The present work was initiated in a year of unprecedented success for the twenty-one year old prodigy: 1981 was a year of seminal importance for Basquiat, marking his elevation from graffiti artist to a celebrated and widely feted member of New York’s cultural scene. Basquiat first came to wider attention following his inclusion in the New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 in Long Island in February 1981. A show followed in Modena in May that year at the request of gallerist Emilio Mazzoli, but it was Annina Nosei’s decision to invite the artist to take part in a group show at her gallery in September that was to have the greatest impact on Basquiat’s early career trajectory. Nosei allowed the artist to use a room beneath her gallery as a studio, which enabled Basquiat to begin working on a larger scale and with a wider variety of materials than in his previous work. Although he severed ties with Nosei before the end of the year, his work continued to flourish, his newfound commercial success allowing him the freedom to satisfy his creative as well as his self-destructive appetites. A truly remarkable year for Basquiat was crowned by the release of René Ricard’s Radiant Child, published in Artforum in December 1981, in which Ricard wrote eulogistically of Basquiat’s early work, “The elegance of Twombly is there but from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet.” (René Ricard, “The Radiant Child,” Artforum, December 1981) Untitled was created during this year of profound artistic advancement and progress: a time that can arguably be considered a golden period of development for Basquiat, a young artist as yet relatively unaffected by the ravages of fame and celebrity, at the very beginning of a highly promising and ground-breaking artistic career.
Robert Storr described the artist during this early critical period of his career as “Jumpy, angry, driven, Basquiat was in a terrible and terrifying hurry.” (Robert Storr in: Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, 1990, n.p.) Contemporaneous sources paint a picture of Basquiat as possessing an insatiable creative drive, and his vast and varied output certainly conveys an impassioned, almost compulsive intensity to his practice: the drawn image, voraciously applied swathes of paint, and wild application of language that poured forth from him seeming to carry with them the demons he wished to exorcise. Indeed, Basquiat’s oeuvre, above all else, is a pictorial solution to the multicultural milieu he inhabited. Deeply rooted in myriad sources of art historical inspiration – from the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, to Picasso’s problematic primitivism, Cy Twombly’s ciphers of text and freedom of line – the artist’s greatest concentration of source material came from his own narrative history. Born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents and brought up in Brooklyn, Basquiat drew from his manifold ancestral background and racial identity to forge a body of work acutely conscious of its contribution to the meta-narrative of an almost exclusively white Western art history.
The present work displays Basquiat's masterful use of color, his deliberately primitive, unschooled style and his poetic evocation of existential struggle. His lines are bold and assured, the whole containing an energy and vitality that Basquiat embodied in his short life. The brilliant blue, red, yellow and green mask pops against the background. Basquiat's skull-like masks and skeletal figures are central to his work, acting as traditional vanitas, through which the viewer contemplates the fleeting pleasures of life and the inevitability of death, as well as autobiographical expressions of the artist's own state of mind. Here, the mask stares off the page at an oblique angle, its expression inscrutable, occupying the uneasy territory between a silly, playful grin, aggressive, bared teeth, and a grimace of fear or dismay. There is a childlike vulnerability in its gaze, as if the figure has been caught unaware. The reiterated “S” recalls Basquiat’s graffiti moniker, SAMO: the symbol of Basquiat’s early work and shortening of the phrase “same old shit, different day.” The head hovers in space, alone and exposed against the background, a revealing expression of feeling from the artist who always remained the quintessential outsider.
In Basquiat's canon, 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. Untitled is imbued with a thrillingly raw intensity and a visceral physicality which sets it on par with some of Basquiat’s most celebrated representations of the masculine cranium and claims its rightful designation as an absolute expression of his full artistic powers.
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