- Jean-Michel Basquiat
- acrylic, oilstick and pencil on canvas
- 95 1/4 x 117 1/2 in. 242 x 298.5 cm.
- Executed in 1987.
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2nd ed., Vol. II, Paris, 1996, cat. no. 4, p. 150, illustrated in color
Tony Shafrazi, Jeffrey Deitch, Richard D. Marshall, et al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, p. 282, illustrated in color
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, 3rd ed., Vol. II, cat. no. 2, p. 260, illustrated in color
Articulated through a hypnotically layered diorama of contrasting characters, bound through abstract swatches of raw effervescent color, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s monumental Untitled stands as a captivating paragon of the artist’s later symbolic lexicon and painterly finesse. Created in 1987, just a year before his untimely death, it represents the apogee of Basquiat’s aesthetic ambitions and relentless visual bravado. An intensely detailed confluence of hybrid fine art and pop culture influences emanate from the canvas, conveyed through expressionistically and adroitly varied mark-making. Basquiat both valorizes and usurps his abstract expressionist predecessors, eschewing impersonality by projecting a profoundly particular vision; an idiosyncratic psychological space that channels the energy of contemporary urban existence.
Like curiously engrossing adolescent doodles on a page, Basquiat’s cast of figures conquer and enliven a white void of space. The artist wove a capricious surface pattern with varied gradients of depth, recession and overlap between the disparately sized characters. The energetically coarse tableau includes angry alien masks, a dog, shop mannequins, parachutes, and superheroes: a hypnotic dichotomy of the fantastical and the quotidian. Jostling for space they create a sonorous visual cacophony that reflects the energy of his cultural milieu in 1980s New York where seemingly incongruous worlds collide.
Placed prominently in the bustling spectacle, an effortlessly cool figure, playing a harmonica and sporting dark sunglasses, references the Afro-American Jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, that Basquiat venerated in earlier works. Juxtaposed with a half-formed representation of Batman directly behind, this graphic placement emphasizes the superhuman regard Basquiat held for black musicians. Contemporary Afro-American music also formed a profound source of inspiration for Basquiat, having been part of the dynamic coalescence between the street art and hip-hop scenes in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Pulsating beats and scattered lyrics animate the surface with raw creative energy, demonstrating that despite international art world fame at this point, Basquiat’s art retained a devotion to New York’s streets and their rich cultural history. Styled with black shades, the charismatic musician could be a jazz legend, a young rapper, or simply a wandering busker.
Having briefly been homeless in his youth, Basquiat’s obsession with hobo graffiti symbols manifests in the centrally demarcated circle. A set of half legible brown marks recall those set out in Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook, which Basquiat referenced profusely from 1986 onwards. Supported by a composition in which the construction and effacement of elements read like traces of ad-hoc vandalism, the scattered texts also hark back to the SAMO graffiti tag that he used as a teenager. Here Basquiat has developed these forms into a complex and powerful visual schemata, as he noted: “I cross out words so you will want to see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” (the artist cited in Robert Farris Thompson, "Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat," Graham Lock and David Murray, eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Culture, Oxford, 2008, p. 262) The seemingly nonsensical words in the present work typify the linguistic challenge Basquiat often presented to his viewers.
Structurally, Untitled shows Basquiat at his most investigative; elaborately balancing textures, color blocking, and intensities of mark-making in a multifarious approach that he compared to his close friend and collaborator Andy Warhol, who tragically died the year this work was painted: “Andy collages photos, I collage my own hand.” (Ibid., p. 266) Emblematic of his unbridled ambition, Basquiat seized a myriad of abstract influences with confidence. The interplay between the striking yellow, orange, and teal blocks of color give the work structural weight that evokes Clyfford Still, whilst a vigorous sense of movement within this structure speaks to Willem de Kooning. Delicate smudges and a persistently erratic graphic technique across the clean white surface both recall Cy Twombly’s Blackboard and Bolsena paintings. As Basquiat's work was at heart autobiographical, this engagement with previous art masters of Abstract and Pop fame is consequential when contemplating Untitled of 1987, a year when Basquiat was in the midst of his own international art world fame and recognition.