- Jean-Michel Basquiat
- acrylic and oilstick on canvas, in 3 parts
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1997
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna Lugano, Jean-Michel Basquiat, March - June 2005, p. 55, no. 23, illustrated in colour; p. 161, no. 23, illustrated
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vol. I, Paris 2000, p. 135, illustrated in colour; and Vol. II, Paris 2000, p. 156, no. 3, illustrated in colour
Following the early acclamation of René Ricard’s seminal 1981 Artforum article 'The Radiant Child', the next couple of years signalled a watershed moment for Basquiat. After producing a landmark solo show at Annina Nosei Gallery in 1982, he participated in the venerated documenta in Kassel. With works installed alongside the greatest figures of twentieth-century art, including Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, and Cy Twombly, he was the youngest artist to ever partake in this historic exhibition. One year later – the year of the present work’s creation – Basquiat’s institutional recognition was solidified when he partook in the Whitney Biennial, which in turn crystalised his commercial success. At the Whitney dinner he met Mary Boone, the ‘New Queen of the Art Scene’, who would soon represent the ambitious artist. By nurturing his talent, Boone would help propel Basquiat further into the cultural spotlight. Concerning this period Basquiat remarked: "I made the best paintings ever” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist’, The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 29). In 1983, Basquiat also strengthened bonds with his iconic mentor, Andy Warhol, from whom he rented a studio. The two famously began their collaboration paintings in this year and inaugurated a lasting friendship galvanised by their extraordinary artistic exchanges. Basquiat was in awe of the elder artist whose 1960s production pioneered a mining of commercial signs and symbols as a subject for high art – an undeniable precedent for the younger artist’s utter assimilation and recapitulation of Pop culture. In contrast to Warhol, however, and as exemplified by the present work, Basquiat took a far more explicitly cynical view of the modern world.
Untitled shows Basquiat unpicking and exposing modern racial constructs. At the heart of this work is a multifaceted joke based on the idiosyncratically cryptic phrase ‘Soap Box’, which is scrawled with the artist’s characteristic hand in the lower left corner. A repeated motto in Basquiat’s oeuvre, ‘Soap’ refers to a racially uncomfortable and old-fashioned jokeshop style prank. As explained by curator and editor of the Basquiat catalogue raisonné, Richard D. Marshall: “Black Face Soap, a joke item advertised in the back of comic books that turns the users face a black colour, illustrates the internalised racism characteristic of American society and promulgated in young readers” (Richard D. Marshall, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat and His Subjects’, in: Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, p. 31). In Untitled, Basquiat takes this loaded device one step further by adding the addendum ‘box’ after it. In English vernacular ‘Soap Box’ infers a box or crate used as a makeshift stand by a public speaker commonly used for situations in which someone expresses strong political opinions. Within Basquiat’s racially charged oeuvre, we are instantly reminded of Martin Luther King’s dynamic civil rights speeches. These pervading racial themes are further enriched by scrawlings of iconic phrases such as ‘cheap labour’ and ‘sugar industry’ in the top right hand corner, topics that are at the very heart of the African diaspora and colonialism across the world. From a mixed ethnic background that included Haitian, Puerto-Rican, and African-American parentage, Basquiat was motivated by a deep-set determination to gain recognition, not only in an almost exclusively 'white' art world, but within the almost exclusively ‘white’ pantheon of Western art history. Weaving a nuanced tapestry imbued with a deep awareness of the cultural legacies that defined his position as an African-American artist, Basquiat carved an unprecedented and unique position for himself within the meta-narrative of art history, and today stands as one of the most radical and visionary painters to emerge at the end of the Twentieth Century.
Within this socio-politically loaded work, Basquiat has also interwoven some deeply personal signs and motifs. Basquiat’s iconic three-pointed crown reigns over the present work, unmistakably declaring the young artist’s supremacy. Associated with the artist's graffito persona SAMO, the crown autobiographically alludes to Basquiat himself, while acting as a seal of admiration and ennoblement for the notary figures that populate his work. Famous black boxers such as Cassius Clay, Jack Johnson, and Joe Lewis proliferate in Basquiat's canon during 1982 (all adorned with crowns) whilst a coronated host of Jazz musicians followed in the same year that Untitled was created. Written across the bottom right-hand panel is the word ‘asbestos’, one of the most oft-repeated words in Basquiat’s visual lexicon. For Basquiat, the word asbestos is associated with alchemy and alchemical materials, because, as the artist explains, “I was writing gold on all this stuff, and I made all this money right afterwards” (Jean-Michel Basquiat in conversation with Henry Geldzahler, Interview, January 1983, online). In the middle of the left hand canvas we find a rendering of a Venus sculpture. Basquiat began incorporating the Venus motif into his works as Xerox sheets in 1982. It was during this time that the artist embarked on a brief affair with Madonna, although at the time he was in a long-term relationship with his then girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk. When Mallouk found out about the affair, Basquiat communicated his feelings by making sheets of Xeroxed Venuses, which he then tore up and gave to her. He said “this is you, a ripped-up Venus, the goddess of love” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 103). In response, Mallouk took all of the paintings that Basquiat had given her and cathartically set them alight in a huge bonfire outside of the artist’s flat. Reappearing in the present work and drawn in thick oil-stick, Basquiat’s Venus acts as a double sign – at once a reference to Mallouk and a reference to the ancient birth of art itself.
Many of the words scrawled over the surface of Untitled are crossed out whilst sentences stop in the middle, testifying to the erratic nature of his creative frenzy. This tactic is crucial to Basquiat’s allure and his semantic trickery: “I cross out words so you will want to see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them” (Jean-Michel Basquiat cited in: Robert Farris Thompson, ‘Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, in: Graham Lock and David Murray, Eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Culture, Oxford 2008, p. 262). In doing so, Basquiat thwarts our ability to fully understand his train of thought, a fragmentary approach that invokes his career-defining interest in beat poetry and key figures within this movement such as William Burroughs, whom the artist had met. The rhythmic dispersal, rupturing, and repetition of words also finds kinship with the contemporaneous innovation of the re-mix and sonic methods of early hip-hop, that was emerging out of the vanguard Brooklyn music scene at this time.
The signatory power of Basquiat’s forms are intimately tied to his multiple techniques. Revelling in a definitive Neo-Expressionist idiom whilst exercising a sophisticated knowledge of art history, Basquiat’s gestural brushwork across the work’s three canvases intuitively recalls the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. In the crudely delineated black lines that animate the left-hand canvas and the vertical drips of fluid red that caress the surface of all three, Basquiat recalls both the luscious abstract mouldings of Willem de Kooning and the ecstatic drips of Jackson Pollok with a typically irreverent sense of humour. The dynamic energy of Franz Kline is also recalled in the more aggressive zones of jagged and expressive passages of deep blue paint that mysteriously occlude the artist’s musings on all three canvases. Jubilantly demonstrative of the radical creative pinnacle of Basquiat’s career, Untitled offers an insightful portrait of an artist defined by explosive talent and calamitous brilliance, and is an ingenious portrayal of modern history.