A master drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled from 1982 is realized with an expressive power that rivals, and often surpasses, his large-scale canvases. Untitled is one of a series of five celebrated large-scale works on paper that rarely come on the market. Unique in its dense idiosyncratic mark-making, the work contains a frantic discharge of a distinctly human kind of madness, directly scrawled, etched and slashed onto the large-scale sheet. Originally owned by the noted Basquiat collectors John and Marion Shea, when the drawing offered at Christie's in November 1997, it realized a world-record for a drawing by the artist. Widely exhibited and celebrated, the drawing is a highpoint for the artists graphic work.
Drawing upon observations of the role of the African American male in the urban politics of the time, Basquiat rendered the age-old trope of traditional portraiture in his own unique way. The body is set adrift, wrenched out of its identifiable context, while at the same time flattened, in a manner very much reminiscent of Jean Dubuffet, against a background cluttered with gestural drips allusive of wastelands and urban detritus. Basquiats graffiti-like and seemingly improvised scribbling and hieroglyphic scrawls, which were to be rightly canonized as the signature motifs in the artists oeuvre, are so readily visible in the deliberate rawness of this powerful work, which maintains a fine balance between control and spontaneity, menace and wit.
Although Basquiats meteoric rise in the art world had afforded him widespread fame by 1982, he was acutely aware of the inherent racism within its ranks. He was particularly sensitive about being constantly stereotyped and pigeonholed as a black artist of untamed and 'primitive' talent and was anxious about being cast in the role of a mascot by the predominantly white art establishment. As the first African American to reach the apex of the official international art world, Basquiat reacted defiantly against such prejudice with works like Untitled, in its scheme of red, yellow and blue, a color combination Basquiat seemed to favor for its primary intensity, bringing his ethnic identity to the fore.
When discussing the subjects of his pictures, Basquiat claimed that they were about 'royalty, heroes and the streets' (J. M. Basquiat quoted in H. Geldzahler, Art: from subways to Soho: Jean-Michel Basquiat, pp. 18-26, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh.cat., Vienna, 1999, p. 23). Creating a poetic modern mythology of black heroes, Basquiat's personal pantheon included amongst others, such towering Jazz musicians as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, artists with whom he personally identified. The menacing, grinning figure in Untitled with its seemingly ad hoc armor, in virtue of the stark geometric components of its multi-faceted outfit, becomes simultaneously an archetype and an alter-ego
of these contemporary urban heroes.
The figure in Untitled is drawn in the artists characteristically
aggressive faux-naive style. He appears as an energetic, even frantic, caricature of the artist himself; a projection of his fears, anxieties, and rebellious rage, with a unvarnished directness that recalls Picassos late work, with its pipe referencing his smoking musketeers. Equally empowered and bewildered, the figure is endowed with paraphernalia resembling moon boots, electrified hair on his skull-like head, evoking a potent sense of panic at the immediate prospect of danger. The psychological chaos characterizing the figures mental state is made even more pronounced by virtue of its being set against Twombly-esque background of text, numbers, lines, charts, stars, geometrical shapes. 'QA' is written at the lower right corner most likely standing for the question-answer, problem-solution dualities -- a mathematical nightmare -- that not only alludes to the chaos of the urban environment and the years Basquiat spent coating Manhattan with his cryptic graffiti slogans, but also to the artists critical attitude towards the unquestioned values of the entrenched systems of education and conditioning in the society
This troubled anti-hero has a supernatural aura, a cross between a futuristic automaton, a grasping voodoo effigy, and an Aztecan mythological figure. The raw energy and urban-primitive aesthetic of Untitled seems to mockingly assume the mantle of noble-savage Basquiat himself tried to shake off and stands out as the artists ultimate critique of the constitution of black identity at the peak of his creative powers.