Jean-Michel Basquiat’s <em>Untitled</em>, 1981,<em> </em>seethes with the emotional expressivity and palpable energy that distinguishes it as an exceptional masterwork on paper. Executed in the seminal year of 1981 as one of the earliest examples of portraiture in Basquiat’s oeuvre, this drawing anticipates the artist’s increased focus on the subject matter in the ensuing year, in many ways setting the immediate precedent for <em>Profit 1,</em> 1982. With this work, Basquiat puts forth a raw and existential portrait of a black man who confronts the viewer with a gaze that is equally tortured and prophetic. Rendered with brown and black oilstick and accentuated with distilled red lines, it demonstrates many of the iconographic elements Basquiat introduced to his vocabulary in 1981: from the spikey lines of hair, the gesture of upraised arms, the iconic motif of the crown of thorns or angel’s halo, to the bulging, blood-shot eyes that would powerfully surface in <em>Untitled</em>, 1981, in the collection of the Broad Museum, Los Angeles. A truly exceptional work created by Basquiat in his most celebrated period, <em>Untitled </em>was notably included in the <em>The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show </em>at the Fondazione La Triennale di Milano in 2006 and 2007, and his seminal retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010-2011.<br /><br />The present work<strong> </strong>evidences the revolutionary pictorial idiom with which Basquiat burst onto the art scene in New York at merely 20 years of age, following his inclusion in the watershed <em>Times Square Show</em> in June 1980 and the <em>New York/New Wave</em> exhibition at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City in February 1981. Basquiat had first gained notoriety in the late 1970s for the conceptually and politically charged graffiti works he emblazoned around downtown Manhattan collaboratively with his friend Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO©. Contrary to common misconception, as Dieter Buchhart has pointed out, Basquiat was not a graffiti or street artist; though he had embraced the vernacular in the late 1970s, it was one aspect within his larger multi-disciplinary agenda that would fuse the disparate fields of street vernacular, popular culture, music, poetry, world history, and art historical sources into one explosive language. Brilliantly capturing the <em>zeitgeist</em> of the New York underground scene, Basquiat began directing his extraordinary talent towards painting and drawing – setting in motion his dizzying ascent to international stardom that would only be put to a halt by his untimely death in 1988, at 27 years old.<br /><br />Works such as the present one demonstrate the incredibly mature pictorial idiom of Basquiat’s breakthrough works, one that built upon his lifelong fixation with drawing. A voracious autodidact, Basquiat had taught himself to draw from early childhood – creating drawings equally inspired by television cartoons and comic books, as well as by the anatomical textbook <em>Gray’s Anatomy</em> and the objects he encountered during his frequent visits to New York museums. Even later, as a young adult, Basquiat would pursue his near manic obsession with drawing, exploiting the creative potential of free association while often sitting on the floor to the sound of music or television in the background. Though Basquiat was an exceptional draftsman, he pursued a deliberately crude style of drawing. As Basquiat once facetiously stated, “Believe it or not I can actually draw…but I try and fight against it mostly” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in <em>Basquiat Boom for Real</em>, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2016, p. 26). <br /><br />For Basquiat, drawing was akin to a performative act – it was not simply the means of working out pictorial solutions to be integrated into a painting, rather, each drawing presented a discrete work in of itself. The present work<em> </em>pulsates with the unbridled immediacy that the act of drawing provided him: the expressive lines evidence the swift and sure movements with which Basquiat would feverishly move his hand across the paper, all but grinding the oilstick into the surface with great force. As Fab 5 Freddy described of Basquiat’s technique, “The way he would hold a pencil…He wouldn’t hold it in a formal way. He would stick it through the fourth finger…so that when he drew, the pencil would just kind of slip out of his hand. He’d let it go that way, then grab it and bring it down, then let it drift. It was amazing, this whole dance he did with the pencil” (Fab 5 Freddy, quoted in Ingrid Sischy, “Jean-Michel Basquiat as Told by Fred Braithwaite, a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy”, <em>Interview</em>, October 22, 1992, p. 122). <br /><br />When Basquiat’s work was exhibited at <em>New York/New Wave</em> in early 1981, it was notably “the observable relationship of his drawing to past art” that made him stand out for poet and art critic Rene Ricard, who proclaimed, “The elegance of Twombly is there but from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet” (Rene Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, <em>ArtForum</em>, December 1981, online). Vividly echoing Ricard’s now famous observation, <em>Untitled</em> in particular evidences Basquiat’s deep admiration for the anti-establishment artist Jean Dubuffet, whose work Basquiat had first encountered at The Pace Gallery’s exhibition of the French master’s <em>Théâtres de mémoire </em>series in New York in 1977 and 1979. Dubuffet’s rejection of traditional portraiture and his “art brut” dictum, “I believe very much in the value of savagery; I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness," certainly held important cues for Basquiat in his own pursuit of introducing the human figure within an art world context dominated by Minimalism and Conceptualism.<br /><br />Though the motif of the human head had already appeared in Basquiat’s SAMO© tags as early as 1978, it was in early 1981 that Basquiat began to elaborate on the subject in earnest. The oversize head he painted on the canvas that would later become known as <em>Untitled</em>, 1981, Broad Museum, Los Angeles, presented an image that had no precedent in earlier sketches, drawings or paintings. In contrast to the schematic renderings of the human head in earlier works, Basquiat’s emphasis on the expressive and psychological qualities of the figures declared a momentous shift in his practice. His enduring fascination with the subject of the human body would give rise to a canon that revolved around single heroic figures.