Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (Car Crash) of 1980 dates from the inception of the young artist's brief but highly successful career, which saw him propelled from Bowery district street urchin and graffiti sloganeer to the enfant terrible of the international art world within a few short years. The product of a life shaped by a disdain for conformity, the rough construction and rudimentary imagery of Untitled (Car Crash) clearly displays Basquiat's desire to revolutionize artistic norms. This early and important painting brings together a number of reference points that Basquiat would exploit throughout his career. He evolved a vocabulary of themes and signs which he gathered from numerous sources, including the drawings of his friend Chris Sedlmayer's 12-year-old son Theo, who inspired his child-like renderings of cars and crowns.
From the outset, Basquiat attacked the standards and expectations of a dry, alienating, intellectual, precious, exclusive art world dominated by a Minimalist-Conceptual aesthetic. By translating the coarse immediacy of street art and life onto canvas, Basquiat brought a powerful new emotionalism into play, which synthesized autobiography and social outcry with radically simplified, expressive imagery. Emerging as an artist after the prolonged economic recession of the 1970s, Basquiat was all too aware of the increasingly visible gap between rich and poor in Manhattan and the deliberate grittiness of Untitled (Car Crash) communicates the reality of Basquiat's immediate environment. Constructed of a loose piece of raw burlap draped over a rough timber framework, its exposed crossbars and projecting nails form an integral part of the work, reflecting the everyday life and detritus of the then-derelict streets of the East Village.
Untitled (Car Crash) is one of Basquiat's earliest depictions of a car accident below an apartment window, which became a recurrent image for him at this time and was most likely a familiar event. Basquiat's work almost always holds a biographical significance and the repetition of the car crash in his work indicates the subject held a personal meaning for the artist. At the age of seven, he had been severely injured after being hit by a car while playing ball in a Brooklyn street. Basquiat may also have been creating his own equivalent of the celebrated car crash paintings of his hero, Andy Warhol, just as his friend the graffiti artist "Fab Five Freddy" Braithwaite would reproduce the Pop artist's Campbell's soup can's on a subway siding in the same year.
Basquiat had become closely associated with New York's burgeoning graffiti movement with his alter ego SAMO, whose spray painted aphorisms formed a conspicuous part of the city landscape. Through his strange, subversive messages, typically aimed at the galleries and art collectors of SoHo, Basquiat established a cult following and the growing interest had even led to exposés in The Village Voice. From the philosophic maxims of SAMO it is clear Basquiat knew the allusive quality of words and understood that they could convey emotional states pictorially. With spidery script scattered across the canvas, the barely legible words in Untitled (Car Crash) enhance the chaos of the scene they surround. By inscribing the white truck with the letters MLK, Basquiat not only identifies the vehicle as a milk delivery van, but also develops the "MILK)" logo he had earlier adopted as a graffitist and makes oblique reference to Martin Luther King. Borrowing elements of everyday language (brand names, trade marks, consumer clichés, political and racial slogans, etc.), Basquiat constantly conveyed a deep underlying cynicism with the ways power is manipulated and wealth distributed. The collision between a commercial vehicle and a common car in this painting signals the latent power structures that dominate everyday life.
The underscored and scratched out word "catalyst" in the upper left corner indicates this subject represented the potential for upheaval and change for the artist. Indeed, Untitled (Car Crash) coincides with the transformation of SAMO into "Jean-Michel Basquiat art star," or what Robert Hughes once described as the "little black Rimbaud" of New York. For the three years before producing this painting, Basquiat had been living a transient lifestyle. Finding board wherever he could, he would sleep most of the day and party all night at the Mudd Club, the downtown underground art and punk response to Studio 54. Basquiat became acquainted with the club's owner, aspiring curator Diego Cortez, who would include the young painter in his first public exhibition in June 1980. Cortez's landmark Times Square Show was a triumph, remembered by reviewers for injecting the art scene with an energy comparable to a "dose of free-based cocaine," Basquiat's work was singled out for its "knockout combination of de Kooning and the gruff poignancy of subway train scribbles" (J. Deitch, "Report from Times Square," Art and America, August 1980). At only 19 years old, the primitivism of Basquiat's unique painterly expressions were an instant hit with the public and critics alike, securing the sort of stardom for which he had always felt destined.
Significantly, Untitled (Car Crash) once formed part of the collection of Glenn O'Brien, the director behind New York Beat, a romantic and magical filmic interpretation of the downtown art and music scene in which Basquiat held a lead role. The pair met through Fab Five Freddy in 1979, when O'Brien (a writer for Warhol's Interview magazine) was working on an article about the downtown graffiti scene. Basquiat's evolving artistic aspirations and innate star quality inspired O'Brien's script for New York Beat, which wove together key figures from the East Village's cool crowds. Filming began in December 1980, and not only provided Basquiat with the funds to purchase painting materials for the first time, but also a small studio space where he could work. Not for much longer would Basquiat's life replicate the struggling artist of his on-screen persona -- he soon hit the big time. The untamed energy of Untitled (Car Crash) provides a window onto the frenetic pulse of Basquiat's life during this period of dramatic change, which links his past as a graffitist with his new status as an established artist, presenting us with a raw and vivid impression of the urban world he inhabited.