Painted at the height of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s creative powers, <em>Untitled</em> epitomizes the artist’s distinctly expressive, raw and uncensored painterly idiom. Executed in 1982, it was created during a watershed moment in Basquiat’s notoriously short but groundbreaking career that resulted in some of the artist’s most self-assured masterpieces. Basquiat’s talent as a colorist comes to the fore in this painting, while equally demonstrating his distinct ability to use color structurally: he deliberately slathers white paint across the red underlayer to give form to a large, totemic head, whose features has distilled with confident lines. Debuted at Basquiat’s seminal exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles, in the spring of 1982, the artist’s second solo show in the United States, <em>Untitled</em> is among the discrete group of paintings that propelled the artist to international stardom.<br /><br />Basquiat painted <em>Untitled </em>at the crucial inflection point when the critical and commercial success of his breakthrough in 1981 sparked a new phase in his artistic production. As Richard Marshall observed of this period, “all hell broke loose. The young master was ready” (Richard Marshall, <em>Jean-Michel Basquiat</em>, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1991, p. 37). In January 1982, Basquiat made the pivotal decision to move his studio from the basement of Annina Nosei's gallery to a large Soho loft. This was the first time Basquiat had a place of his own that was large enough to paint in; liberated and energized, Basquiat created some of the most vital paintings of his entire oeuvre. As Basquiat recalled of this period a few years later, “I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Cathleen McGuigan, “New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist”, <em>The New York Times Magazine</em>, February 10, 1985, p. 29).<br /><br />Basquiat likely created the present work in the lead up to his impressive line-up of solo exhibitions in the spring of that year, his shows at Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, and Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles, slated to open in March and April, respectively. Working in his loft studio against the steady backdrop of music and cartoon programs, he feverishly covered the canvas with swift but sure gestures while adroitly exploiting the creative potential of free association. <br /><br />Basquiat’s distinct process has been likened to that of improvisation in jazz, whereby harmonic structures and repeated note patterns are appropriated across several compositions. Like the jazz musicians he so admired, Basquiat drew on a range of sources for his visual lexicon, including urban and pop culture, music, poetry, Christian iconography, African and Haitian cultural histories, and art history. All these impulses would fuse together in his stream-of-consciousness approach. As Glenn O’Brien recalls, “He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him, and he processed it all into a bebop Cubist Pop Art cartoon gospel that synthesized the whole overload we lived under into something that made astonishing new sense” (Glenn O’Brien, “Greatest Hits”, <em>Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time</em>, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2015, p. 177). <br /><br />The paintings that came out of this intense period of working in 1982 signaled an important shift within Basquiat’s practice. At the same time that his compositions became more dense and colorful, the human figure took on a new complexity. Basquiat’s success, according to Rene Richard, “solidified his identification with black heroes of the past,” resulting in a number of works that incorporate specific references to historic and contemporary individuals (Rene Ricard, “World Crowns”, <em>Jean-Michel Basquiat</em>, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1991, p. 48). The figure in the present work seems more ambiguous, recalling a totem but also appears like a shamanistic vision from one of the comics or cartoons Basquiat so loved and began integrating into his visual vocabulary in this period. <br /><br />Basquiat, who as a child had aspired to be a cartoonist, was an avid collector of comic books and newspaper comic strips and frequently worked with the television streaming cartoons in the background. One of the sources that filtered into his art in particular was an advertisement for joke tricks and toys that he found in the back of an old comic book, which featured such novelty items as “X-ray specs”. This motif of optical illusion, which recurred in a number of Basquiat’s paintings and drawings in the ensuing years, can be considered as “directly connected to Basquiat’s aesthetic and social sense of reality, viability and equality” (Richard D. Marshall, <em>Jean-Michel</em> <em>Basquiat</em>, exh. cat., Museum of Lugano, Lugano, 2005, p. 62).<br /><br />If eyes serve as windows to the soul, then in Basquiat’s portraits, they offer insights into the artist’s own psyche – at times expressing torment and anger, other times lucidity and prophecy. The spiraling eyes that lend the figure a hypnotic presence are a recurring motif in many of Basquiat’s works, for example in <em>Irony of a Negro Policemen</em>, 1981, <em>Dustheads, </em>1982<em>,</em> and <em>Philistines</em>, 1982. The head, too, is often a central focus in Basquiat’s images, privileged over the body in a manner that seems to emphasize perception. Underlying much of Basquiat’s sense of self, as Fred Hofman observed, “was his innate capacity to function as something like an oracle, distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and, in turn, projecting them outward through his creative acts” (Fred Hoffman, “The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works”, <em>Basquiat</em>, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 129). This notion of channeling everyday life is underlined when Basquiat explained, “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in <em>Basquiat</em>, exh. cat., Museo Revoltella, Trieste, 1999, p. LXVII).