As one of the artist'slast works, Untitled showcases Basquiat’s self-taught mastery of line and form. As Demosthenes Davvetas states: "Basquiat’s use of line is the way he commits to record what has been seen. Whatever your point of focus, in any given moment the work is crystal clear.... His line is the product of his mental process, the active proof of the passage from inner thought to articulation" (Demosthenes Davvetas, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, Princeton 2015, p. 34). In Untitled, Basquiat’s adept translation of thought to action to line gives rise to a stunning and reductive composition that manages to deliver a profound degree of dark, emotive force. Furthermore, the lines in Untitled bear a certain unpredictability in their fluidity. These sudden, exciting shifts lend the drawn lines a slippery quality, which can be traced to Basquiat’s early beginnings as a renowned graffiti artist working in downtown New York.
Basquiat’s preoccupation with the ghostly, skeletal figure is a recurring theme within the artist’s oeuvre, particularly in his early works. For example, Ghost and Bones as well as Flesh and Spirit, produced in 1981 and 1983 respectively, share Untitled’s thematic concerns with the existential abyss between life and death. This late work also bears a remarkable resemblance to the artist’s early Anatomy series, produced in 1982. Like Untitled, these works exhibit an abstract, minimal quality that emphasizes the relationship between line and human form. Basquiat’s obsession with the human anatomy was cultivated in his childhood by his recurrent visual interactions with the figures in Gray’s Anatomy, a book gifted to him by his mother while he recovered in a hospital after a traumatic car accident. In both Untitled and the Anatomy series, Basquiat’s attention to the technical functioning of the human body, evident in the illustrations of bones and skulls rendered in white against black backgrounds, create an extraordinary visual effect that evokes X-ray photography. Coupled with Basquiat’s assertive racial consciousness, Untitled can be read as a visual metaphor for contemporary America’s invasive examination of black bodies and, more specifically, its intense scrutiny of black icons, such as the artist himself.
One can imagine Basquiat producing Untitled in his shadowy, painting-filled studio on Great Jones Street, reflecting upon the evolution of his artistic practice as he faced its inevitable culmination. The work, in its overt allusions to death, and in turn, to the passage of time, invokes the artist’s meteoric rise to fame and enduring artistic legacy; much like Andy Warhol musing upon death in his iconic Fright Wigs, Basquiat here addresses his own mortality. Commenting on his own desire for fame with prophetic intuituion, the artist once stated “Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix. I had a romantic feeling about how these people became famous." (The artist quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of An American Artist,” The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p. 29) Basquiat’s reverence for these musical icons, both of whom died prematurely of drug excesses, bleakly foretells the artist’s own tragic death; yet he shares with his heroes the singular legacy of re-defining the cultural landscape of his time. Untitled thus captures the zeitgeist of the late 1980s, an era of various socio-political shifts that ushered in artistic investigations into identity, representation and subjectivity, the hallmark of Basquiat’s postmodern practice.
Influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s polished, anatomical drawings and echoing Cy Twombly’s raw yet refined 'Blackboards,' Untitled encapsulates a decade in Basquiat’s artistic progression from his early days as a graffiti artist to his terminus as a sophisticated, internationally recognized icon. Throughout Basquiat’s body of work, a theme that invariably manifests is “the volatile mix in white America, of blackness, talent, fame and death” (Roberta Smith, “Basquiat: Man for His Decade,” New York Times, October 23, 1992). These thematic concerns are graciously resolved in Untitled, a work that simultaneously conveys the seduction of fame, the horror of isolation and the beauty of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s genius.
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