In Basquiat’s Untitled drawing, a dramatic figure wearing a three-pointed crown stands in the center of the sheet; with a raised sword in one hand and a bone in the other he is victorious. Silhouetted in red, as if recently plunged into the body of his enemy, the sword is highlighted in a manner that also suggests a glint of polished metal. Made in the most productive year of Basquiat’s short career, the drawing synthesizes the young artist’s most enduring symbols and ideas, standing as evidence to his prodigious genius. As curator Marc Mayer wrote in the exhibition catalogue for the artist’s 2005 retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, “By the time his personal style had fully matured [in 1982], at the preposterously early age of twenty-two, Jean-Michel Basquiat had successfully avoided amateurism, historicism, academicism, cynicism, and irony, the gauntlet of aesthetic hazards peculiar to his time. It is all the more astonishing, then, that he succumbed to neither sentimentality nor nostalgia as he breathed life back into the modernist impulse. His success, both intellectual and aesthetic, as well as his uniqueness, is based on the paradoxical equilibrium of a practice that was at once modernist and postmodernist, conscious and self-conscious” (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 45).
The king—along with the boxer, the athlete and a cast of personal heroes—is one of the artist’s most enduring motifs. Basquiat began using the crown, paired with the name “Samo” (an abbreviation of the vernacular phrase “same old shit, different day”) as his signature tag when he used the doors of art galleries in SoHo as his canvas before his official entree into the New York’s established art world. Basquiat described his subject matter as ‘Royalty, Heroism and the Streets’ and as his career progressed these early single crowns developed into fully fledged figures, resplendent with gleaming crowns perched high on top of their heads.
Scrawled along the bottom of the paper, whether an acronym that held meaning for the artist or part of his personal lexicon, the “word” RASFLDT occupies the place of a name on a placard for the figure. The letter “a” has been written throughout, transcending it into anonymous shape, echoing as a sound, and registering as text but failing to coalesce into meaning with placed in proximity to other letters. In fact, Basquiat frequently called upon the letter “a” in his early work to stand in for the baseball player Hank Aaron, who held a particular significance for Basquiat and would reoccur throughout the artist’s career, most famously in his “Famous Negro Athletes” series. Whitney curator Richard D. Marshall explains: “Aaron spent most of his career in obscurity and had to struggle with the racial indignities prevalent in the United States… Although he was the ‘most valuable player’ on his semi-professional team, he still suffered insults and abuse from the biased baseball fans of the South. Jackie Robinson, another of Basquiat’s favorites, had previously brokenthe color barrier for blacks by being signed into the Major Leagues, which allowed Aaron to be signed by the Atlanta Braves baseball team in 1952. Prior to that, Hank Aaron had played baseball for a segregated, black professional team, the Indianapolis Clowns. It is certain that the inherent racism revealed by referring to an all-black team as “Clowns,” and the fact that the city of Indianapolis and the Atlanta Braves were both named after another population of subjugated and enslaved peoples, the American Indians, was not overlooked by Basquiat. It is interesting to note that Basquiat had included Aaron in his battalion of black heroes a year before Aaron was formally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982” (R. D. Marshall, “Jean-Michel Basquiat and his Subjects,” in E. Navarra, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd ed., Paris 2000, pp. 30-32). Untitled, thus, stands as a multivalent talisman: a vibrant artefact of Hank Aaron’s life as much as of Basquiat’s practice, and resounding with his own vital importance to African-American culture.
The central figure of Basquiat’s composition stands next to another—a figurative bust in profile, encased in a black square that signifies a picture frame. Both wear the same three-pointed crown suggesting that the victorious skeleton stands next to a portrait of himself. Thus, this work speaks coherently to Basquiat’s recognition of the importance of art in the making of history. In elevating African-American athletes to royal or saintly status with his crown, Basquiat also frequently applies these associations to himself, conjuring a compound identity of majestic black personas. While Basquiat’s vibrant rehearsals of his heroes’ identities enabled him to celebrate them as champions, conquerors and kings, they also let him evoke the complexities of racial history in the United States: intricate, intertwined strata of personal and cultural pasts are embedded in the pictograms, hieroglyphs and physical layers of his art. As the cultural critic Greg Tate writes, “Clearly Basquiat’s conception of making it in the Western art world transcends those of the train-writers. To Basquiat, making it did not just mean getting a gallery exhibition, a dealer, or even collecting big bank off his work. Making it to him meant going down in history, ranked beside the Great White Fathers of Western painting in the eyes of the major critics, museum curators, and art historians who ultimately determine such things” (G. Tate, “Nobody Loves a Genius Child: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 1993, p. 46).
Close consorts of Basquiat, such as Glenn O’Brien—the writer and member of Warhol’s entourage at The Factory—and his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk remember the artist drawing fanatically, ferociously, and constantly. Always with a drawing implement in his hand, Basquiat squatted over pieces of paper while engaged in conversation, making it clear that the brilliant young artist processed the world through images and visuals first and foremost. As curator Dieter Buchhart has pointed out, “On par with experiencing and reassuring oneself of one’s own everyday existence, the act of drawing was immensely important to Basquiat—in its own right, and not solely for its artistic outcome” (D. Buchhart, “A Revolutionary Caught Between Everyday Life, Knowledge, and Myth,” Basquiat, exh. cat., Beyeler Museum, Basel, 2011, n.p.).