<br /><br />Much of Basquiat’s work in 1982 began to explore the political realities of his everyday experience, as evidenced in <em>Untitled (Black Tar and Feathers)</em>, 1982, and <em>Six Crimee</em>, 1982, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which were exhibited alongside the present work at Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles in 1982. As in the latter work, the figure’s gritted teeth in the present painting are echoed by a large grid-like structure below, itself inspired by the form of a baseball scorecard. Above it, Basquiat has created a window-like structure that frames the letters that could equally be deciphered as “NRC” or “NRA”, which could allude to a number of things in addition to conjuring most immediately the abbreviations for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Rifle Association, both of which were making news headlines in the early 1980s. Etched into the white paint to the right of that is “POI” in possible reference to “person of interest”. <br /><br />The arrows that traverse the canvas imbue the work not only with movement, but also with rich symbolism.Considering the present work alongside its sister painting <em>Untitled</em>, 1982, which features the words “Jung” emblazoned below a Minotaur, the caricature-like figure takes on the likeness of psychoanalyst Carl Jung with his distinct glasses and mustache. Basquiat may specifically be alluding to<br />Jung’s theory of the “wounded healer”, which was based on the Greek myth of the centaur Chiron being irrevocably wounded by Hercules’s arrows. Yet just as the arrows ultimately offer no clear path or direction, so does the overall composition itself dodge straightforward interpretations<br /><br />It was Basquiat’s unique ability to present his quotidian impressions, observations and thoughts in a pictorial idiom that shows a remarkably intuitive understanding of the history of modern painting. As is characteristic of Basquiat’s painting starting in 1982, broad strokes and flat areas of color both reveal and conceal imagery. This non-representational use of color recalls both Henri Matisse's <em>Femme au chapeau, </em>1905, and Jackson Pollock’s <em>Guardians of the Secret</em>, 1943, a painting Basquiat greatly admired, though the present work perhaps most vividly calls to mind Joan Mitchell’s early 1970s abstractions. While channeling these precedents, Basquiat firmly set himself apart: “With direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork, he used unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda” (Marc Mayer, "Basquiat in History", <em>Basquiat</em>, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 46). Indeed, covering the vibrant red ground of the present work with impasto passages of luminescent white, light blue and ochre paint, Basquiat ultimately employs color to give form to the head and to push it to the foreground of the composition.<br /><br />Though Basquiat has been compared to many 20th century artists, including Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Robert Rauschenberg, Dubuffet is perhaps his most immediate predecessor. Basquiat had first encountered Dubuffet’s work in the late 1970s in the form of the <em>Théâtres de mémoire</em> series that was being shown at the Pace Gallery in New York. “One doesn’t usually think of Dubuffet and Basquiat as contemporaries,” Lawrence Rinder pointed out, “yet there was a brief though important period at the very beginning of Basquiat’s career and at the end of Dubuffet’s when they were struggling with related representational issues and arriving at remarkably similar artistic solutions” (Lawrence Rinder, <em>Dubuffet Basquiat</em>, exh. cat., PaceWildenstein, New York, 2006, p. 4). There are indeed striking parallels between Dubuffet’s <em>Théâtres de mémoire </em>and works such as the present one; both artists conjoin disparate elements from their personal reservoir of idiosyncratic forms and symbols, fusing them into heterogeneous compositions. <br /><br />Pulsating with the unbridled energy of an artist at the height of his creative powers, <em>Untitled</em> made its debut at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles on April 8, 1982 to rave reviews. Following the phenomenal success of Basquiat’s solo exhibition at Annina Nosei Gallery in the month prior, it was there that Basquiat was introduced to influential collectors Eli and Edythe Broad and Douglas S. Cramer, who would become important supporters of his work. Shortly after, in June, Basquiat was included in Documenta 7, Kassel, as the youngest artist ever to be selected. At merely 25 years of age, he exhibited works alongside such established artists as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol, the latter of whom he would meet a few months later and befriend. What followed is legend – Basquiat’s meteoric rise to international stardom tragically ending with his death just a few years later in 1988.
acrylic, oil, oilstick and spray paint on canvas
The work is in very good condition. The canvas, four-member stretcher and attachments appear to be in good condition. There are a few minor scuffs in places to the extreme perimeter, primarily to the left vertical turnover edge. There is minute rubbing to the extreme corners with an associated pinpoint paint loss to the extreme upper right corner. There are two small linear losses to the extreme right vertical turnover edge. There are two small hairline cracks along the extreme upper vertical edges, visible only upon close inspection. There are a few flattened impasto peaks in places, primarily in the ochre passage. There are drying cracks in places, primarily to the white passages. When examined under ultra-violet light there is no indication of inpainting.
Los Angeles, Gagosian Gallery, <em>Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings</em>, April 8 - May 8, 1982<br />New York, PaceWildenstein, <em>Dubuffet Basquiat: Personal Histories</em>, April 23 - June 17, 2006, p. 40 (illustrated, p. 41)
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72 x 48 in. (182.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Enrico Navarra et. al., <em>Jean-Michel Basquiat</em>, Paris, 2000, no. 5, p. 11 (illustrated, p. 10)
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York<br />Larry Gagosian, Los Angeles<br />Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1982)<br />Christie’s, London, June 24, 2004, lot 6<br />Private Collection<br />Phillips de Pury & Company, London, June 29, 2008, lot 229<br />Private Collection, New York<br />Morgan Walker, New York<br />Acquired from the above by the present owner
<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>