lyricist to the doyen of the New York art scene. Exhibited at the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles only one month after his Nosei debut, Untitled is a masterpiece from this singularly formative year in Basquiat’s meteoric career. Only exhibited once since its Gagosian unveiling in 1982 – at Tony Shafrazi’s Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition in 1998 – this painting makes it auction debut having remained in the same New York collection for twenty years. At once reminiscent of the graffiti of New York’s subway; beholden to the art historical influence of Cy Twombly; evoking the collages and linguistic play of Dada; and channelling a fierce socio-political contemporary angst, this painting belongs among the most striking and powerful of Basquiat’s single head paintings of 1981-82. It joins a pantheon that includes the Broad Museum’s Untitled (1981) and the current auction record, Untitled (1982), in showcasing this artist’s brilliance as a painter of raw and uncensored postmodernity.
In a review of the fabled Gagosian show printed in the Los Angeles Times on 16th April 1982, journalist William Wilson wrote: “The traditional substructure of Basquiat’s art is Abstract Expressionism. He piles up rich palimpsests of paint over black grounds or snazzy oranges that are structured with architectonic solidity… there is never any sense that Basquiat is faking” (William Wilson, ‘N.Y. Subway Graffiti: All About of L.A.’, Los Angeles Times, 16 April 1982). Wilson’s mention of ‘palimpsests’, ‘black grounds’ and ‘snazzy oranges’ immediately conjures the present work. Painted over a viscerally layered bed of black paint and Xerox collage, a looming neon orange skull dominates the composition. Outlined in free-flowing black spray paint and accented with fervently applied gold acrylic, this head fiercely bears its teeth and stares through scarified wide eyes. As part of this show, Untitled was exhibited alongside seven other momentous paintings: Black Tar and Feathers, Two Heads on Gold, Loin, Untitled (Black Skull), Untitled (Yellow Tar and Black Feathers), the monumental Untitled (L.A. Painting) and the LA MOCA picture, Six Crimee, all created in 1982. The show was an immediate sell-out and today it is remembered as one of Basquiat’s most successful exhibitions. In the biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Phoebe Hoban describes the opening night: “the opening was a huge affair. The cream of the L.A. collectors, dealers and even a few celebrities showed up… The show was completely sold out. Eli Broad, Thomas Ammann, and Scott Spiegel snapped up all the paintings” (Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998 (2015 edition), pp. 131-32). In the same paragraph Hoban also recounts the words of a contemporary critic who responded enthusiastically to the show: “Basquiat’s works are direct and furious reflections of a decadent, sadistic society. Calligraphic markings, puerile stick figures, symbols of angels and devils, black men and white men, teeth-bared, wearing crowns, carrying scales of justice. Robotoid eyes roll to the back to show that the brains are fried, there is no hope. There seems to be almost no distillation or interpretation. It is as if the city itself crawled on these canvases and stomped around” (Ibid., p. 132). In Untitled, a ferocious street-wise attitude radiates from every inch of the canvas’ surface. Intoxicating aerosol fumes, wheat-pasted posters, discarded flyers and street detritus, this painting speaks the urban vernacular of a city electrified by a new lease of creativity, of which the city’s booming graffiti culture played a vital role.
