Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. IX
Bursting forth from the page in a scarlet blaze, Untitled from 1982 is a captivating testament to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s instinctive and unrivaled abilities as a draughtsman. Rendered with ferocious intensity, the strident strokes of Basquiat’s preferred oilstick resolve to reveal a figure that, in its sheer painterly force, emphatically testifies to the gravity and intent with which the artist approached his works on paper. In its searing, talismanic rendering of a crimson skull, Untitled numbers among a group of fifteen intensely worked and re-worked portrayals of the human head that Basquiat created in 1982; a paradigmatic example of the artist’s most iconic motif, the present work stands apart from this group for its chromatic radiance and technically resolved form. Included in the seminal exhibition Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawings at Robert Miller Gallery in 1990, Untitled wholly embodies the artist’s approach to his works on paper, as described by scholar Robert Storr in his introduction for that exhibition: “Drawing, for [Basquiat], was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium. The seemingly throw-away sheets that carpeted his studio might appear little more than warm-ups for painting, except that the artist, a shrewd connoisseur of his own off-hand and under foot inventions, did not in fact throw them away, but instead kept the best for constant reference and re-use. Or, kept them because they were, quite simply, indestructibly vivid.” (Robert Storr, “Two Hundred Beats Per Min,” in Exh. Cat., New York, The Robert Miller Gallery, Basquiat Drawings, 1990, n.p.)
Enduring as both idiosyncratic self-portrait and skull-like talismanic icon, the single ferocious figure revealed in Untitled prevailed as a key conceptual anchor for Basquiat throughout his career, appearing in and dominating the majority of his best known masterworks. In the present work, the cerebrum of the figure is rendered in brilliant crimson oilstick, overlaid with bold strokes of black to delineate the outlines of bared teeth, a crazed gaze, and a frenzied fringe of curling hair; used sparingly, neon accents of bright yellow and blue add dimensionality to the figure rising, wraithlike, from the paper before us. In its use of saturated color and frenetic line to render a disembodied cranium, Untitled invokes such works as Untitled (Skull), in the collection of the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, and Untitled, in the collection of Yusuku Maezawa, also painted in 1982. Describing the sequence of arresting heads drawn and painted by the artist in that year, scholar Fred Hoffman notes: "At the outset of 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat created unique and haunting images of the male head... While they share the characteristics of large, bulging eyes, open mouth and often short, spiky hair, each image is distinct and individual. These figures are unsettling, leaving the viewer with the feeling that they exist in another realm. Peering out into our space, they are oracles conveying a message from another dimension." Remarking further upon the significance of Basquiat’s repeated and frenetic rendering of skulls throughout this year, Hoffmann continues: "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…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: Works from the Schorr Family Collection, 2014, p. 74) Brilliantly formulated in the artist’s intuitive and innovative psyche and then translated onto the paper surface, the sheer visual voltage of Untitled reveals the impassioned, almost compulsive intensity Basquiat brought to both his work on paper and to his larger practice; far from inanimate, the charged lines achieve an intensely expressive power - Basquiat delivering a fusion of internal and external sensory experiences with the electrifying force of a live wire.
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