Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) is constructed from a number of separate wood panels which have been attached together forming two main rectangular picture surfaces joined at the center line of the painting. The top half of the picture consists of three wooden panels, each supported at their edges on the reverse by wooden slat supports resembling stretcher beams. The lower half of the picture is comprised of one panel, with similar wood slat supports, again resembling stretcher beams, attached to the four front edges of the wood panel. The two halves (top and bottom) which comprise the overall picture support are attached to each other by bolts through the horizontal beams which meet at the central horizon line of the picture support. The overall impression of the physical picture support is of two contrasting surfaces. While the top surface projects forward, the bottom half, essentially framed by wood slats at the edge, recedes away from the viewer.
From an examination of the physical nature of this picture support it is clear that Jean-Michel Basquiat gave this elaborately constructed surface a great deal of consideration well in advance of the application of any paint or imagery. This is hardly a picture support that he stumbled upon or that he retrieved from the detritus of his daily lived experience on the streets of New York. Rather, Basquiat executed a highly considered structure, which not only supported but enhanced a sophisticated set of themes and subjects which were of intense concern to this young artist seeking to express a personal as well as universal world view.
Basquiat would create a comparable picture support in Untitled (Black Tar and Feathers), the companion painting to Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers). Together, these two works announced Basquiat’s intent in exploring a wide range of innovative new solutions to the traditional picture support. Immediately on the heels of these two pictures, and in contrast to their construction-like esthetic, for the remainder of 1982 and continuing into 1983, Basquiat produced a series of seemingly flimsily-constructed picture supports, essentially challenging notions of what constitutes a work of art. The artist continued his pursuit of even more elaborately constructed picture supports early the following year, when in response to a decision to tear down the fencing material surrounding the outdoor patio of his Venice, California studio, Basquiat turned the slats of wood fencing into a unique group of truly ambitious picture supports. One example of these Venice pictures is Gold Griot in which the wood fencing picture support not only accommodates but dramatically enhances Basquiat’s presentation of a truly heroic black male figure. It is almost impossible to imagine the daring breakthrough achieved in the Venice fencing supports without the backdrop of the structural innovation achieved in Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers).
Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) distinguishes itself for its bold pictorial ambition. Nowhere in the artist’s oeuvre prior to Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) do we encounter this range and diversity of pictorial techniques as well as the confidence to pursue untested new means of paint application. Simply, Basquiat saw this work as his opportunity to test the limits of his means of expression. The top section of Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) more or less conforms to the artist’s personalized yet innovative method of operation. Basquiat started this half of the picture by covering a significant portion of the picture support with Xerox-generated images on paper which were collaged directly to the wood surface. Consistent with the artist’s practice in other paintings, many of the Xerox images are repeated over and over throughout the surface. Many of these images were subsequently covered over with a thin coat of an intense and highly unusual hue of yellow paint. In choosing this particular hue, Basquiat sought to seduce and at the same time challenge the senses. The particular color Basquiat had chosen for the top half of this work is, in fact, unique to his oeuvre and makes it evident how much the artist needed to be recognized as one of the truly rare and gifted colorists of not only his generation but in the entire history of contemporary art.
Having collaged down a group of Xerox-generated drawings, Basquiat went back into many of them with dense, heavily worked oil stick, building up full figural images, heads and symbols (such as his highly recognized crown). In other areas the artist essentially obliterated these images with fully abstract passages of paint in acrylic. Consistent with many other notable works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the artist built up the top portion of this work progressively and responsively - laying down an image, partially obliterating it and building it back up until the entire pictorial surface reads as a cacophony of highly charged images, lines, shapes and colors all harmoniously interacting with each other.
In contrast, the bottom portion of Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) conforms to more traditional expressionist pictorial practice. While the artist has applied Xerox collaged images in two places, this portion of the picture is almost entirely built up by a range of paint strokes, some executed with brush, some with the wood tip of the brush and others directly with the fingers as well as the hands of the artist. This portion of the work distinguishes itself for its daring application of loose, free, quick and decisive gestural strokes. Taken together, the directness as well as immediacy of these differing methods of paint application demonstrates a new found confidence in this young artist’s means of expression. At the same time, they make it evident that the young Basquiat was keenly aware of the historical precedents for many of his chosen techniques. We are especially reminded of many of the bold, even brash pictorial practices introduced by Robert Rauschenberg in his early Combine paintings, especially those dating from 1954 such as Collection (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). While the top portion of Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) brings to mind Willem de Kooning’s integration of figure and abstract passages of paint, the lower portion of the work, especially in its use of a highly charged palette of orange, yellow and red, as well as the repetition of dark extenuated circular forms, suggests an awareness of the breakthroughs achieved by Rauschenberg in his early Combines. The expressive, free, gestural brushwork contained within the “framing” edge in the bottom portion of Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) is especially noteworthy as it is rarely, if at all found in any of the other work from this seminal moment in the artist’s oeuvre. As will become apparent, Basquiat’s new found pictorial strategy was the direct result of the artist’s intent in asserting a subject matter which would be read and experienced as significantly contrasting with the associations and meanings assigned to the “forward” projecting pictorial field in the top half of the picture.
Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) is a prime example of many of the most important themes and subjects which were of concern to Basquiat throughout his career. Notably, the top portion of the picture evidences the artist’s practice of transforming individuals into heroic icons. Here the artist depicts a group of figures whom he would have observed and encountered on a daily basis on the streets of New York City. In this painting Basquiat portrays these individuals both as full length figures as well as heads. Precisely at this point in his career we find Basquiat focused on the presentation of members of his “crew” - those individuals whom he engaged with on a daily basis. Six Crimee, exhibited alongside Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) at the Larry Gagosian Gallery, portrays another group of similar images. In some instances, Basquiat even captured the physical features of a recognizable personage. Such is the case in one of the three standing figures in Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) where the artist has depicted the head of Henry Geldzahler, then one of the impresarios of the New York art world, on top of the body of a standing black male figure.
While portraiture and especially self-portraiture, will increasingly occupy a larger place in Basquiat's pictorial output, the artist’s primary concern in Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) is the presentation of a compelling iconography able to proclaim a new found freedom and liberation for the young black male. This becomes evident in the arm- hand gestures, as well as stance and posture of these figures. Taken all together, the individuals depicted by Basquiat convey confidence and conviction. These first iconic figures will quickly evolve into even more authoritative representations of the young black male. One only needs to think of Self Portrait, 1982, or Profit I, 1982, to witness the rapid evolution in Basquiat’s depiction of the young black male. The figures depicted in Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) followed immediately on the heels of the small series of paintings of single black male figures such as Irony of Negro Policeman, 1981, each of whom is portrayed as engaged in a specific kind of work or labor. In contrast, Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) focuses on that symbolic moment when Basquiat’s young black heroic figures have arrived, strutting and manifesting their strength and independence - holding their own on a hard won center stage. As such these figures are an expression of authority. Making this implicit, Basquiat has accompanied two of his figures by crowns hovering directly over their heads. These are not, however, symbols of kings or divinity. Rather, the combination of crown and heroic posture proclaim a new found freedom and liberation from the social, economic and political constraints traditionally identified with the young black male. As further evidence of Basquiat’s assertion of liberation and freedom he has accompanied the two centrally positioned figures with the scales of justice directly below their feet; and off toward the right side of these figures he has placed a hovering angel. Taken all together, these figures and their accompanying iconographic references speak of a rising above the pain, suffering and degradation associated with the act of being “tarred and feathered.”
Throughout Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career, political and social commentary functioned as a springboard in order to reveal deeper truths about the individual; and by extension, became one of the artist’s most viable means of alluding to as well as characterizing a larger “world view.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers). In fact, this seminal work represents one of the earliest and most fully realized works in which Basquiat was able to turn his depiction of the realities of the black man in urban white America into an expression of transformation and a liberated sense of self. The artist made this evident in the contrasts he established between the bottom and top portions of the work. These distinctions include the physical differences in each half of the picture support; in how he has pictorially resolved each portion of the work; and lastly in the image content depicted in each half of the work. In regard to all three, the distinctions created between the two halves of the painting establish a duality, which in turn alludes to two fundamentally different ways of engaging or defining human experience. By extension, the assertion of these contrasts and distinctions became Basquiat’s means of symbolically implying transcendence - a rising above the suffering implied in the historical/social connotations of “Tar and Feathers.” The bottom half of the work, in its tactile as well as pictorial immediacy alludes to the realm of man’s physical being - the realities of his condition. In contrast, the top portion of this work presents figures (and their accompanying symbols) who have risen above the physical realm. Hovering in an “other worldly” aura of radiating yellow, the personages of Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) are liberated from worldly constraints. Having transcended physical as well as emotional suffering, Basquiat’s figures rest in a recognition of a deeper sense of self.
Lastly, and retrospectively, the “world view” as articulated by Jean-Michel Basquiat in Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) prophetically served as the backdrop for some of the key themes as well as iconographic strategies employed by the artist in some of his important last works of art. While Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) does not allude to death, the dualism implicit in the structuring as well as iconography of the work provided Basquiat with a foundation for the basic pictorial strategies employed in important late works such as Eroica I and II and especially in Pegasus.
Santa Monica, California, September 2013
© Fred Hoffman
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