Initiated when Jean-Michel Basquiat was just twenty-two years old, Untitled (Pecho/ Oreja) is truly astounding as the sublime combination of imagistic cacophony and compositional economy. Acquired by the band members of U2 in 1989, it has adorned their studio in Dublin ever since, witnessing the production of some of their most renowned recordings. The brilliantly delineated head dominates the canvas as one of the most powerful examples of a motif that would underpin Basquiat's work for the rest of his career. It stands as both idiosyncratic self-portrait and skull-like talismanic call-sign. The painting is scattered with the iconic marks and signs of Basquiat's incomparable aesthetic vocabulary, which is exactly characteristic of his very best work from this outstanding early period. This painting was initiated in a year of unprecedented success for the twenty-two year old: he 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 art dealer Annina Nosei had invited the artist to participate in a group show of socio-political art in September 1981, after which she became Basquiat's primary dealer. With no studio to work in, Basquiat moved into the basement of her gallery, now a fabled space, where he was at last able to paint freely and to produce a prodigious group of masterworks.
In the present work, the highly stylised face, with glaring eyes, flaring nostrils and clenched teeth, evokes both the primitive scribbles of a child and the elaborate iconographies of ancient cultures. These were seminal influences on the young Basquiat who, like his hero Picasso before him, interrogated long-forgotten artistic traditions to interpret contemporary visual culture from a completely new perspective. Born to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents and growing up in Brooklyn, Basquiat was fascinated by his heritage and its artistic legacy and this head shows the especially strong effect of African reliquary masks: this mask-like face possesses emaciated, scarified eyes and a clenched jaw that announces an almost spiritual, Shaman-like figure. Inspired by the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, the figure also looks back to their own sources in primitive African art, in itself a validation of Basquiat's own cultural heritage. For Picasso, primitivism was an antidote to the conservatism of the academies; similarly Basquiat finds in his own recourse to primitivism a corrective to the chaste intellectual coolness of late modernism and a powerful mode of expressing overtly contemporary angst.
In addition, extending to the left of the mouth the depiction of the jaw becomes tonally inverted and is reminiscent of x-rays and anatomical drawings of bone structures. Seemingly viewed simultaneously externally and in x-ray, the right of the figure's face is fleshed out while the left side of the jaw is highlighted as a skeleton. This recalls Basquiat's enthusiasm for anatomy that was sparked when his mother gave him a copy of the famous textbook Gray's Anatomy when as a child he was recovering from being hit by a car. Sitting atop the head is the suggestion of a crown of thorns; another Basquiat trademark that evokes the Christian tradition and implies the suppressed struggle of the black man in a white society. The end result of these wide-ranging visual themes is extremely powerful: the head's expressivity screams like the shock of a thousand volts to sear the viewer's retina.
The blackboard-like white-on-black lines recall the road-marking street graffiti of Basquiat's urban genesis, while the red, white and blue in both the head and throughout the entire painting evoke the colour schemes of both the US and Haitian national flags. The iconography includes an S in the top right corner, standing for Basquiat's street tag Samo; the three-pointed crown that punctuates Basquiat's entire oeuvre; a schematic graphic in the bottom right corner that seems to signal an American football helmet, in keeping with the artist's painted pantheon of African American sporting heroes; as well as a raft of other esoteric patterns and designs. Perhaps most prominent is the Oreja (ear) and Pecho (chest) emblems and writing, which also designate the work's title. This furthers Basquiat's groundbreaking questioning of established semiotic sign systems by literally labelling the body parts depicted; a strategy that the artist continued for the rest of his career.
The schematic background, interlocking blocks of deep indigo, red, black and orange, is laid down with intense, gestural brushwork that evokes the abstract compositions of Willem de Kooning and the combines of Robert Rauschenberg. This backdrop fits together with the face, which is demarcated by dense, muscular strokes of red, white, and blue. There is no spatial recession or perspectival logic to the composition; the painting is concerned rather with the qualities of surface, colour and expressivity. Meshing form and ground together, oil stick marks and swathes of paint convert the implosion of form to pure energy. There is no calm moment within the painting – it is pure, raw, nervous energy with the background an extension of the psyche of the figure and by implication the artist himself. Basquiat often painted himself and the present work shares many of the attributes found in works openly designated as self-portraits.
The layered variety of scribed lines, scrawled text, diagrammatic shapes, and gestural brushstrokes forges a chaotic topography of an unstable, syncopated environment that viscerally palpitates on the surface. The heady concoction of imagery and graffiti vocabulary implies a catalogue of sign and referent equations. However, ultimately Basquiat's painting is not some secret cipher: among its anatomical scrawls, suggestions of musical instruments and writing resides a thrilling dynamic. The relationship between Basquiat's art and music has been much commented on, with syncopated rhythms in his mark-making finding strong parallels with jazz and his participation in the band Gray in the late 1970s being frequently cited. Indeed, it was in 1982, the year of this work's inception, that he started to produce rap music and DJ in Manhattan night clubs, and his favourite musicians started to appear in his works: Miles Davies, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Max Roach and others. The work of an instinctive musician, Untitled (Pecho/ Oreja) becomes itself a syncopated improvisation, emerging as the essence of life and music made manifest.
Basquiat's painting, so urgent in its emotive import, also accommodates rich parallels with literary sources, particularly with the work of Basquiat's heroes Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Indeed, a passage from Kerouac's infamous novel On the Road (written in three weeks on one continuous scroll of teletype paper) provides a fitting tribute to the protagonist figure in Untitled (Pecho/ Oreja): "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars" (Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957, n. p.). Basquiat's raw spontaneity is here beautifully captured in a freshly urban and totally unique brand of intellectualized 'primitivism', which was informed by a spectrum of art historical and cultural sources, including Leonardo da Vinci, graffiti art (both modern and ancient), Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet, Pablo Picasso and the gritty urban environment of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Like a breath of fresh air, Basquiat's painting ambushes canonical and traditional expectation with electric innovation. 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. Paramount in this painting is the insatiable originality and vigour resident in each brushstroke. From the self-taught Basquiat, this painting is directly rooted in his spirit and provides us with a portal into his extraordinary world: spontaneous, disorganised, and sensational.
Acrylic, oil stick and paper collage on canvas
183 by 183.5cm. 72 by 72¼in.
Kyoichi Tsuzuki, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kyoto 1992
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 1996, p. 173, illustrated in colour
Richard D. Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2000, 3rd Ed., Vol. I, p. 145 , illustrated in colour and Vol. II, p. 176 , illustrated in colour
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owners in 1989