Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled magnificently shows the artist's injecting vibrant contemporary culture - and breathing new life - into high-art modernism. Basquiat consciously adapted modernist tropes like Picasso's protean energy, Dubuffet's urban scrawls of and Twombly's hermetic, classical musings. This gave his paintings structure, but more importantly for the artist, it gave him a clear lineage within art history. Basquiat made it new with a seemingly spontaneous attitude, incorporating elements from downtown street culture: graffiti, advertising, comic book imagery. He boldly mashed up high and low art into a heady mixture. Basquiat approached art making fearlessly, with allowed him to create images without judgment, working in a way paradoxically similar to Warhol's use of objectifying distance. In Basquiat's case, the process is less clinically detached and more expressively open and exuberant.
Achille Bonito Oliva spoke of Basquiat's "cultural nomadism", likening the artist to an intrepid traveler who would transmute his discoveries onto canvas. Basquiat filtered through an array of figures and notations from jazz music, sports, comics, literature, and poetry. We can see in this painting the contrast between expansive content and controlled palette, a palette Basquiat limited to earthy tones of brown, black, red, and ochre. He chose colors reminiscent of the Altamira cave paintings, images that precede civilization, reflecting his penchant for the elemental. Basquiat ravenously incorporated unlikely sources, creating a panoply of vivid signs for him to use. In an interview with Basquiat, Henry Geldzahler asked him whose paintings he liked, to which Basquiat answered, "The more I paint the more I like everything."
Basquiat created mythologizing, multidimensional canvases where the human body/person/spirit often willfully runs in the company of chaos, triumph, and even despair. His was fascinated with the persona of the artist as outlaw hero, truth seeker, and cool outsider, which led him to William Burroughs, a godfather of the Beat generation. In Burroughs' novel Junkie (or Junky) (1953), the drug addict protagonist Bill Lee subverts conformist society's norms and descends into an underworld of drugs, sex, and criminality. The overarching image Burroughs created in Junkie is a seeker questing for alternative truths or realities after becoming extremely dissatisfied with the existing one. There is no clear plot or resolution; instead, Burroughs portrays an individual who adheres to his own degenerate principles, defying society's conventions heroically. Basquiat repeatedly inscribed "EROICA" the Italian word for "heroic" on the present work's canvas.
Basquiat arranged Untitled's structure non-hierarchically, achieving an effect that is both all-over and concentrated. A patchwork of text confronts the viewer, each section jostling for dominance. The painting appears taut, the canvas's "skin" pulled to extreme ends, as disparate images of heads, bodies and word clusters all threaten to explode. Basquiat shows us two dominant heads with spiky hair that looks like halos - their scalps radiating light. Basquiat reiterates this radiant imagery in a collage of a miniature superhero engulfed in flames, a stop-motion-like sequence zooming around the painting's perimeter. Basquiat uses the comic book format to meld image and text so seamlessly that a story gets told while the scene imparts great visual drama and suspense.
Fire pervades the work: in addition to the reiterated fiery superhero, the words "PROMETHEUS" and "fuego flores" (translated as "fiery flowers") show up throughout the picture. In Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus gave the gift of fire to humans, which allowed them to flourish and build cities. Because Prometheus gave a godly gift to humans, Zeus punished and banished him, and had vultures repeatedly tear out his heart. Like Prometheus, the artist brings human culture a gift, the gift of representation, under threat because of art's powerful and potentially destructive ability to transform how we perceive nature and reality.
We could also regard the large addict's head in the present work - his eyes distorted, his open mouth filled with bloody rotting teeth - as a titan's head. According to the myths, the gods created earth from the titans' fallen bodies, their blood turning into rivers and oceans, their eyes into stars. Their corporeal bodies became the essential matter for fertile soil.
The text of Basquiat's painting repeats throughout, reading like Symbolist/Dadaist/Surrealist poetry, linking highly suggestive words physically on the page, constructing tantalizing new connections of meaning. Inspired by Dadaist poetry, Burroughs made cut-ups, a key stylistic device for him during the 1960s. He would cut and reorder sentences on paper to create new sentences and even new words. Burroughs saw cut-ups as a way to alter meaning, or even as an act of divination. The language's plasticity opens up new possibilities, alternative realities, hidden truths. Basquiat's texts weave through constellations of imagery, each relationship of text and image forged by a frisson of a collaged image or scrape of paint colliding against evocative words and symbols. Symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine imagined the artist voyaging without destination or map, fearlessly charging headlong into experiences that would nourish the creative spirit anew. Basquiat's complex imagery and rich allusions create just such a self-contained new world.
Acrylic, oilstick, graphite, paper collage and crayon on canvas
Property from the Dennis Hopper Collection
Jean-Michel Basquiat , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Contemporary
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing, 1987.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Houston, Menil Collection and Des Moines Art Center, Jean Michel-Basquiat, October 1992-January 1994, p. 219 (illustrated in color).
Brooklyn Museum; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art and Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Basquiat, March 2005-February 2006, p. 156 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Cinémathèque Française and Melbourne, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood, October 2008-April 2010, p. 157 (illustrated in color).
Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Basquiat, May-September 2010, p. 175, no. 163 (illustrated in color; also illustrated on the inside front cover).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
93 x 108 in. (236.2 x 274.3 cm.)
Galerie Enrico Navarra, et al, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, pp. 362-363 (illustrated in color).
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, et al, Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1999, pp. 271 and 333 (illustrated in color).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, et al, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 2000, pp. 348-349 (illustrated in color).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Künzelsau, 2001, p. 159 (illustrated in color).
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner