The human head: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s obsession. An organ and a cage, an engine churning ideas of place, imagination and time. Executed in 1982 — the year that catapulted Basquiat to stardom — Red Skull is a powerful expression of his most important motif, set ablaze in primal, technicolour glory. The work is one of around five major known skull paintings executed during this pivotal year.
Part anatomical icon, part contemporary vanitas and part self-projection, the floating cranium represents a vital touchstone within Basquiat’s visual lexicon. As he ascended to near-mythic status throughout the 1980s, the looming skeletal effigy offered a poignant and prophetic memento mori.
Here, the artist entrenches it within a clamouring chorus of signs, glyphs and marks. A row of apartment buildings in the upper right-hand corner pays tribute to the housing projects of Basquiat’s native Brooklyn. A rudimentary grid invokes both a gaping rib cage and the thrumming infrastructure of the city streets where he made his name. Partially-visible cryptograms hover like ancient inscriptions, their inscrutable poetry concealed beneath chalk-like passages of colour.
The primitivism of Pablo Picasso, the impulsive gestures of graffiti, the freedom of Abstract Expressionism and the rhythms of improvised jazz collide with influences drawn from ancient tribal culture and anatomical textbooks. Deeply personal and universal in its scope, the work lays bare the alchemy of the artist’s interior world.
In Red Skull, Basquiat’s scarlet cranium acts as an extension of his own nerve centre. Whereas other skulls from the period had housed sprawling networks of symbols, here the chaotic pulsations of his psyche explode outwards into the surrounding picture plane.
Basquiat devoured every detail of the human form — its skeletal architecture, its musculature and its network of vessels
The work brings to mind an X-ray photograph or a grainy fragment of animation. The quivering mass of white strokes that surrounds the top of the skull creates the illusion that the head is electronically wired into some external device — a boom box, perhaps, or a TV set. The gridded ribcage evokes not only the layout of the city’s streets, but also a circuit board quivering with charged particles.
By contrast, the obfuscated poetry of letters and symbols may be seen to reflect Basquiat’s fascination with Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook, which decoded the so-called ‘hobo signs’ that littered New York’s subways, walls and doors. Effaced and overwritten, they bring to mind the peeling posters and partially-erased graffiti that formed the very fabric of the Lower East Side.
As a child, Basquiat was entranced by a copy of Gray’s Anatomy given to him by his mother. While recuperating in hospital after being hit by a car, the young artist — already a keen draughtsman — pored over the diagrams on its pages. He devoured every detail of the human form — its skeletal architecture, its musculature, its entrails and networks of vessels. It was the beginning of an obsession that, over time, would come to find its most piercing expression in the skull.
A new and terrifying polyphony shook the cavities of Basquiat’s skull: a cacophony that seeped its way into every inch of the canvas
Combining the linear precision of Renaissance scientific drawing with the primordial gestures of cave painting, the distortions of Cubist heads and the energy of contemporary street art, the skull became a furnace into which Basquiat poured the contents of his visual imagination, melting together centuries of stylistic influence.
And as Basquiat sped towards international acclaim, the skull took its place among a number of figural forms — crowned kings and athletic champions, to name but two — through which the artist channelled his new identity.
If the present work is to be understood as raw stream of consciousness, it is perhaps little wonder that the skull lies at its centre. In January 1982, Basquiat moved from the basement of Annina Nosei’s Prince Street gallery into a liberating loft space at 151 Crosby Street, where he would produce some of his finest works. His debut solo show with Nosei took place in March and proved to be a landmark exhibition, receiving rapturous critical acclaim. The success of the show led to an extraordinary string of major solo exhibitions worldwide.
As the artist’s world expanded at an unprecedented rate, the noise of his surroundings grew ever louder: the clamour of fame, the fear of unknown horizons, the rush of fresh influences, and the frenzied activity of the studio. A new and terrifying polyphony shook the cavities of his skull: a cacophony that seeped its way into every inch of the canvas.