'Elusive and exuberant at the same time, the graffiti sign is all that remains of a momentous visitation, the lingering shadow of a presence'
Francesco Pellizzi, 'Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Writing on the Wall' Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York 1999, p. 312
Painted in 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat's breakthrough year, this monumental canvas relates the extraordinary shift in the artist's output from street to gallery. Confrontational and immediate, unrepentant and consuming, its energised anxiety and apparently speedy execution hints at the behaviour of someone used to working on the move. Forged by a 21 year old, the style and iconography is simply astounding in its authorial assuredness and charisma, mediating a critical passage between imagistic cacophony and compositional economy. Dominating the centre of the canvas, a fiercely expressive head - part skull, part self-image - stares fixedly out of the picture plane, one of the boldest symbols in Basquiat's iconographic repertoire. Elsewhere, the assault of imagery cannot be contained by the rectilinear canvas: the frame is treated with contempt and its restrictions discarded as the life of the work is launched out of the picture plane. This is painting unrestrained by convention and constitutes the crystallised eulogy to a young and brilliant spirit at the moment that he launched his groundbreaking art practice onto the New York art world.
The giant, disembodied head, filling the full height of the canvas, is one of the best early examples of a motif that would underpin Basquiat's work for the rest of his career. Born to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents and growing up in the cultural crucible of Brooklyn, Basquiat was fascinated by his heritage and its artistic legacy. The head in the present work clearly evinces his knowledge of African reliquary masks with its haptic emphasis on eyes and teeth. Shamanistic, it resonates with an aggression that is part violent, part spiritual. Basquiat's inspiration was additionally rooted in the Cubism of his great hero Picasso. However, whereas Picasso's primitivism provided an exotic escape route from the constrictions of European academicism, Basquiat's adoption of this language corrected the impersonal coolness of late modernism while simultaneously expressing overt contemporary angst.
Surrounding this totemic head is a complex web of signs, symbols and hieroglyphics, constituting the vocabulary of Basquiat's unique language. His talismanic symbols and numbers appear to be loaded with codified import, and his work has been closely compared to music, to the patterns and spirit of jazz, bebop, and rap. He was highly musical as well as obsessed with word-play and the uses of language: on display here is the zeitgeist dialect of early 1980s New York urban street culture. The equations of signs and referents in Untitled that impart meaning echo those formulae and exchanges found in linguistics. Basquiat's act of personalising dialect finds particularly acute echoes in the work of Cy Twombly and his lyrical externalisation of the renowned stream of consciousness writings of James Joyce.
At the centre of the left third of the canvas, inside a rectangular orange area, a square containing the letter S is surmounted by a triangle. Depending on the spectator's database of referents, this arrangement of six straight lines may connote a child-like representation of a house. The outline of this shape is also reminiscent of baseball's 'home base' symbol, which itself references the house representation. The S could indicate any number of things, but of course 'SAMO', an abbreviation for 'Same Ol' Shit', was Basquiat's graffiti tag. As a result, the spectator could read the S inside a house as a signature, like a labelled trademark, inevitably tied up in the biography of a young man who had spent his adolescence running away from home and who potentially craved some harmonious, imagined domesticity.
The schematised, grid-like arrangement that occupies the lower right section also seems to hold hidden meaning. This is compounded by the fact that variations of this pattern punctuate a number of Basquiat's works from throughout this period, such as Untitled (1981, The Art Museum, Princeton University, New Jersey) and later. Presented with twelve small boxes surrounding a central axis, the viewer may initially interpret a watch or clock face. As a reference to time, this could act as a memento mori, a twentieth-century hourglass nestling next to that other reminder of morbidity, a skull. Alternatively, the squares could signify the characteristic perpendicular intersections of the Manhattan city grid, reminiscent of Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43, The Museum of Modern Art, New York). As such the motif might designate the confluence of urban exteriority with galleried domesticity.
However, this pattern in fact describes the court of play for the New York street game 'Skully'. Usually marked out in chalk on a road or pavement, this game consists of players flicking bottle caps in sequence from one square to another. The central square, and the last in the sequence, is marked '13'. It is skirted by four trapezoids, known collectively as 'the skull'. Having reached the thirteenth square, the player must flick the piece through each of these trapezoids, exclaiming for each: 'I', 'AM', 'A', 'KILLER-DILLER'. The 'killer' then has to hit the other players' pieces out of the court - the last remaining player in the court is the winner. Evident from the shadows of Basquiat's footprints, this work was executed on the floor; the latter-day corollary of Jackson Pollock's floor based action painting. The act of scoring out the Skully map on the floor with an oil-stick on canvas is only fractionally removed from inscribing chalk on tarmac.
The number 13 is not only evident within the Skully court, but is prominently isolated right at the centre of the canvas. The bright aquamarine eyes gaping from the scrawled skull-like head stray provocatively toward the number, inviting the interpretation that this is a portrait of the game's victor, the 'killer'. This direct appropriation of street life invests Untitled with a candid authenticity and rawness, recounted in language that is from a specific time and place. Thus this work becomes not so much a painting about New York in 1981, but is sooner a piece of 1981 New York itself.
Nevertheless, the design of the Skully board is esoteric and recognition of this reference today is restricted; its reference blurred by a quarter century layering of history. Consequential meaning here is not confined to an arid semiological analysis of Basquiat's sign systems. A formally Structuralist interpretation, which determines that iconography must function through structured codes and equations, ignores the more emotive import of this work.
Paramount to this painting is the insatiable originality and vigour resident in each brushstroke. Hovering somewhere between a Lower Manhattan alley wall, the side of a subway D train, and a grand History Painting tableau, this canvas is potently arresting through its vitality and its unrelenting visceral creativity. From the self-taught Basquiat, this painting is directly rooted in both iconography and spirit in the alley wall and the subway train. Although this canvas is vast, it does not contain the painting because the painting is really life itself: spontaneous, disorganised, and irrational. As Basquiat's career developed in the 1980's New York art world, the energy and vitality gradually disappeared to be replaced by a more schematised respect for art historical tradition. The wondrous genius of the early works was never to be seen again.
Acrylic and oilstick on canvas
Pully/ Lausanne, FAE Musée d'Art Contemporain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1993, p. 23, illustrated in colour
Trento, Castel Ivano, L'Incanto e la Transcendenza, 1994, pp. 84-85, illustrated in colour
Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, Magie der Zahl, 1997, p. 192, illustrated in colour
Trieste, Civico Museo Revoltella, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1999, p. 4, illustrated in colour
127 by 302.3cm. 50 by 119in.
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, pp. 46-47, illustrated in colour
Richard Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, p. 78, illustrated
Diego Cortez, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich
Private Collection, Switzerland
Sale: Christie's, New York, Post-War and Contemporary Art, 10 November 2004, Lot 48
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner