Untitled (Prophet I) is a commanding work displaying Jean-Michel Basquiat's pictorial intelligence at the height of his creative powers. Painted during the first years of the artist's mature career, Untitled (Prophet I) epitomizes a most selective appropriation of emotive gestures, calligraphic signs, and assemblage; a vocabulary heavily influenced by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, and Robert Rauschenberg. However, it would be an error to interpret him as a mere synthesizer. Basquiat's painting sums up more than distilled sources, and it certainly poses more challenges than the encrypted identification of a serial appropriation. As a self-trained artist, Basquiat understood painting empirically, separate from theoretical manifestoes. Above all, Basquiat's oeuvre is a pictorial solution to the multicultural milieu he inhabited: "the historical moment when Conceptualism is about to fall before the rise of the neoprimitive upsurge...hiphop's train-writing graffiti cults pull into the station carrying the return of representation, figuration, expressionism, Pop-artism, the investment in canvas painting, and the idea of the masterpiece." (Greg Tate, "Nobody Loves a Genius Child: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk," in Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, New York, 1992, p. 236)
Untitled (Prophet I) portrays what is possibly the most innovative typology for the contemporary portrait to have emerged in the second half of the twentieth-century. As a new way of de-codifying the figure and marking the body either through fragmentation or disfiguration, Basquiat's structural reading of the 'primitive' confered a fresh approach to the portrait. While true that Basquiat's brand of intellectualized primitivism was imbued by a full spectrum of art historical and cultural sources ranging from Renaissance to Modern art, it was the religious and cultural influences from his Haitian/Puerto Rican origins and the gritty urban milieu of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan in the 1980s, that most directly impacted his primitive aesthetic. There is an interesting paradox in Basquiat's usage of the primitive. While European artists, namely Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and others, assimilated primitive art through the lenses of African, and Oceanic sculptures exhibited in Paris; for Basquiat, who often visited the Museum of Modern Art, the adoption of a primitive aesthetic as mediated by the European avant-garde results in an ironic re-appropriation of his own Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Given these art historical precedents and Basquiat´s aim to lay claim to the grand tradition, the pictorial disjunctions and frantic disfiguration in Untitled (Prophet I) is emphatically intentional. Just as Picasso achieves disfiguration in the Demoiselles "by cleaving depicted flesh; by elision of limbs and abbreviation; by slashing the web of connecting space; and by a sudden stylistic shift at the climax," Basquiat configures a primordial mass at the bottom of the composition from which a disembodied expressionist head fiercely confronts the viewer. (Leo Steinberg, "The Polemical Part," October 44, Spring 1988, p. 124) To our post-modernist eyes however, the picture's internal tension, a notable side-effect of its accomplished disunity, may indeed read as complementary—our contemporary visual field adjusted to being violated. Only the unconscious has retained some perfunctory function; as in a poem by Mallarmé, "the imagery exists primarily in the mind rather than in a tangible, material space." (Jack Flam, Matisse the Man and his Art 1869-1918, Ithaca & London,1986, p. 156)
In Untitled (Prophet I), layers of impasto laid upon a multitude of ground colors direct the eye onto specific details. Most significant is the red outline of the eyes and nose, which together allude to a most elemental schema of human features. While personifying the role of the artist as principal observer of culture, the outlined eye of the prophet also alludes to the Iberian eyes painted by Picasso in his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). For Basquiat, the affinity to outline physical features and juxtapose them against each other may also be biographical in origin. Basquiat's identity as an Afro-Caribbean man developed in terms of a dialectical opposition to the predominant white culture of his youth. Opposing associations between 'they' and 'I,' white and black, canon and Diaspora coexist at the core of Basquiat's self-image as an artist. In stylistic terms, Basquiat´s repeated use of anatomical imagery—skeletons, musculature, and internal organs—may also coincide with a widespread tendency to turn elements inside out in his work. (Jeffrey Hoffeld, ¨Basquiat and the Inner Self,¨ Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paintings and Works on Paper, The Mugrabi Collection, 2002, n,p) "He was a master of seemingly exposing things—the skeleton, the infrastructure, the core language of art and life—yet at the same time he occluded origins, influences, and skill with layers of a frenetic, always-in-a-hurry style." (Exh. Cat., Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat, 2005, p. 164)
The painting process as one of inner disclosure is particularly appealing to Basquiat, as it allowed for the manifestation of a type of modern day automatic art-making meant to reveal the psyche of the artist. The canvas, a receptor of emotional content in the heroic tradition of Rothko and Pollock, is made manifest in Untitled (Prophet I) with it's gestural physicality of brushstroke. Of note, Basquiat's painting shares Pollock's construction of implied speed. Specifically, the painting slows down and thickens, becoming less mutable: "thus reintroducing, in spite of itself, a long span of time." (Exh. Cat., Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna della Citta di Lugano, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 27) The regard for Rauschenberg is particularly evident in the use of collage. Paper has been torn and glued without regard for symmetry, at times folding as the brush passes over them, at times adding an unexpected three-dimensionality to the composition and texture. Untitled (Prophet I) is impossible to absorb without appropriate distance, both from the picture and its historical background. To stand in front of it is to experience the awe of a primal entity, a tribal icon inciting the omnipresence of religious painting.
Executed in the basement of the Annina Nosei Gallery in the seminal year of 1982, Untitled (Prophet I) embodies Basquiat's central project: innovation through selected appropriation. As the only remaining picture of a once tripartite series—two other Prophets were destroyed by the artist—Untitled (Prophet I) endures as a central composition within Basquiat's oeuvre and consolidates his place as an American-made phenomenon.
Acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas
Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings, April - June 1996
Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts; Taichung, Taiwan, Taichung Museum, Jean-Michel Basquiat, January - June 1997, p. 31
Seoul, Gallery Hyundai, Jean-Michel Basquiat, July - August 1997, p. 31
Vancouver, Art Beatus Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat, September - October 1997, p. 25
Tokyo, Mitsukoshi Museum Marugame, M.I.M.O.C.A., Jean-Michel Basquiat, October 1997 - April 1998, p. 41
Sao Paulo, Pinacoteca do Estado, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings/Works on Paper, June - August 1998, p. 49
Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Basquiat in Venice, June - October 1999, p. 59
Naples, Museo Civico Castel Nuovo, Basquiat in Naples, December 1999 - February 2000, p. 57
Paris, Fondation Dina Vierny - Musée Maillol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2003, p. 47
New York, Jan Krugier Gallery, Basquiat, Chaissac, Dubuffet, Torres-Garcia, 2003, p. 33
Lungano, Museo d'Arte Moderna della Città di Lungano, Jean-Michel Basquiat, June 2005, cat. no. 4, p. 23, illustrated in color, and p. 182, illustrated (photograph in Basquiat's studio)
95 1/4 x 59 3/8 in. 241.9 x 150.8 cm.
Richard Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 2nd ed., vol I, p. 61, illustrated in color
Richard Marshall and Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris, 1996, 3rd ed., vol I, p. 99, illustrated in color and vol. II, p. 98, cat. no. 1, illustrated in color
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above