Basquiat’s work came to be known by its electrifying energy; compositions that seem to be alive and are full of powerful intensity. These qualities shine through Untitled which, in its seemingly spontaneous amalgamation of different pictorial and material elements, is archetypal of Basquiat’s modus operandi. A base of Xeroxed drawings sets the background tone of the composition. These have been carefully painted crimson red, bordering drawings of stick figures in space ships, aeroplanes, cars and other mechanical means of transport. The way in which the artist has deliberately outlined his drawings shows great compositional dexterity, and the way in which the carmine colour fills the gaps reminds of Clifford Still’s usage of great, jagged blocks of colour to fill his monumental compositions. An erudite in the history of art that preceded him, Basquiat seems to have borrowed further from the Abstract Expressionists, with a seemingly hastily applied area of black paint blotting the lower half of the canvas, in a manner not dissimilar to Adolph Gottlieb. Curator Lydia Yee befittingly described the artist’s unique ability to borrow and interpret from different art movements: “like a DJ, he adeptly reworked Neo-Expressionism’s clichéd language of gesture, freedom, and angst and redirected Pop art’s strategy of appropriation to produce a body of work that at times celebrated black culture and history but also revealed its complexity and contradictions” (Lydia Yee quoted in: Exh. Cat. Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Basquiat, May – September 2010, p. XIV). Numbers and lines have been added hastily on top, in an almost obsessive way. The urgency of the drawn line in Basquiat’s canvasses and works on paper is symptomatic of the artist’s own almost impatient approach to life.
As with so many of Basquiat’s greatest works, there is a distinct autobiographical feel in Untitled. Not from any of the figurative human representations, but from the torrent of numerical and visual motifs that pour through the canvas and the way Xerox has been stuck all over in a flurry, appearing as a chaotic stream of consciousness. We are reminded of the artist’s working method, of his adoration of Beat poetry and his perennial reliance on source material. Basquiat was never unstimulated when he worked. He surrounded himself with Walkmans, televisions, books, artistic monographs, and the colourful characters of bohemian New York, so that his life was engulfed in images, words, phrases, and sounds that could inspire and fulfil his work. In the words of prominent dealer and curator, Jeffrey Deitch, “Basquiat’s canvases are aesthetic dropcloths that catch the leaks from a whirring mind. He vacuums up cultural fall-out and spits it out on stretched canvas, disturbingly transformed” (Jeffrey Deitch quoted in: Larry Warsh, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, New York 1993, p. 13). It is undoubtedly this reliance on eclectic source material that created the waterfall of diverse imagery and alphanumeric mark-making apparent in the present work. While it resists a facile interpretation, this cluster of motifs provides further insight into Basquiat’s working method; this is not an illustrative self-portrait, providing a simple likeness, but rather an instinctive regurgitation of the artist’s stimulus – a glimpse at his inner cogitation rather than his exterior appearance.
Untitled typifies the artistic confidence that Jean-Michel Basquiat attained as his career progressed. In this work, he veers away from the frenetic chaos of his earlier praxis, maintaining the energetic rhythm that is so emblematic of his work, but boldly deploying his forms in a more painterly and deliberate manner, and relishing the prospect of taking on the titans of twentieth-century art history on their own terms.
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