This enigmatic figure of a fisherman proudly displaying the results of his endeavors is an important early example of the potency of Jean-Michel Basquiat's unique artistic language. Painted in 1981, as the artist emerged from the subversive world of street art to the adulation of the New York art world, this monumental painting displays the powerful iconography and painterly energy that enraptured both critics and collectors alike until the artist's untimely death just seven years later at the age of twenty-seven. Untitled was painted during a period when Basquiat was channeling his artistic prowess into paintings that both spoke directly to his own personal experiences and also to a wider audience searching for an artistic voice that spoke for a new generation. By combining influences from a number of orthodox and unorthodox sources, Basquiat became that voice, an artist whom curator Dieter Buchhart characterized as "a revolutionary caught between everyday life, knowledge and myth" (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyler, Basel, 2010, p. 53).
Standing boldly at the center of the canvas, the majestic figure of the fisherman proudly displays his catch--a large and slightly menacing fish dangling at the end of a long line. The dark figure of the man, whose skeletal contours are outlined in stark black and white, is crowned with what appears to be a wreath made from barbed wire, with twisted pieces of sharp metal appearing as a halo around the figure's head. The raw intensity with which Basquiat depicts the man's features recalls the naïve figures which populated the artist's early street art, scrawled and scratched across the abandoned buildings of the city's less desirable neighborhoods. In stark contrast to the dark figure's haunting raw expressionism, Basquiat locates his protagonist against a background composed of a palette of vibrant yellows, creams, pinks and mauves, thereby forcing our attention onto this central character and pushing the figure to the forefront of the composition.
This painting in particular offers visible evidence of the painstaking way in which Basquiat built up these figures through a complex arrangement of painterly layers to achieve the aesthetic appearance that he required. On looking at a photograph of the early stages of Untitled, one is struck by the rudimentary nature of the initial basic figure and its difference from the finished version. Rendered in black paint, with little attempt at realism, the body consists simply of a rectangular box placed on top of two spindly legs. As the painting progressed, Basquiat began to apply further layers of black paint to build up a more sophisticated form of the human figure, even adding a degree of muscular definition to the legs. But it is with the facial features of the figure in Untitled that we see perhaps the greatest example of Basquiat's artistic technique, as even a single feature like the mouth is made up of at least six different layers from the black paint base layer through to the white, grey and even red oilstick used to highlight the man's demonic grin. What is most remarkable is that all these individual layers remain visible, with Basquiat proudly exhibiting his unique form of pentimento as a stylistic means--leaving evidence of his characteristic and tantalizing method of painting for all to see.
Whereas in later paintings his figures represent some of the artist's heroes such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Casius Clay and Joe Louis, in Untitled the figure remains a more mysterious apparition, which appears to be an amalgamation of characters from Basquiat's own vivid imagination. Whilst not overtly representational, this particular figure may have its origins in any number of sources, from glimpses of the dispossessed fishing along the banks of New York's numerous rivers and waterways to the obvious Christian symbolism (the 'crown of thorns' and 'Jesus' instructions to his disciples to become "Fishers of Men"). But perhaps the strongest resonance comes from the artist's own Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage. The square shape and cross hatched markings of the fish suggests that it could be a Puffer Fish, an important creature in Haitian voodoo culture as it provides the poison by which the Bokor (a Voodoo priest) places his congregation in a zombie-like state through a mixture of poisons. Indeed the central figure in Untitled could easily be Basquiat's rendering of a Bokor as the man's grey complexion recalls the ash smeared onto the participants' faces during certain religious festivals and ceremonies. As Marc Meyer, co-curator of Basquiat's 2005 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, observes "The many works that fall into this "icon" category have a familiar ritual function, not unlike the West African sculptures and masks that Basquiat collected when he travelled there, the functional Vodoun and Santería figurines of his Caribbean roots that descended from them, or the Western religious icons and statuettes meant to embody a given saint or represent Jesus Christ, Angels, crowns, haloes, saints, martyrs-all figure prominently in Basquiat's work, if more generically than in (and disengaged from) the Catholic lore of his Hispanic background (M. Meyer, 'Basquiat in History,' Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 51).
