- Jean-Michel Basquiat
- Untitled (Electric Chair)
- signed and dated NYC 82 on the reverse
- acrylic, gold spray paint and oilstick on canvas
- 66 x 96 1/4 in. 167.6 x 244.5 cm.
- Painted in 1981-1982.
Acquired from the above in 1981
Kyongju, Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art; Seoul, The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat, September - November 1991, illustrated in color
Portland Art Museum, Ed Cauduro Collection, September 2004 - January 2005
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Loaded with a network of ideas, pulsing with a consortium of images and words, and emblazoned with an exuberant brush and bold palette, Untitled (Electric Chair) amply demonstrates the gifts of the 1980s art world's enfant terrible, Jean-Michel Basquiat. His intense and challenging presence pervades the large canvas in both composition and form, and his unique genius informs it. Rich palimpsests of paint, white, red and green, over black, white and yellow grounds build architectonic solidarity; the snazzy scribbles of oil stick add a compelling visuality; the link of sausages accesses the familiar; and the graphically circumscribed figure seated in the electric chair startles. Basquiat punctuates the left and right portions of the canvas with text, some esoteric numbers and signs, others explicit expressions of angst and rage. Still, he manages to save ample space for many of the emblematic symbols from his personal lexicon of imagery such as the crown, copyright symbol and arrows that represent royalty, heroism, and the street.
Untitled (Electric Chair) was painted from 1981-1982, the years considered by many to be the most important of the artist's oeuvre. His ability to hone a uniquely visual and conceptual aesthetic in a seamless, and quite forceful, manner was not lost on the art world of 1980s New York. In 1981, Basquiat garnered immediate attention in his first group exhibition in New York at P.S. 1 (February) and the Annina Nosei Gallery (September), as well as his first solo exhibition at Galleria d'Arte Emilio Mazoli in Modena, Italy, in May of 1981. Since relinquishing his graffiti street pseudonym of SAMO in 1980, Basquiat focused his energies on canvas painting. Maintaining the style and gesture of a graffiti artist, Basquiat profusely expanded his personal artistic vocabulary nurtured by symbolic masks, autobiographical events and memories, tribal art, and references to painting styles and techniques of established twentieth-century artists.
Chief among Basquiat's inspirations were the Abstract Expressionists, whom he admired not for their 'making of the painting as subject' but their physicality of application. Basquiat's brute force of laying down paint through brush, spray can, and oil stick, sometimes one on top of the other, translated especially well into his thoughts. The canvas, then, was a blank slate meant to bear the brunt of Basquiat's application, recording his innermost, spontaneous thoughts. In a more personal way, the canvas support also served to manifest Basquiat's frustrations over the ills and injustices that he perceived in modern American society, often revolving around a central black figure with autobiographical import. Here, the electrocuted black figure braces himself and bleeds from the torso, leg, and arm, unapologetically referencing the unfair treatment and suffering of Black Americans. The electric chair as subject was immortalized in the 1960s by Basquiat's friend and fellow painter Andy Warhol in his Death and Disaster series. Warhol's depiction of an empty electric chair is remarkable for its visual sobriety and emotional understatement, executed with the cool distance of his photo-silkscreen process. Basquiat's version depicts a suffering human presence as the electric chair fulfills its function. Rather than the enigmatic image of Warhol, Untitled (Electric Chair) is one of Basquiat's gritty engagements with issues of race, heritage, social injustice and status politics, eloquently expressed by Basquiat's chosen autobiographical figure, whether a black warrior, boxer, musician or, in this case, victim.
A confluence of interests abounds in Untitled (Electric Chair), powerfully exemplifying the complex nature of Basquiat's technical, conceptual and polemical energies. His influences are woven together into a uniquely individual language, united by compositions and formal applications that distill his imagery into fundamental and austere articulation. Like a breath of fresh air, Basquiat's art broke rank with, usurped and, established a canon, and subsequently expanded the boundaries of art and, conversely, brought to bear on art a radically new and challenging aesthetic, still resonant today.