<br /><br />Vividly anticipating paintings such as<em> Profit 1, </em>1982, the present work is<em> </em>among the earliest works in which Basquiat bestowed his figure with heroism through the motif of the crown of thorns and the gesture of upraised arms. Whereas in later paintings Basquiat’s figures pay tribute to his own heroes such as Cassius Clay and Charlie Parker, in works such as the present one they take on the forms of icons that, “have a familiar ritual function, not unlike…West African sculptures and masks…or the Western religious icons and statuettes meant to embody a given saint or represent Jesus Christ, Angels, crowns, haloes, saints, martyrs” (Marc Meyer, <em>Basquiat,</em> exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 51). <br /><br />In the present work, the gesture of the upraised arms position the figure as a higher power or being. While recalling the gesture of prayer depicted in the stylized sub-Saharan African sculptures from his frequent visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, seen in connection with the crown of thorns or halo it appears to position the figure within Christian iconography –the upraised arms at once calling to mind an “orans” posture and, more specifically, the image of Jesus crucified on the Cross. This association of sainthood, but also pain and suffering, is viscerally heightened by the red oilstick lines. Alternatively, conjuring Basquiat’s contemporaneous painting <em>Fallen Angel,</em> 1981, the figure can also read in terms of the “Fallen Angel” analogy, with the circular line behind the figure alluding to its outstretched wings and a shining halo above its head.<br /><br />Basquiat was acutely attuned to the history and everyday experience of race, class and cultural tensions, and it is almost as if he here presents us with his own interpretation of Paul Klee’s <em>Angelus Novus, </em>1920 – which Walter Benjamin interpreted as the angel of history facing the wreckage of the past while being propelled into the future. There is a notion of self-portraiture within all of Basquiat’s work, his existential figures in some ways expressing his deepest fears, doubts and hopes. Exorcising his own creative demons through the act of drawing, Basquiat presents the viewer with the haunting and tortured figure of a black man, who appears to be equally confronting the anguish and torment of the recent past, and powerfully proclaiming his position in the present and future. There are of course strong parallels to Basquiat’s own biography of being a young black artist within a predominantly white art establishment, struggling not simply for recognition but for fame.<br /><br />Indeed, the present work<em> </em>speaks of an artist at the very brink of unprecedented success. Having garnered the attention of art dealers Emilio Mazzoli, Bruno Bischofberger and Annina Nosei at the<em> New York/New Wave</em> exhibition in early 1981, Basquiat received his first solo show at the Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena that May. It is likely that the present work – dedicated to “Pasquina” and acquired directly from the artist by a Roman collector that year – was created during Basquiat’s stay there; as curator Diego Cortez recalled, Basquiat experienced somewhat of a culture shock, withdrawing himself into art making – particularly drawing. There is certainly a sense of existential alienation at the heart of this portrait that would reflect this experience. Just a few months later, in November of that year, Basquiat’s work was included in the watershed <em>Public Address</em> show at Annina Nosei’s Soho gallery – the extreme success of it famously leading Basquiat to tell his father, as the anecdote goes, “Papa, I’ve made it”.
oilstick and graphite on paper
The work is in very good condition. The sheet is hinged in places on the reverse to its underlying mount. The sheet undulates slightly throughout, primarily in the upper right quadrant. There are very faint handling creases in places along the extreme edges. There is a faint hairline abrasion to the medium in the upper right quadrant, visible only upon close inspection.
Le Mans, L'Espal Centre Culturel, <em>Jean-Michel Basquiat</em>, April 29 - June 15, 1999, pp. 22-23 (illustrated) <br />Milan, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, <em>The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show</em>, September 19, 2006 - January 28, 2007, no. 16, pp. 132-133 (illustrated) <br />Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler (no. 35, p. 50); Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (no. 37, p. 60), <em>Basquiat</em>, May 9, 2010 - January 30, 2011 (illustrated)
<a href="mailto:email@example.com">Amanda Lo Iacono</a><br /> Head of Evening Sale<br /> New York<br /> +1 212 940 1278<br /> <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a><br />
27 5/8 x 38 7/8 in. (70.2 x 98.7 cm.)
Gianni Mercurio, "Basquiat", <em>Dossier Art</em>, no. 227, Milan, 2006, p. 8 (illustrated)
Private Collection, Rome (acquired directly from the artist in 1981) <br />Baron Boisanté Editions, New York<br />Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris (acquired from the above in 1999)<br />Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2000
<p>One of the most famous American artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat first gained notoriety as a subversive graffiti-artist and street poet in the late 1970s. Operating under the pseudonym SAMO, he emblazoned the abandoned walls of the city with his unique blend of enigmatic symbols, icons and aphorisms. A voracious autodidact, by 1980, at 22-years of age, Basquiat began to direct his extraordinary talent towards painting and drawing. His powerful works brilliantly captured the <em>zeitgeist</em> of the 1980s New York underground scene and catapulted Basquiat on a dizzying meteoric ascent to international stardom that would only be put to a halt by his untimely death in 1988.</p><p>Basquiat's iconoclastic oeuvre revolves around the human figure. Exploiting the creative potential of free association and past experience, he created deeply personal, often autobiographical, images by drawing liberally from such disparate fields as urban street culture, music, poetry, Christian iconography, African-American and Aztec cultural histories and a broad range of art historical sources.</p>