Untitled embodies the indomitable force of Basquiat’s creative insurgency, which, in a flourishing conflagration of word, color, and mark, sent shockwaves through downtown Manhattan in the early 1980s and inaugurated a radical return of figurative painting. Marc Mayer reflected on Basquiat’s oeuvre, describing the artist as, “an articulate, and prolific spokesman for youth: insatiably curious, tirelessly inventive, innocently self-deprecating because of youth’s inadequacies, jealously guarding his independence… His work is likely to remain for a long time as the modern picture of what is looks like to be brilliant, driven, and young” (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 57). Basquiat’s graffiti alter-ego of the late 1970s, SAMO, is apparent in the various marks throughout the present work; most notably the three-pointed crown. As SAMO, Basquiat left his mark on the streets of New York City in the form of the three-pointed crown and the acquisitive ©. From the very beginning, the young artist was known for his unique blend of the conceptual and the visual, merging a diverse linguistic arsenal of works with enigmatic symbols and icons that have proven to be truly unforgettable.
Conjuring allusions to the graceful scrawls and scribbles of Cy Twombly – an artist for whom he held a deep admiration – the glimpses of Basquiat’s graphic forms invoke a sort of proto-handwriting: a primitive kind of expression that strives toward resolution and legibility but is suspended in a perpetual territory of formal symbolism, akin to our contemporary reading of pre-historic mark-making. Phoebe Hoban captures this notion saying that, “Basquiat’s work, like that of most of his peers, was based on appropriation… the images he appropriated whether they were from the Bible or a chemistry textbook – became part of his original vocabulary… Basquiat combined and recombined these idiosyncratic symbols throughout his career: the recursive references to anatomy, black culture, television and history are his personal hieroglyphics” (Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 332). The young artist sampled from everyday life, art history, and a variety of cultural and socio-political semiotics oftentimes separating and isolating signs and texts, each containing layered histories. This diverse lexicon served as both image and a chronicle of language itself, overheard and spoken, a voice which visualized the slogans and jargon of the moment.
For Basquiat, drawing was the most immediate form of expression and the quickest artistic method in which he could translate his inner thoughts. Basquiat recalls his street art past by incorporating a series of symbols found in Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook, especially the “hobo signs” which travelling vagabonds would use to denote certain areas as safe or treacherous along the road. Several of the signs within the present work are carried throughout his meteoric practice and are repeated like incantations in his drawings and larger paintings. Basquiat’s presentation of the warrior-like figure displays the same pictorial sophistication seen in many of his best paintings. Untitled captures the artist’s place as the dominant force in the 1980s art world and is an extraordinary example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric and all-too-brief career.
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