Basquiat first came to the attention of the New York art scene in 1978 as part of a graffiti double act with his City-As-School classmate, Al Diaz. Based on a character Basquiat had invented – SAMO, an abbreviation of the phrase, ‘same old shit’ – the pair furiously spray painted the city with poetic maxims and staccato aphorisms that spoke out against commercial culture and the art world; phrases such as, SAMO© AS AN END TO PIN-HEAD EXCUSES; SAMO© FOR THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE; SAMO© AS AN END 2 NINE-2-FIVE NONSENSE WASTIN’ YOUR LIFE 2 MAKE ENDS MEET TO GO HOME AT NIGHT TO YOUR COLOUR T.V. As a means of speaking out against prescribed cultural normativity, the SAMO© writings were part of an increasing tumult of spray-painted words and imaginative lettering that had flooded the city streets and subway cars, in part owing to the economic situation of a city that could not afford to keep its public facilities graffiti-free. By the late 1970s, such was the creative ferment of this underground movement that the graffiti writers had begun to veer into the territory of the art world. In his essay ‘SAMO©’s New York’, Glenn O’Brien describes the impetus of graffiti as being “about individuals in a mass culture documenting their existence. The city landscape was marked with corporate names and logos but lacked any testimony to the existence of individuals and of their personalities”, O’Brien continues, “The graffiti world was an expression of the individual spirit that made New York culture and so it was a natural partner of the hip-hop scene, of the new music happening downtown of the spirit of all-out art that inspired the time” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘SAMO©’s New York’, in: Exh., Cat., London, Barbican Centre, Basquiat: Boom for Real, 2017, pp.102-03). Belonging to this cultural moment of underground public art – best epitomised by Fab 5 Freddy, Rammelzee and Keith Haring – the SAMO© writings nonetheless stood apart from the movement owing to their greater emphasis on concept driven word-play over graphic sensibility. Thought to have been the work of a much older and disenfranchised conceptual artist – Basquiat was barely nineteen at the time – the identities behind SAMO© were finally revealed in an article for Village Voice in December 1979. While this sounded the death-knell for the Basquiat/Al Diaz collaboration, Basquiat continued to use SAMO©’s notoriety as a marketing tool and springboard for his nascent career as a painter. Right through to the summer of 1981 and the moment of his first solo exhibition at Galleria Mazzoli in Modena, Basquiat was signing his paintings and exhibiting his work as SAMO©; it was not until he acquired official representation by Annina Nosei later that year that he finally dropped the moniker. Though having made the transition from street to studio, Basquiat nonetheless brought the street with him: where his graffiti operated as high art, Basquiat’s high art captured the urban space of the city. Indeed, works such as Untitled indefatigably substantiate the young artist’s ambition to “paint like the Lower East Side and what is was like to live there” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, cited in: Eleanor Nairne, ‘The Performance of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in: Ibid., p. 21).
Utterly attuned to his contemporary moment, Basquiat channelled his experience as a gifted but restless young man of tripartite heritage (his mother was Puerto Rican and his father was Haitian and African-American) who lived and breathed the cultural crucible of New York City. In this manner Basquiat was a breakthrough talent; he forged an oeuvre devoted to an expression of marginalised subjectivity that was entirely reflective of the burgeoning creative milieu of the downtown scene during the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the forefront of a backlash against the dry and dogmatic conceptual modalities of the previous generation (Judd, Sol LeWitt, Ryman, etc.), Basquiat became the poster boy for a new band of figurative painters who had come of age in a city that was dangerous, broke, and crumbling. Glenn O’Brien vividly conjures the atmosphere of the city: “It wasn’t long after the Daily News headline ‘For to City: Drop Dead’, and not long before the New York Post headline ‘Headless Boy in Topless Bar.’ New York was dangerous and partly deserted. It was dirty, multi-ethnic, half in ruins, all broke down – but it was very alive with young people who came here to get away from whatever benighted turf they were from, the places they didn’t fit, where they couldn’t be themselves. They came here to become who they were and would be” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘Greatest Hits’, in: Exh. Cat., Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s The Time, 2015 p. 175). Emerging from a city in ruins, a new style of painting privileged the immediacy of the isolated image over narrative, and the metaphoric strength of cultural signifiers over the interpretive freedom of undiluted abstraction. Typified by the ramshackle brilliance of the Times Square Show of 1980 and the zeitgeist defining New York/New Wave at P.S. 1 in 1981 (both of which featured an undiscovered Basquiat exhibited under the pseudonym of SAMO©), the rehabilitation of figuration sent reverberations throughout the artistic community. In his 1981 review of New York/New Wave, O’Brien boldly proclaimed: “This is a tidal wave of art, about to reduce the entire art world to limp rubble… here, art is based on life, not on art. The public might like it” (Glenn O’Brien, cited in: Glenn O’Brien, ‘New York, New Wave’, Artforum, March 2003, n.p.). In its searing confrontational legibility, Untitled thunderously heralds the triumphant revenge of bold symbolism upon an art world that, following Basquiat’s impact, would never be the same.
