The present work was initiated in a year of unprecedented success for the twenty-two year old prodigy: in 1982 Basquiat had his first solo exhibitions with Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles, Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, and other galleries in New York and Rotterdam. The downtown Manhattan gallerist Annina Nosei became his primary dealer after inviting him to participate in a group show of socio-political art in September 1981. With no studio to work in, Basquiat moved into the basement of her gallery, now a fabled space, where he was able to paint freely and to produce an extraordinary group of masterworks. Three years later, in an interview with Cathleen McGuigan for The New York Times, Basquiat described this breakthrough year, where his international renown as well as the quality of his output began to flourish: "I had some money; I made the best paintings ever” (Jean-Michel Basquiat quoted in: Cathleen McGuigan, ‘New Art, New Money’, The New York Times, 10 February 1985, online). Indeed, by the astonishingly early age of twenty-two, Basquiat’s personal style had fully matured and he had achieved an altogether unique aesthetic vocabulary. The freshness of this emergent talent, coupled with the rush of self-confidence brought about by his newfound critical success, engendered a body of works, of which Untitled is a part, that are today widely considered among the very best of his career.
Robert Storr described the artist during this early critical period of his career: “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 seemed to carry 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 primitivism, Cy Twombly’s ciphers of text and freedom of line, and the overtly Abstract Expressionist machismo of Franz Kline – the artist’s source material was most powerful when concentrated on the narrative of black 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. Moreover, visual evidence of Basquiat’s individual life experiences constitutes the mainstay of his artistic lexicon: the oft-cited story of his hospital stay and spleen surgery as the result of being hit by a car while playing outside his Brooklyn home at the age of seven, and resultant fascination with the human anatomy that arose from his mother’s gift of a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, is just one example and has become the stuff of art historical legend.
The fascinating amalgamation of these diverse source materials resulted in a corpus that is as intrinsically autobiographical as it is acutely aware yet broad in its portrayal of black male subjectivity. His works are immediately recognisable and exceptional for their immediacy. In the appreciation of the present work, we are reminded again of Storr’s writing: “What remains is the scattered benefaction of an amazingly wised up, wound up intelligence. So watch the artist use it. For even now – and especially in drawings such as these – it is all still happening right before your eyes” (Ibid.).