(Glenn O’Brien, “Basquiat and the New York Scene, 1978-82,” in Exh. Cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Basquiat, 2010, p. 38)
“His paintings are a canvas jungle that harnesses the traditions of modern art to portray the ecstatic violence of the New York Street. His graft of street culture onto high art is a classic example of how modernism continues to rejuvenate itself.”
(Jeffery Deitch, Ed. Jean Michel Basquiat, The Notebooks, Princeton 2015, p. 13)
“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. 18)
A searing conflagration of word, gesture, and form, Untitled (Pollo Frito) is the ultimate testament to the ferocious splendor and raw, uncensored authenticity which have come to define the radical painterly brilliance of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Roaring across the enormous dual panels of the painting, the explosive force of Basquiat’s artistic mark devours the canvas with the insatiable ferocity of an untamed wildfire, vehemently testifying to the equally furious artistic drive which fueled the young artist as, simultaneous to the execution of the present work in 1982, he began his meteoric ascent to international acclaim. In the highly charged surface of Untitled (Pollo Frito), Basquiat reveals his virtuosic painterly abilities as, building up intricately impastoed and incised layers of oil stick, acrylic, and spray paint, he works both positively and negatively to create an incredibly densely worked surface. Typifying the electrifying vibrancy of Basquiat’s early masterworks, the artist’s skill as a colorist is likewise on unprecedented display, with the vast majority of the saturated dual canvases covered in incendiary yellow, orange, and scarlet hues. Against this cacophonous backdrop of color and mark, Basquiat summons the gestural vigor of his earlier work as graffiti-poet SAMO to emblazon the present work with his iconic skull-like idols, spiky three-pointed crown, and dense network of scrawled textual references; drawn from unfiltered grit of the artist’s vibrant cultural environs in Lower Manhattan, the provocative phrases ‘DANGER’ and ‘BROKE GLASS’ intermingle with the more enigmatic ‘ASBESTOS’ and ‘POLLO FRITO,’ combining to infuse Untitled (Pollo Frito) with the aggressive, exhilarating rhythm of 1980s Lower Manhattan. Amongst the most inflammatory declarations of artistic potency from the pinnacle of Basquiat’s artistic development, the sheer, radical intensity of Untitled (Pollo Frito) serves as a powerful embodiment, both of the artist’s past, as a celebrated member of Manhattan’s graffiti vanguard, and of his remarkable future, as contemporary art’s insurgent prodigy.
Immediate and consuming, Untitled (Pollo Frito) testifies to the unprecedented intensity which emerged in Basquiat’s paintings of 1982 as, with virtuosic dexterity, he channeled the explosive charge of his earlier street art into the first, staggeringly intense canvases of his mature career. In the vehement force of Basquiat’s mark-making, centralized within the craggy face and searing gaze of the shadowy, sainted visage, 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-pointed crown and acquisitive © – upon the abandoned walls of the city; inscribed upon the present work, Basquiat’s iconic crown and its symbolic counterpart, a gnarled diadem of thorns, unmistakably brand the present work with the young artist’s reigning supremacy. 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. Reflecting upon the uniquely painterly spirit of Basquiat’s cryptic tags, scholar Marc Mayer notes: “Deliberate and practiced, far more slick than raw, the tags also had a cheerful spontaneity in their favor that felt related, somehow, to a primordial decorative impulse. It was the city, more than any other source, which provided fodder for Basquiat’s art brut sensibility.” (Marc Mayer, "Basquiat in History," in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 46) In Untitled (Pollo Frito), Basquiat sacrifices none of the immediacy and directness of SAMO, but rather, channels his riotous army of sprayed and painted marks into a formal order. 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) Conjuring the specter of SAMO, notorious vandal/hero of the New York City streets, Untitled (Pollo Frito) achieves a potent fusion of viscerally charged figuration and unbridled painterly assault, unified by the unwavering confidence of the Basquiat’s line.