The proud figure in Untitled was clearly an important one for Basquiat during this important period of his career as it makes an appearance, with slight compositional variations, in a number of other works including Arroz con Pollo, 1981 (Brant Foundation, Greenwich), and Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981 (Fondation Carmignac Gestion, Paris). It also makes an appearance in Pesceador, Michael Holman's 1982 film about the artist where Basquiat can be seen scrawling an almost identical figure across a wall of an abandoned building. But nowhere does it match the power, intensity and presence that it does in Untitled. By rendering the figure in acrylic paint, oilstick and spray paint, Basquiat not only captures the rawness of the his street art days, but also begins to explore the sheer visual power and impact that could be achieved with large-scale painting. Untitled marks the beginning of a canon of painting that propelled Basquiat to become the wunderkind of the New York art scene at a time when the city was struggling with its own identity.
1981 was a remarkable year for Jean-Michel Basquiat, marking his transition from the streets to the studio. At the beginning of the year, the artist had been painting on found objects, discarded windows, doors, pieces of wood and metal; the debris of New York City. By the end of the year, he had become an incumbent art star, installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei's Prince Street gallery and showcased in international exhibitions. New York had been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure: whole swathes of the city were being vacated by white-collar workers and businesses in favor of the suburbs with much of Soho, Tribeca, the Lower East Side and the East Village being abandoned.
Evidence of Basquiat's new found confidence can be seen throughout the vibrant palette and expressive nuances of Untitled. Curator Richard Marshall, in his catalogue entry for Basquiat's retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992, described this early stage of the artist's career thus, "Basquiat used painterly gestures on canvases, most often depicting skeletal figures and mask-like faces, and imagery derived from his street existence" (R. Marshall, quoted by D. Buchhart, op. cit., p. x). Untitled stands apart from much of the artist's work from this period in that it uniquely combines the expressive nature of his iconic figure with a painterly bushiness reminiscent of an earlier generation of Abstract Expressionist painters. Recalling the flurry of de Kooning's brushwork, Basquiat sets his figure within an eruption of gesticular brushstrokes-flashes of pink, blue, yellow and green-a delicious contrast to the enigmatic figure that inhabits Basquiat's mysterious world.
Compositionally more holistic than other work from this period, Untitled retains much of the sheer energy for which Basquiat's work is so admired. It still bears witness to the artist's roots as a graffiti artist and its rich tapestry of jagged, curved, scratched and scrawled lines retains many of the characteristics that he developed during his SAMO days. As curator Robert Storr points out, "Drawing, for him, was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium" (R. Storr, quoted by D. Buchhart, op. cit., p. x). This activity was carried out at a frenetic pace, as evidenced by the rapid strokes of his brush and the drips from his spray paint can. By comparing the photograph of the early stages of this particular painting and the finished work, we can see evidence of Basquiat's constant revision of his work and thus, what was earlier a rapid, almost uncontrolled, explosion of images now manifests itself as a more sophisticated form of image building.
Even today, more than twenty years after his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat's paintings still pulsate with the rawness and energy that characterized one of the most energetic and vibrant periods in post-war American art. As an artist who perhaps more than any other was able to capture and transfer the zeitgeist of his age onto canvas, Basquiat continues to speak to a new generation of artists and musicians who seek to continue his legacy of providing a voice for a new generation. As musician Jay-Z (himself the owner of several works by Basquiat) enthuses, "He's known today, to some degree, as a painter that hip-hop seems to embrace. Part of that comes from his technique, which feels like hip-hop in the way it combined different traditions and techniques to create something new. He brought together street art and European old masters. He combines painting and writing. He combined icons from Christianity and Santería and voodoo. He turned boxers and jazz musicians into kings with golden crowns. And on top of all that mixing and matching he added his own genius, which transformed the work into something completely fresh and original. The paintings don't just sit on my walls, they move like crazy" (Jay-Z, Decoded, New York, 2011, pp. 92-93).