Pulsating with creative furor, Untitled is the superlative embodiment of the unprecedented new manner that emerged in Basquiat’s paintings as he channeled the explosive charge of his street art into the first, staggeringly intense canvases of his mature corpus. A monumental fusion of viscerally charged figuration and unbridled painterly assault, the remarkable diversity of marks woven into the impenetrable layers of Basquiat’s figure is a clear articulation of both the artist’s past, as a celebrated member of Manhattan’s graffiti vanguard, and of his remarkable future, as contemporary art’s dazzling prodigy. In the gestural ferocity of the figure, its outline delineated in bold masterstrokes of thick black pigment, the rapidly executed scrawls of Basquiat’s graffiti alter-ego of the late 1970s, SAMO, is readily apparent. As SAMO, Basquiat roamed the streets of New York, emblazoning his moniker and chosen icons – the three point crown and the acquisitive © – upon the abandoned walls of the city. From the beginning, the celebrated SAMO was known for his unique blend of the conceptual and the visual, merging a diverse linguistic arsenal of words with enigmatic symbols and icons that, while inscrutable, were likewise unforgettable. In Untitled, Basquiat sacrifices none of the immediacy and directness of SAMO, but rather, channels the explosive marks of spray paint, oilstick, and violently wielded brush into a formal order that harnesses his emotive power within the boundaries of figuration. Describing this shift, critic Achille Bonito Oliva reflects, “Now, he brought to his canvases the abstract-figurative intensity of this experience, its declarative and narrative nature, explicit and didactic vigor, and its confused and spontaneous accumulation of visual elements.” (Achille Bonita Oliva, “The Perennial Shadow of Art in Basquiat’s Brief Life,” in Exh. Cat., Lugano, Museo d’Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 40) Absorbing, warping, and reshaping the myriad cacophonous influences of the street, Basquiat forged an extraordinarily lucid and intelligent pictorial vernacular that, while entirely his own, typified the language of the streets with searing candor. Attempting to verbalize the indescribable relevance of Basquiat’s new mode, Glenn O’Brien reflected, “He was the once-in-a-lifetime real deal: artist as prophet.” (Glenn O’Brien, “Greatest Hits,” in Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 180)
In the frenetic, rampant inscription of graphic forms that courses across the surface of Untitled, Basquiat’s illustrious draftsmanship is on glorious and full-bodied display. Traces of a crossed out tic-tac-toe grid in the upper section of the canvas are surrounded by layers of overwritten and overpainted letters, counterbalancing the prominent upper and lower case a at the bottom left of the composition. As described by Richard D. Marshall, “To Basquiat, the meaning of a word was not necessarily relevant to its usage because he employed words as abstract objects that can be seen as configurations of straight and curved lines that come together to form a visual pattern. The visual and graphic impact of printed letters was sufficient enough to stand alone as an artistic expression.” (Richard D. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Speaking in Tongues,” in Exh. Cat., Lugano, Museo d’Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 40) Conjuring allusions to the graceful scrawls and scribbles of Cy Twombly—an artist for whom he held a deep admiration—the glimpses of Basquiat’s graphic forms invoke a sort of proto-handwriting: a primitive kind of expression that strives toward resolution and legibility but is suspended in a perpetual territory of formal symbolism, akin to our contemporary reading of classical mark-making. Typifying this impulse, the spiky scrawl of an upper and lower case letter A is boldly emblazoned in black oil stick at the bottom left of the canvas, as though to label this work as the beginning, the first, the immediate origin of meaning. Then, conjuring the specter of SAMO, notorious vandal/hero of the streets, Basquiat violently scratches out his illusory hieroglyphs, leaving only the suggestion of signifier in a shimmering crown around the head of his gargantuan skull. Despite the variegated hues layered into the upper portion of the canvas, the potent symbol of Basquiat’s notorious street tag – the iconic three-pointed crown –gleams though the chroma, a ghostly silhouette of raised oil stick. The intricately accreted layers evoke a graffiti-scarred wall, characterized by accretive strata that in their very build-up and lush tonal variety divulge a sense of temporal progression. Below a saturated ground of vibrant blue pigment, the shimmering signifiers of Basquiat’s hieroglyphic scrawls peer through, offering the elusive promise of legibility without conceding meaning. Inscribing and scrawling over, painting and scraping away, he hovers between inscription and obfuscation, building the brilliant chromatic strata of his canvas with every stroke.