Absorbing, warping, and reshaping the myriad cacophonous influences of the street, Basquiat forges an extraordinarily lucid and intelligent vernacular that, while entirely his own, typifies the language of the streets with searing candor. Inscribed repeatedly in the black swaths of paint below the two skeletal figures, the gleaming orange ‘ASBESTOS,’—a word featured in several other major masterworks of the same year, the most prominent of which is Obnoxious Liberals, in the collection of the Broad Museum in Los Angeles—invokes the public’s fascination with and condemnation of the 1982 bankruptcy claim filed by the Johns-Manville Corporation, following decades of asbestos injury claims against the company. Underscoring his reference to contemporary cultural narrative, Basquiat emblazons the word ‘TAR TOWN,’ linked by spiny arrows to an enormous ‘DANGER,’ upon the opposite panel, intensifying the ominous aura of impending threat with furiously scrawled warnings of ‘PELIGROSO’ and ‘BROKE GLASS’ in black; repeated and echoed within the canvas, the words acquire the gritty rhythm of spoken word poetry or freestyle rap, reverberating against the neon backdrop with prophetic certainty. In characteristic Delphic fashion, however, Basquiat undermines any coherent reading of political commentary with the scarlet scrawl ‘POLLO FRITO’ and surrounding frenzy of illegible hieroglyphic tags, unapologetically returning the viewer to the cacophonous, multilingual sonic melee of the New York City streets. Profoundly redolent of Basquiat’s encyclopedic relationship with his own environment, Untitled (Pollo Frito) exemplifies the artist’s remarkable command of culturally loaded signs, symbols, and phrases as weaponized tools within his graphic arsenal.
In its radical creative insurgency and unfiltered, guttural symbolism, Untitled (Pollo Frito) expresses the vibrant reality of Basquiat’s surroundings in Lower Manhattan with thrilling and unprecedented authenticity. Invoking the intricately accreted strata of a graffiti-scarred mural, the present work reflects the urban landscape that shaped it; from crumbling cinderblock walls to the elaborately vandalized exterior of the Brooklyn-bound D train, his painting speaks the language of a city in glorious disarray. Describing the New York of the early 1980s in terms uncannily redolent of the present work, Glenn O’Brien reflects: “New York was cheap, poor, run-down and dangerous. In its own fabulous way of course.” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘SAMO©’s New York’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican Centre, 2017, p. 101) 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) The searing intensity of Untitled (Pollo Frito) captures the primordial intensity of the city Basquiat grew up in; as the artist himself once uttered: “I wanted to paint like the Lower East Side and what it was like to live there.” (Jean Michel Basquiat quoted in: Eleanor Nairne, ‘The Performance of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in Exh. Cat., London, Basquiat: Boom for Real, op. cit., p. 21)
Built up of thick strata of intoxicating hue and mark, Untitled (Pollo Frito) is an unparalleled example of the virtuosic ability to apply, execute, shift, and render paint upon canvas that, in the early 1980s, 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 red, yellow and orange color to spectacular effect, goading his pigment to a fever pitch with furious 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, Basquiat renders an inferno of saturated hue, sealing and intensifying the immediacy of his forms with undiluted swaths of monochromatic white and black pigment. Conjuring allusions to the frenetic, Baroque eloquence of Cy Twombly—an artist for whom Basquiat held a deep admiration—furiously scrawled loops along the rightmost edge invoke a sort of proto-mark-making, suggesting resolution while remaining firmly within the boundaries of abstract draftsmanship.
Jubilantly demonstrative of the radical creative pinnacle of Basquiat’s career, Untitled (Pollo Frito) is an indisputable masterwork from the singular formative year of the then as-yet-unknown artist’s burgeoning career. Over the course of 1982, Basquiat 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 an invitation to attend the international exhibition Documenta 7 in Kassel as the youngest artist in attendance. Paralleling the artist’s spectacular rise, every expressive mark and form of Untitled (Pollo Frito) is imbued Basquiat’s impassioned, almost compulsive declaration of artistic intent; simultaneously, as though referencing his own calamitous brilliance, Basquiat emblazons his canvases with warnings of the perilous danger inherent to such a Promethean rise. Reigning over the apocalyptic melee of color and mark, the haunting saint-like figure looming from the surface of Untitled (Pollo Frito) acts as potent invocation of Glenn O’Brien’s own, highly prescient description of the young artist: “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. 18)
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