Executed in 1983, the heady collection of symbols, words, diagrams and images that appear in Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled acts as an encyclopedic reference book for much of the artist's subsequent career. Following the completion of this work, over the next few years the artist completed twenty-two other paintings that contained collaged color copies of images from this work. Like the Rosetta Stone--the ancient carving housed in the British Museum that allowed scientists to finally decipher the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics--Untitled's rich and incredibly detailed imagery unleashes the symbolism that distinguished much of Basquiat's later painterly oeuvre. So important was this work to his artistic output that the artist kept it in his personal collection until 1987, returning to it time and time again to take inspiration for many of the artist's most striking works produced during the latter part of his career.
Anchored by a trio of magnificent mask-like faces, this drawing displays a visual cacophony of symbols, signs and cyphers which demonstrate the artist's raw visceral artistic energy. Drawn with remarkable precision, the wide range of subject matter contained in this work exhibits the incredible breadth of the artist's interests; from ethnographic carvings to astronomy and the solar system to children's toys, this work reads like a visual filing system for Basquiat's prolific imagination. Just as the subject matter is rich and varied, so is the artist's method of execution. The richly decorated mask-like head in the lower right is executed in a masterly series of rapidly laid down short strokes from a selection of graphite and colored pencils. This in turn is contrasted with the child-like naïvety of the wind-up children's toy car. Oilstick, wax crayon, colored pencil, graphite and gouache all adorn the surface, each used for a specific purpose and each resulting in a specific aesthetic effect. The precision he achieves using the simplicity of the graphite pencil is perfectly suited to the meticulousness of his astronomical drawings and the more expressive nature of the wax crayon melds perfectly with the dramatic features of the Chinese dragon or its near neighbor, the tall African-like figure that guards the upper left portion of the work. References to space exploration are made with an abundance of drawings of the solar system, spacemen and the Soviet Luna 3 space module together with a comprehensive list of space equipment, all executed in a the same exhaustive style that he used for his Discography paintings from the same year. Together with the intermittent swathes of opaque white gouache that shroud some of his more enigmatic markings, all these elements are woven together by Basquiat to conjure up a rich tapestry of dizzying intensity.
Such is the range of Basquiat's visual lexicon that almost every part of this composition was reproduced at least once in later pictures. The jet black mask that guards the bottom left of the present lot joins the panoply of haunting figures in his 1985 painting Tenor, and also makes appearances in paintings such as Glenn, 1984, and King of the Zulus, 1984-85 (Musée Cantini, Marseille). His reproduction of the children's wind-up car is parked in Peter and the Wolf, 1985, Negro Period, 1986, and Tenor. But perhaps the most featured part of this configuration is the colorful carved head of a Chinese dragon watched over by a menacing black figure which appears in no-less-than five other paintings--Peter and the Wolf, 1985, Dark Milk, 1986, Everygreen Boys, 1986, Apex, 1986 and ISBN, 1985-87.
Along with his lavish imagination, Untitled also demonstrates Basquiat's technical mastery of his chosen medium and his understanding of its place within pictorial culture. Basquiat not only knew how to draw, but he both embraced and enhanced the medium's fundamental purpose within art. As curator Marc Meyer argues, with works of this nature Basquiat used the copies he made to "extend his hand into infinity." By placing copies of these drawings within the body of other paintings, Basquiat sought to promote them from their traditional role as preparatory sketches and give them a much greater role within the context of his painting (M. Meyer, 'Basquiat in History,' Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 48).
Basquiat had long admired other master draughtsman, particularly the intellectual scope and visual intensity of Leonardo da Vinci and the poetic nature of Cy Twombly's work. Basquiat often 'quoted' da Vinci's work in his own paintings, for example the anatomical proliferations contained within Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits, painted the year before the present lot. The lyricism of Cy Twombly was also a big influence on a young Basquiat. Like the older artist, Basquiat saw drawing as something you did--more like an activity than a medium--and critics have argued that by looking at Twombly's work, Basquiat gained permission to 'draw in the raw'--to feel able to produce work imbued with a uniqueness and intensity that has since become one of the leading factors in Basquiat's unique form of artistic expression.
The survival instinct that Basquiat developed during these formative years can clearly be seen in the rush of assembled words and images in Untitled. Like Andy Warhol, Basquiat had a veracious appetite for the visual debris that modern culture generated, but unlike his hero, Basquiat stamped his appropriation of these images with his own unique voice, as Mark Meyer, co-curator of the artist's 2005 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, points out, "He papers over all other voices but his own," he says, "hallucinating total control of his proprietary information as if he were the author of all he transcribed, every diagram, every formula, every cartoon character-even affixing his own copyright symbol to countless artifacts of nature and civilization to stress the point-without making any allowances for the real-life look of the world outside his own universe" (M. Meyer, 'Basquiat in History,' Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, London and New York, 2005, p. 48).
Few artists have managed to capture the zeitgeist of their age as successfully as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Just like the jolt of artistic lightening that Édouard Manet shot through the staid world of 19th century European painting, Basquiat's astute eye and unique style not only captured life during one of New York most exciting periods, but also came to define it. As curator Mark Meyer concludes, "In a turbulence of severed votive units, chaos is set upon the world of image: body parts, machine parts, parts of speech, figures, groups, cartoons, exclamatory symbols, declarations, official seals, farmyard animals, trailing lines, graphs, numbers, scientific diagrams, formulas, and countless orphaned words. We cannot but be lost in these parti-colored charms, strictly mediated by the artist in his disoriented funhouse of originals and copies. No longer are we flâneurs, lingering in the modern idyll of the avuncular Matisse, with his Luxe, Calme & Volupté. Basquiat puts us at the end time, where he concocts an apocaliptic delirium" (M. Meyer, 'Basquiat in History,' Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 53). Basquiat combined high art with elements from street culture and the rough primitivism of graffiti in order to create his own unique iconography. Through its brushstrokes, symbols, and words, Untitled encapsulates the vitality and dynamism that is so characteristic of Jean-Michel Basquiat's energetic spirit.