Following the cityscape paintings of 1981 – for which anything and everything was used as support from canvas and paper to walls, refrigerators, radiators, and clothing – in 1982 Basquiat almost exclusively worked on canvases that were frequently dominated by a depiction of the singular skull-like head. As gallerist and friend to Basquiat, Fred Hoffman has written: “At the outset of 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat created unique and haunting images of the male head… These figures are unsettling, leaving the viewer with the feeling that they exist in another realm. Peering out into our space, they are oracles conveying a message from another dimension. For some, Basquiat’s heads read more as masks, not the features of living human beings. The facial features have been rendered in a reductive, stylized way, reminiscent of Picasso’s cubist style” (Fred Hoffman, The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 2017, p. 79). The head in Untitled is not an individuated head, it is a death’s head – a symbolic skull, a warning: the toxicological skull and cross-bones on a poisonous warning label as rendered in bright Day-Glo orange and streaming black spray paint. Symbolically, this painting calls to mind the ritualistic display of sacrificial skulls as in the ancient Aztec tzompantli (skull racks) and the funerary masks of ancient cultures, particularly the red triangular nose and wide round eyes of the mosaic skull of Tezcatlipoca – the Aztec god of the nocturnal sky and an embodiment of change through conflict. This notion of change through conflict is a thread that runs throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre. Like a call to arms, his work challenged (and continues to do so) the whitewashed art historical canon of the West to introduce disenfranchised and marginalised voices into the contemporary discourse. Wielding signs and symbols drawn from all aspects of visual culture – whether from the city streets of New York, comic books and television, the talismans of ancient cultures, the events of recent history, the vanitas tradition of Dutch Old Master painting or the revered painterly movements of modernism – he put forth a new type of unadorned subjectivity that was militant, unapologetic, and hard hitting; an affirmation of the artist’s oft repeated riposte to Henry Geldzahler in 1983: “it’s about 80 percent anger” (Jean-Michel Basquiat in conversation with Henry Geldzahler, ‘Art From Subways to SoHo’, 1983, reprinted in: Tony Shafrazi, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York 1999, p. 51).
Basquiat squared up to the history of racism, colonialism and slavery, and much of the work produced in 1982 channelled this important narrative. He canonised his heroes and crowned them with halos (boxers Cassius Clay and Jack Johnson, the baseball player Hank Aaron, and Jazz musician Charlie Parker); he took on slavery and police brutality (Untitled (Tar and Feathers), 1982, and La Hara, 1981); and confronted the modern-day exploitation of talented black athletes and musicians (Obnoxious Liberals, 1982). His paintings violently cast out demons and offer a kind of redemption through exorcism and affirmation; of the latter, the three pointed crown is Basquiat’s shorthand for a long overdue ennoblement of black subjectivity in western art. Herein, the brilliance of Basquiat’s abilities as an artist was his gift for visualising these imperative but challenging discourses in an aesthetic vocabulary that simultaneously comprehended, absorbed, and transcended the triumphs and pitfalls of Western art history and popular culture. As summated by anthropologist Francesco Pellizzi in his essay, ‘Black and White All Over’, “Basquiat was, in that sense, an innovator: he summed up two whole (white) artistic generations while introducing a racially and culturally ‘marginal’ blackness into the ‘mainstream’ of Western art. It was in the precarious balance between being the latest important representative of a great white tradition and the first to make a significant black contribution to it, in this tension between an end and a beginning, that Basquiat conducted his meteoric career” (Franceso Pellizzi, ‘Black and White All Over’, in: Exh. Cat., Ontario, op. cit., pp. 193-94).
Extolling the aesthetic confidence of Abstract Expressionism, the treatment of colour and line in Untitled is simultaneously swift and assured. In this respect, the locus of compositional power, belongs to Basquiat’s death’s head. The skull’s apertures reveal a stratum of spray paint, acrylic and oil stick: black over orange over ochre over red over blue. A stratum that is palimpsest-like and archaeological – the graffiti of ancient civilisations meets Modernism meets the raw and angry streets of New York. Indeed, the arrival of Basquiat released shockwaves that rippled through the very fabric of contemporary culture. Like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Basquiat’s Untitled is a primal scream that is at once timeless and urgent.
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