Robert Storr, “Two Hundred Beats Per Min,” in Exh. Cat., New York, The Robert Miller Gallery, Basquiat Drawings, 1990, n.p.
Searing in its electric immediacy and astounding technical precision, Untitled (Tobacco) from 1984 is an arresting example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s inimitable corpus of works on paper. Evincing an intense scrutiny and breathtaking intimacy, Basquiat’s drawings comprise a fundamental element of his prolific oeuvre and are essential to a comprehensive understanding of the diverse signs, symbols, and subjects which make up his staggeringly inventive output. An exceptionally intricate illustration of Basquiat’s skill as a draftsman, Untitled (Tobacco) demonstrates a decisively resolved composition, revealing the gravity and intent with which the artist approached his works on paper. His frenetic marks, ranging in force from lightly shaded reliefs to dark, penetrating scrawls, make up the labyrinthine skeletal frame of a single, shamanistic figure clutching a cigarette; surrounding him, wisps of graphite smoke swirl in an ephemeral haze, mirroring and merging with the distorted contours of the figure itself. The left side of the sheet is punctuated by splatters of electric blue oil paint, lending the drawing a remarkable vivacity. Included in the seminal exhibition of Basquiat drawings at Robert Miller Gallery in 1990, Untitled (Tobacco) demonstrates numerous core tenets from Basquiat’s multitudinous symbolic lexicon. Juxtaposing feverish intensity with a remarkable technical finesse, the present work is a testament, not only to the unique artistic code that defined Basquiat’s pictorial compositions, but to the extraordinary ingenuity and complexity of the creative mind which fueled them.
Enduring as both idiosyncratic self-portrait and skull-like talismanic icon, the single skeletal figure which dominates Untitled (Tobacco) appears as a key conceptual anchor throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre. In the present work, the cerebrum of the figure is rendered as though simultaneously viewed both externally and via internal x-ray, the schematic structure of bone, tooth, and vessel laid bare against the paper. Fascinated by anatomy ever since he was hospitalized as a boy following a car accident, the depiction of the human form here reveals Basquiat’s preoccupation with the interior architecture of the human animal; indeed, the spectral contours of internal organs and bronchial canals read like a distorted diagram from Gray’s Anatomy. Upon closer examination, the figure’s engorged cranium resolves into two overlapping forms, invoking the African reliquary masks which inspired Picasso, Basquiat’s predecessor and artistic hero. Remarking upon the significance of skulls in Basquiat’s oeuvre, scholar Fred Hoffmann remarks, “What drew Basquiat almost obsessively to the depiction of the human head was his fascination with the face as a passageway from exterior physical presence into the hidden realities of man’s psychological and mental realms. As such, the two largest human orifices of the eye and mouth, the gateways enabling a passageway within, are depicted as both large and open. In the case of the eyes, they not only peer out as if seeing, but also invite the viewer to penetrate within.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Acquavella Galleries, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection, 2014, p. 74) Indeed, the two sets of gnashing teeth and dark, dilated pupils are particularly delineated in the present work, striking a stark contrast with the whispery shadows of soft graphite surrounding them. A slender cigarette is clutched in the figure’s gnarled grasp as, above, a draft of smoke issues from the gaping mouth to dissipate in intricate, feathery curlicues. In a manner paradigmatic to his practice, the action of the figure is compounded by the semiotic use of text to the right of the composition, where two oversized cigarettes are stacked over the words “TOBACCO” and “FILTER.” These words, also central components of Basquiat’s paintings Tabac, Slaveships (Tobacco), and Campaign, all from 1984, reveal the artist’s intensive engagement with the legacies of slavery and colonialism that underlie present day American consumerism. A fascinating amalgamation of personal subjectivity and shared socio-political context, Untiled (Tobacco) is as robustly intellectual as it is visually compelling.
By 1984, the year in which Untitled (Tobacco) was executed, Basquiat was fully established as the acknowledged prodigy of the international art world. In the year running up to the creation of the present work, he exhibited in seventeen group shows and four major solo shows across America, Europe, and Japan, in addition to achieving the honor of being the youngest artist to ever be included in the Whitney Biennial. No longer the precocious outsider, Basquiat’s confidence in his own abilities is readily apparent in the remarkable virtuosity and variance of Untitled (Tobacco). Expounding upon the frenetic haste that characterizes his early output, Basquiat’s line appears almost continuous in the present work, delineating the bold outline of the central figure with a tenacious certainty. This vitality belies, however, the somber shadow of mortality that pervades the composition; as though to exorcise the demons and self-destructive tendencies within, Basquiat’s figure exhales a plume of smoke, his exposed lungs conspicuously vulnerable. Simultaneously presenting a macrocosm and microcosm of humanity, Untitled (Tobacco) is not only a testament to the visual dynamism of Basquiat’s hand, but a profound and intensely intimate reflection of the artist himself.
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