Tony Shafrazi, "Basquiat: Messenger of the Sacred and Profane" in Exh. Cat., New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1999, p. 12
Fused with the graffiti style that captured the attention of the New York art scene, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s iconic aesthetic is embedded in the indigenous and ancient artistic traditions of African tribal art, and channeled through the influence of Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly and Abstract Expressionist masters. He was self-taught, sufficiently seasoned from countless childhood visits to the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Born to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents and raised in Brooklyn, the young artist infused his work with an allegory of heritage and racial identity. The palpable confidence and energy from his SAMO period soon manifested in paintings and works on paper in the early 1980s, at which time he was approached by the German art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who helped elevate his work to international acclaim. The present work was executed at a critical moment in the artist’s career—by 1982, Basquiat has settled into the New York art scene, rising to prominence at the young age of 22. Untitled possesses a highly intriguing, deliberately crude quality that pervades Basquiat’s entire oeuvre. His vehemence and candid style broke from tradition and solidified him as a pioneer of the late 20th century art scene in New York.
Much like Picasso, Basquiat focused just as much energy on his works on paper as he did his paintings. In the first few months of 1982, the young artist produced a series of similarly rendered and equally riveting faces. These existed as individual characters, stagnant and floating in space, yet fraught with motion and expression. Basquiat’s raw, primitive aesthetic recalls Picasso’s captivation with the aesthetic of traditional African art and sculpture. In particular, both artists drew inspiration from ancestral African masks, which has become integral to the discourse on affinity and cultural appropriation in art. Basquiat took a particular interest in Picasso’s abstracted aesthetic, and pursued a similar pictorial approach in his own work. Drafted in a flat, reductive style with minimal facial detail, Untitled evokes the formal qualities of the legendary African masks he would have seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child. The red ochre and rich blue color of the present example much resemble the palette of Picasso’s 1970 L’Étreinte, while the composition resembles the mask itself. This notion of affinity, while problematic in some ways with regard to Picasso, is profoundly enhanced in Basquiat’s work. His mixed heritage and art historical insights allow for an enlightened approach to creation. He distinctively scrutinizes the visual language of modernism from a unique, racial vantage point to offer an added layer to this discourse.
Basquiat cultivated a body of work from the perspective of a young, black New York City native in pursuit of a chiefly white, Western art historical legacy. Untitled possesses the same rudimentary quality that Picasso so passionately emulated in his work; yet, where much criticism surrounds the notion of affinity between Picasso’s works and the cultural property of non-white, non-European communities, Basquiat’s work actively addresses and confronts the controversy. It emblematizes Basquiat’s artistic dexterity, borrowing elements from his own upbringing and knowledge of art history to generate new, visually and culturally informed codes. Rendered in line with a restricted yet thoughtful palette, this piece represents a potent meta-narrative that emerged with Basquiat’s artistic endeavors of the 1980s.
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