Jean-Michel Basquiat’s arresting work, Untitled, represents the artist at the height of his career. Coming off a series of solo shows in Los Angeles and Zürich and after the completion of a series of large-scale works that are today considered to be some of the artist’s best, Untitled captures so much of what made Basquiat such a talent. Painted in 1983, when the artist was just 23 years old, Untitled is notable not only for its now iconic imagery but also for its text and the fervor in which the artist created the work, which transcends time and space.
In Untitled, the head is paramount. Central to so many of Basquiat’s works, the head was one of the artist’s most visited subjects, here being reduced to its most basic elements, with the duality of the internal versus the external adding an additional layer of meaning. Basquiat constantly searched for meaning of the intention of man with this subject often front of mind. With hollowed out eyes and exposed teeth, Untitled calls to mind African masks which were of significant interest to Basquiat, who explored black subjects throughout his too-short career. The mask motif, which was of vital importance to Basquiat during this period, invokes the work of Pablo Picasso, who viewed Primitivism as an antidote to the conservatism of his time. Although inspired deeply by Picasso in his natural innovation, Basquiat illustrated his subjects through self-identity.
The present work is a testament to Basquiat’s overwhelming skill as a draughtsman. Using quick gestural movements, the figure and text are created as one. Shifting between English and Spanish, Basquiat demarcates the different areas of the head and chest. This interchangeable shift between English and Spanish is an ode to Basquiat’s mother, Matilde, who not only taught Basquiat Spanish and first introduced him to art, but also gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy as a child when he was recovering from an accident—all of which would prove to be incredibly important in Basquiat’s personal development and in the formation of his own identity. When Basquiat was just eight years old, he was hit by a car on the street near his home in Brooklyn. The accident, which led to the removal of his spleen, resulted in Basquiat spending over a month in the hospital and this experience fueled his fascination of the human body, inspiring another reoccurring motif in Basquiat’s work. Years later, Basquiat recalled the incident, “It seemed very dreamlike…it was just like the movies, where they slow it down…I had an operation in my stomach, the whole business. I remember it just being very dreamlike, and seeing the car sort of coming at me and then just seeing everything through sort of a red filter…I think I remember pretty much all of it. That’s not the earliest memory I have but it’s probably the most vivid, the thing with the car, I remember all of it pretty much” (Jean Michel Basquiat in Exh. Cat., Basel, Foundation Beyeler, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2010, p. XXII).
Outside of the purely visual, the significant integration of words in Untitled plays a vital role. Scribbled, unfathomable text and symbols at once invoke the works of Cy Twombly. Speaking with Henry Geldzahler in 1983, Basquiat specifically cited Twombly as one of his "favorites" (Henry Gelzahler, "Art from Subways to Soho" in Exh. Cat., New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1999, p. 48). From the late 1950s and onwards, Twombly’s abstract expressionist gestures were ingrained in an act of dislodging meaning from an ancient and well-trodden art historical dialogue with ancient mythology. Furthering this idea, Basquiat’s treatment of word, line and symbol operates in an analogous way—where we are invited to understand channels of representation, perhaps biographical or historical, and lucid understanding is utterly thwarted in an overload of symbolic juxtapositions. In Basquiat's works, art historical and semantic visual idioms are recast, cut-up and remixed to give form to an entirely new language, anchored by the artist's own tripartite ethnicity but also grounded in his understanding of a contemporary moment for which all cultures and all eras of art history are up for grabs as valid avenues of expression.
In many ways then, Untitled can most aptly be viewed as a self-portrait of the artist. From the references to the artist’s mother and childhood to the intimations of the titans of art history, to the anatomical x-ray vision of the internal and external of the head representing Basquiat’s fascination with the human condition. Furthermore, the repeating "S" inside the square house with a triangle roof in the lower right section of the board is self-referential in more than one way. The symbol, with the upward pointing arrow, can be seen as a nod to Basquiat’s long-time girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, and the closeness to which he held her to his heart. He paints a simple square house with a triangle roof that has an “S” inside, “Because, Suzanne, you are my home" (Jennifer Clement, Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, New York 2014, p. 33). Alternatively, the "S" inside the house can be read as a signature, an abbreviated version of Basquiat’s trademarked tag SAMO, inevitably tied up in the biography of a young man who had spent his adolescence running away from home and who potentially craved some harmonious, imagined domesticity.
Untitled is remarkable for the unrivaled insight it gives one into the artist’s process. The intimacy with which Basquiat imparted into the work elevates it to a new standard. Basquiat craved materials and medium that allowed him to rapidly and spontaneously express his creative impulses with immediate gratification. The board support of the present work evinces a symbiotic combination of medium and method, enabling Basquiat's vivacious diffusion of artistic vigor. Both Picasso and Basquiat made little distinction between the media—holding drawing to the same standard as painting. Untitled is a prime example of Basquiat at his best.
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