Basquiat’s great strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting.JEFFREY DEITCH(Jeffrey Deitch, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Annina Nosei,” Flash Art, 16, May 1982, p. 50).Even though Jean-Michel Basquiat’s finished products—covering the surfaces of panel, wood, canvas, paper, and many other materials—bear only a single dimension of representation, below them is a melting pot of artistic construction and erasure, epitomizing the matchless position of Basquiat in the canon of contemporary art. His pieces are embodiments of youthful rhythm and an ingenious artistic mind that only a wealth of conflicting ideologies could engender. From his singular vantage point as a multi-cultural artist, he integrated his unique heritage—the voodoo culture of Haiti, along with newworld French and Hispanic elements—into his painterly hand. In doing so, he gave rise to the image of the modern artist: one who is the way station for the past and present, and for whom identity is a furious clash of ideals. In the present lot, Untitled, 1981, Basquiat introduces us to his stunningly early artistic maturation embodied in a gorgeous and profound self-portrait. Here, his legendary artistic fury is unbridled.It would be insufficient to discuss Jean-Michel Basquiat’s radical art without touching upon the biographical and ideological forces that gave rise to his work. As a product of two national identities, Haitian and Puerto Rican, Basquiat was instilled with the nuances of cultural differentiation early on in his life. And, living a biracial childhood in Brooklyn, he was exposed to both the difficulty of black struggle and the wealth of his diverse heritage. He harnessed these differences to a brilliant degree, establishing his fluency in French, English, and Spanish by age eleven. In addition, his fascination with knowledge created lasting obsessions, namely with human anatomy and skeletal structure inspired by a copy of Grey’s Anatomy. Human anatomy would later become one of the trademark visual tropes in his oeuvre. Yet, perhaps most impressively, he employed his intellect toward self-improvement: his skills in drawing and painting were entirely self-taught, a remarkable marriage of observational discipline and extraordinary creativity.As a teenager, he was a social butterfly, impetuous and well-liked by his peers. Yet Basquiat’s pragmatism also made itself known; at the age of seventeen, he dropped out of school, citing its further uselessness, and subsequently joined his classmate, Al Diaz, in the earliest phase of his artistic career. Establishing a partnership known as SAMO, short for “same old shit”, Basquiat and Diaz gained relative fame through their provocative use of phrase in graffiti. The artists’ exciting anti-establishment messages—concerning racial tension, questions of identity, and commercialism bound in verses eloquent poetry— were often stark and immense in size, helping to emphasize the pictorial beauty of the written word.In 1979, Basquiat turned to visual representation as a means of expression, finding inspiration from artists like Pollock and Picasso, whose bravura means of expression helped to charge their work with immediacy and intense emotion. Yet, though he is often characterized as a Neo-Expressionist, Basquiat maintained representative elements in his work, opting to use the familiar image as a means to a holistic end. As his star rose after being featured in the seminal “Times Square Show” in 1980, his introduction to Andy Warhol further cemented his path to international recognition, as the two became friends and, later, collaborators. Finally, by the time his work was shown in the 1981 show, “New York/New Wave” at PS 1, Basquiat was one of the most promising and notorious working contemporary artists, already shouldering the label of enfant terrible. It was during this meteoric rise to fame that the present lot, Untitled, 1981 was created in the studio he maintained in the basement of the Annina Nosei Gallery in Manhattan.Basquiat, at the youthful age of twenty-one, had already developed an utterly mature style, filled with a richness of history and biographical experience. Untitled, 1981 demonstrates both racial conflict and artistic virtuosity in decidedly religious tones, indicative of the lasting imprint of Basquiat’s Catholic upbringing. The piece itself, in terms of medium, is typical of Basquiat’s early career, where his unorthodox choices of materials are most heavily distributed. He employs a combination of acrylic, his most conventional medium, with the choice of paintstick, utilized for the sake of its fluidity in drawing. However, Basquiat’s street-inspired practices make themselves evident with the use of spray paint, which figures prominently in Untitled, 1981. Finally, all of his methods of technique lie firmly on a board of wood, which bears the immense cultural significance of Basquiat’s picture with sturdy resolve.Basquiat’s painting itself is a holy relic in terms of his integration of style. Standing roughly six feet before the viewer, the human figure within the picture is about the size of a full-grown man, lending a self-reflective quality to Basquiat’s terrific rendering. While the multiple layers of the painting bequeath a multiplicity of artistic tiers, we can readily perceive two in the haunting subject before us. First, the red glowing red skeletal shape of the figure floats ominously, clearly applied last but nevertheless the more elemental of the figure’s anatomy. Though it boasts full ribs and leg structure on its left side, the skeleton grows sparse and shattered on the right, cuing us into the disjointed and incomplete nature of the subject. Ironically, the superficial muscular tissue and flesh of the figure—itself the second tier of Basquiat’s subject—sits below the skeletal form, suggesting that it takes a back seat to the significance of the subject’s most internal form. Radiating between deep black and a rich