Rendered with ferocious intensity, the searing figurehead of Brown Eggs is a riveting embodiment of the instinctive and unrivalled brilliance which distinguished Jean-Michel Basquiat from the earliest years of his career. Executed in 1981, Brown Eggs exemplifies a selection of drawings that, in their haunting and unique renderings of skull-like heads, powerfully embody the extraordinary intensity, focus, and drive which fueled Basquiat at this pivotal moment in his burgeoning career. Within this rarefied corpus, the present work is remarkable for its saturated surface and exceptional diversity of mark-making; rendered in layers of furiously scrawled hazel and orange pigment, overlaid with furious incisions of black, scarlet, yellow, and blue, the frenzied intensity of Basquiat’s variegated strokes is contained only by crisp boundary of the sheet itself. Scrawled below the glowering figure, the inscribed title is irresistibly enigmatic, suggesting loaded commentary while evading clear translation. Vibrantly and densely-layered, the frenetic collision of mark, color, word, and form is, within Basquiat’s drawing, somehow transformed into a singularly sizzling composition that exemplifies the young artist’s effortless creative genius.
In its talismanic rendering of a skull, the present work is a paradigmatic example of the artist’s most iconic motif; compelling as both idiosyncratic self-portrait and shamanistic totem, the fierce character summoned in Brown Eggs would prevail as a primary graphic anchor for Basquiat throughout his career, appearing in and dominating the majority of his best-known masterworks. Rising wraithlike from the paper before us, the visage of Brown Eggs serves as an aesthetic premonition, invoking such later paintings as Untitled (Skull), in The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection in Los Angeles, and Untitled, in the collection of Yusuku Maezawa, both painted the following year. Part self-portrait and part racial allegory, Basquiat’s heads fuse an explosive new style of expressionistic portraiture with a charged, underlying current of socio-political symbolism; although subtly referenced in the present work, the nuanced racial commentary of Brown Eggs is specifically echoed in one of the artist’s later paintings, Eyes and Eggs from 1983, in The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection in Los Angeles. In that work, a black figure dressed in waiter’s garb holds a pan of sizzling eggs aloft, his eyes wide and searching as they fix the viewer’s own gaze. Here, emblazoned without narrative, the titular scribble of BROWN EGGS acquires the enigmatic significance of muttered prophecy, suggesting legibility while persistently evading the viewer’s attempts at comprehension. Describing the virtuosic manner in which Basquiat combined text and imagery in his drawings in terms highly reminiscent of the present work, art historian Robert Storr reflects: “His earliest images on paper show the same authoritative handwriting of his pseudonymous street tags… Heads, often skulls, chant his words. Or rather inhale and exhale them through gritted teeth, as if sucking in the variously dense or diffuse atmosphere they create.” (Robert Storr in Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean Michel Basquiat: Drawings, 1981–1988, 1990, n.p.)
The explosive mark-making and scrawls across the surface of Brown Eggs emphatically testify to the equally fierce artistic drive that propelled Basquiat’s meteoric rise to unprecedented success during his breakout year. Executed in 1981, Brown Eggs stands at a turning point in Basquiat’s short but prolific artistic career: in February of the same year, the artist was included in the multi-disciplinary show New York/New Wave at MoMA P.S.1 in Queens, marking beginning of the artist’s transition from the streets to galleries, to museums, and eventually, into the highest echelons of the international art world. In September, the gallerist Annina Nosei offered Basquiat the basement of her eponymous gallery in SoHo to use as a studio, granting him the funding and materials he needed to begin his critical and commercial ascent. In these landmark works from 1981, Basquiat's abundant talent and fluent command of paint, figure, and form are powerfully redolent. Despite his remarkably young age, Basquiat here displays his mature aesthetic vocabulary, emphatically demonstrating the signature figuration, Fauvist mastery of color, and unparalleled intensity of mark-making that would come to define his output. As he fixes the viewer with his multicolored gaze, the ferocious face demands recognition of Basquiat’s instinctive and lauded abilities as one of the greatest draughtsman of the twentieth century.
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