Following the completion of the present work in January of 1982, over the course of the year, this once-in-a-lifetime artist would receive his first solo exhibition with Annina Nosei in New York, followed quickly by Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles, Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, and, most astoundingly, an invitation to attend the international exhibition Documenta 7 in Kassel as the youngest artist of more than 176 to present his art. Paralleling the artist’s spectacular rise, every expressive mark of Untitled is imbued with the insatiable artistic drive which fueled Basquiat as he began his ascent. In the coursing frenzy of jet-black veins that line the frenetically rendered skull of Untitled, Basquiat’s impassioned, almost compulsive desire to create is readily apparent and undeniable. Reflecting upon the artist’s corpus, Marc Mayer describes Basquiat as, “an articulate and prolific spokesman for youth: insatiably curious, tirelessly inventive, innocently self-deprecating because of youth’s inadequacies, jealously guarding his independence…His work is likely to remain for a long time as the modern picture of what it looks like to be brilliant, driven, and young.” (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 57)
In its searing, talismanic rendering of a skull, Untitled heralds the imminent resurgence of figurative painting through New York in the 1980s. Forged within the crucible of the gritty downtown art scene, Basquiat’s artistic vernacular was at the forefront of a revolution against the reigning artistic dogmas of the preceding decade. Nowhere was more enthusiastically volatile, or more bewitched by an insuppressible ferment of cultural expression, than the creative vortex of downtown Manhattan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. O’Brien conjures the atmosphere luridly, citing: “If you were turning eighteen in New York City in 1978, ‘The New Frontier’ had gone down in flames, but the city was still frontier. New York City was the Wild, Wild East. Shootouts. Bandits. Savages. Badlands, The greatest city in the world was broke and all broke down and it was exciting.”(Glenn O’Brien, “Basquiat and the New York Scene, 1978-82,” in Exh. Cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Basquiat, 2010, p. 38) Within this cacophonous context, a new style of painting began to emerge, one that privileged the immediacy of the isolated image over narrative, and the metaphoric strength of cultural signifiers over the interpretive freedom of undiluted abstraction. Typified in the celebrated Times Square Show of 1980 and the spectacular exhibition New York/New Wave at P.S.1 in 1981, both of which featured the young, undiscovered Basquiat, 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.) This momentous shift is verbalized with exceptional precision in the prophetic preamble for Fast, which remarked: “The eighteen artists share a commitment to the painting process as a human, vulnerable endeavor, and to the use of recognizable imagery as a tenable tool. Finding the modernist canons of faith invalid and the realist methods of reportage insufficient, these artists use representation for expressive purposes. Although the use of figuration is not in itself new, these artists have found a viable and powerful way of using it today.” (Susan L. Putterman, “About Fast,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Alexander F. Milliken Inc., Fast, 1982, n.p.) In its searing, almost unbearable legibility, Untitled thunderously heralds the triumphant revenge of bold symbolism into an art world that, upon Basquiat’s impact, would never be the same.
Built up of innumerable layers of vibrant hues and coursing rivulets of pigment, Untitled is an unparalleled example of the virtuosic ability to apply, execute, shift, and render paint upon canvas that distinguished Basquiat as an undisputed master within the vanguard of young and ambitious image-makers. Exemplifying his singular command as a master colorist, Basquiat layers undiluted primary hues to spectacular effect, rapidly building up the bold figurative outlines of his composition with frenetic bravura. Describing Basquiat’s innate natural ability, Marc Mayer notes, "With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he used unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda. Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room." (Marc Mayer, "Basquiat in History," in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 46) Intermingling oil-stick with spray-paint, pigment with gestural smear, in rapid succession, Basquiat builds his figure up before him, sealing the immediacy of the figure with the final addition of white to the glowering eyes. In a manner that conjures the infinite generations of graffiti on urban walls, or the peeling layers of posters papering a downtown structure, Basquiat covers his canvas in impenetrable strata of vibrant marks until every line and form of the skull is reinforced and overdrawn. In the bared teeth alone, impastoed layers of mark coalesce with hallucinogenic depth. While the furious speed of Basquiat’s paint application conjures a vision of chaotic yet remarkably controlled movement, the textural depth of Untitled suggests the painting’s careful and deliberate creation. Indeed, Untitled (Head), 1981, the iconic counterpart to the present work, was begun in the early months of 1981, yet unfinished for several months as Basquiat continued to stall and delay its completion. Fred Hoffman’s description alludes to a vision of Basquiat conjured in the studio, similarly painting the present work: “One can only speculate about the reasons for this hesitation, but several individuals close to the artist—including myself and Annina Nosei, the artist’s dealer at the time—suspect that this young, unseasoned artist hesitated to complete the work because he was caught off guard, possibly even frightened, by the power and energy emanating from this unexpected image.” (Fred Hoffman, “The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works,” in Ibid., p. 13)
Jubilantly demonstrative of the radical creative pinnacle of Basquiat’s career, Untitled offers a ferocious portrait of an artist defined by explosive talent and calamitous brilliance. Ritualistically lining and relining the crude cranium, Basquiat constricts the combustive color and mark of his figure within a thrumming web of dark oil stick, alluding to an interior realm as richly textured and variegated as the canvas below. Enacting an exceptionally groundbreaking use of figuration, Untitled breaks down the dichotomy between the external and internal, revealing the cacophonous innermost aspects of psychic life with breathtaking dynamism. Visual and emotive force are fused as, turning to his canvas, Basquiat renders a figure that is raw and aggressive, a cacophonous melee of color, gesture, light, and sound held together by the unwavering confidence of the artist’s line. The ineffable triumph of Untitled is perhaps best reflected in the words of Ed Baynard, the curator of the only exhibition that revealed the present work to the public eye: “I chose the word Fast as an umbrella title because Fast seems (to me) the opposite of apathy. Fast is passion made concrete.” (Ed Baynard, cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Alexander F. Milliken Inc., Fast, 1982, n.p.) Inaugurating the beginning of Basquiat’s ascendancy to the highest echelons of acclaim, Untitled is an enduring triumph to the passionate, emotive force of Basquiat incomparable painterly mark.
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