reddish mahogany, the color of the subject’s skin seems symbolically mixed, echoing Basquiat’s diverse heritage.Yet the two most striking features of the picture hail from the background of the figure. First, the gorgeous confusion and equality of colors in the background, atypical of Basquiat, give way to an immediate halo of bright white surrounding the subject. Simply from a technical standpoint, Basquiat’s use of color in the present lot is an exception to his customary chromatic schemes. In fact, “one exceptional feature of Basquiat’s use of color is the baffling fact that he had no signature palette to speak of; nor, for that matter, was he prone to repeating particular combinations, so curious he was to try new relationships.” (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History”, Basquiat, Edited by M. Mayer, New York, 2005, p. 47). Hence, as we observe enormous blocks of lavender, pale green, canary yellow, and red filling the background of his figure, Basquiat echoes the sentiments of his Fauvist predecessors in the quest to broaden his chromatic horizons. The radiant palette of the present lot makes it one of the brightest in Basquiat’s oeuvre.Investigating Basquiat’s choice of the central portion of white that surrounds the subject, we see rich racial symbolism. This theme is illuminated in its meaning by Basquiat’s piece, Irony of a Negro Policeman, executed in the same year. In both paintings, the immediate white background presents a metaphorical existence for the black subject in question. While Irony possesses a stark white that fills its surface, representing a black policeman acting in accordance with the wishes of a white institution (a black man with a white mask), the present lot is presumably a self-portrait of Basquiat himself; consequently, he is in constant conflict with the white that envelops him along with myriad other colors and cultures.The colorful symbolism inherent in Untitled, 1981, yields, however, to the profound religious iconography of Basquiat’s figure. Arms splayed above his body, and sporting a spiked black halo resembling a crown of thorns, Basquiat’s figure presents a Christ-figure of epic proportions, one who walks the path of a martyr. As a recurring theme throughout Basquiat’s work, the unrewarded and unrelenting struggle of African-Americanism manifests itself as a physical being in the present lot. Basquiat articulates both his suffering and his inner conflict in an astonishingly radical and vibrant visual language. And, though it is inspired by his childhood copy of Grey’s Anatomy, Basquiat’s relationship to physical transparency is not solely one of anatomical curiosity; the revealed bodily structure in the present lot’s subject hints at a goal fairly Abstract Expressionistic in nature, namely the pursuit of truth through artistic freedom. Certainly, through his gorgeous use of color, he evokes the masterpieces of Jackson Pollock.By actually including the human figure in his work (as opposed to American Abstract Expressionists), Basquiat subordinates the notion of abstraction to the expressive opportunities inherent in representation: “His works appear to break down the dichotomy between the external and the internal, intuiting and revealing the innermost aspects of psychic life.” (F. Hoffman, “The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works”, Basquiat, Edited by M. Mayer, New York, 2005, p. 131). Representation actually makes introspection a richer and more revelatory experience for Basquiat. It is true that the disintegration and reintegration of his figure may never be entirely complete, as we still observe rogue body parts in the present lot, namely a toe at the lower-left portion of the figure. However, we may presume that this allows Basquiat to take stock of himself metaphorically, discovering the depth of his fracture and incompleteness.Though it is tempting to deconstruct every aspect of Basquiat’s painting, the fact remains that every item in Basquiat’s unfathomable index of symbols, ruines, and puzzles has no objective correlative. It is against this Western system of direct allegory and parable that he revolts, and, in doing so, he also renders the two great movements of the Twentieth Century—modernism and post-modernism—both dead and obsolete: “The Christian artistic tradition was developed to chasten, instruct, and exult; we watch Basquiat rehearse, with an almost absurd potency, the instrumental inadequacy of such morally functional art from beyond the introverted rigors of modernism and the garrulous ironies of post-modernism.” (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History”, Basquiat, New York, 2005, p. 51).
Acrylic, oilstick, and spray paint on wood
Signed, inscribed, and dated “Jean-Michel Basquiat, NYC, 81” on the reverse.
Washington, D.C., Washington Project for the Arts, The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism, September 14 – December 9, 1989
Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, In Private Hands: 200 Years of American Painting, October 1, 2005 – January 8, 2006
73 1/4 x 49 1/4 in. (186.1 x 125.1 cm)
R. Powell, The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism, Washington, D.C., Washington Project for the Arts, 1989, p. 51, pl. 7, no. 13 (illustrated)
R. D. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, p. 83 (illustrated)
R. D. Marshall, J. L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 1996, vol. II, p. 64-65, No. 5 (illustrated)
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings and Drawings 1980-1988, Los Angeles, Gagosian Gallery, 1998, No. 9 (illustrated)
R. D. Marshall, J. L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2000, 3rd ed., p. 88-89, No. 3 (illustrated)
L. D. Marsden-Atlass, In Private Hands: 200 Years of American Painting, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Pennsylvania, 2005, pl. 85, pp. 214-215 (illustrated)
Anina Nosei Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1982