‘If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there [and] from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet. Except the politics of Dubuffet needed a lecture to show, needed a separate text, whereas in Jean-Michel they are integrated by the picture’s necessity’ (R. Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child,’ in Artforum, vol. XX, no. 4, December 1981, p. 43).
Executed in 1982, during the artist’s most accomplished period, this portrait by Jean- Michel Basquiat is a striking example of the vibrant and energetic style that propelled him from the streets of New York to the forefront of the city’s art scene. It exquisitely captures his practice of bringing together a complex narrative of line, colour and energy into one pulsating painting. Exhibited in the important exhibition of the artist’s works on paper at the Robert Miller Gallery in 1990, the subject of the work is brought to life by a series of frenetic strokes, daubs and drips which builds up into a noble figure. Distinguished by its palette of burnt umber, gold, red and black, this figure becomes a totem-like metaphor not only for the emergence of the artist himself, but also for the re-emergence of painting as a medium of artistic expression at a time when it was considered by many to be dead.
As with the best examples of his portraits from this period, Basquiat focuses the most attention on his detailed rendition of the head. In Untitled, he builds up the features with a blend of different applications of acrylic paint and oil stick to produce a complex and highly sophisticated representation of light and shadow. Strong passages of dark skin tones sit alongside warm golden hues to demarcate the facial features that are emphasised as the light falls across the face. Dark pools of pigment mark out the eyes and nostrils, and a complex arrangement of layered circles and grids make up the mouth. But perhaps the most intricate area of the composition is the frenzied mass of hair that crowns the figure’s head. Made up of a variety of twisted curls, sharp upright protrusions and dramatic red spikes, this chaotic arrangement mimics Basquiat’s own famously unruly tussles of hair, leading to the possible conclusion that Untitled is in fact a self-portrait of the artist himself.
Basquiat worked at tremendous speed, constantly adapting—working and reworking—the surface of his paintings until he was satisfied with the result. In Untitled, evidence of this process can be seen in the passage of dark pigment that occupies the upper right portion of the composition. Built up of successive areas of red, black and blue pigment, this enigmatic area becomes a vivid reminder of the artist’s constantly shifting imagination as he constructs his visual narratives. In addition to the deliberate marks Basquiat made, evidence of his feverish working style can also be seen in the array of incidental marks that are scattered throughout the work. Drips and daubs of paint, smudges from his oil stick and even scuff marks from the soles of his shoes adorn the surface, showing the artist’s dynamic creative process.
By 1982, the artist had reached a pivotal point in his career. He had become the city’s premier art star and was installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s Prince Street gallery and began showcasing his work in a number of international exhibitions around the world. New York had been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure: whole swathes of the city were being vacated by businesses and white-collar workers in favour of the suburbs. The drug culture filled the vacuum left by what became known as white fight and much of the emerging youth culture was centered on the use of hard and soft drugs. Rap, Hip-Hop and street art had become the new language of the dispossessed and Basquiat was at the center of this new cultural movement, with the downtown scene becoming a rich source of inspiration that he would continue to mine for the rest of his career. Looking back on 1982, Basquiat himself recognized the tensions that he felt between the draw of his humble beginnings as a graffiti artist and his meteoric rise to become the wunderkind of the New York art world. ‘I had some money’, he recalled of that important year, ‘I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people’ (J.-M. Basquiat, in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 241).
1982 also marked the re-emergence of painting as a medium of renewed interest for artists after years dominated by the conceptual rigor of minimalism. Basquiat emerged as a champion of this new movement—an artist who clearly revelled in the joy of the artist’s hand. ‘What has propelled him so quickly’, extolled Lisa Liebmann in her Art in America review of Basquiat’s 1982 exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery, ‘is the unmistakable eloquence of his touch. The linear quality of his phrases and notations…shows innate subtlety—he gives us not gestural indulgence, but an intimately calibrated relationship to surface instead’ (L. Liebmann, quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, ‘Chronology,’ in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 239). Although his premature death just five years later put an abrupt end to his career, he has come to be regarded as one of the most important and influential artists of his generation. Unaware perhaps of his own importance, Basquiat claimed not to be interested in changing the course of art history, instead he regarded his paintings to be about life, pure and simple, ‘I start with a picture and then finish it, he once said ‘I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life!’ (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted by B. Bischofberger, Basquiat, exh. cat., Museo Revoltella, Trieste, 1999, p. 62).