‘In Basquiat’s drawings…you are sucked in and carried along an often intricate and complex journey through a maze of references which oftentimes make little rational sense but nonetheless feel like they have a reason to exist’ (F. Hoffman, in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawing, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 37).
Executed with urgent ferocity, the three bold figures at the forefront of Untitled, from 1981, capture Jean-Michel Basquiat’s innate brilliance as an artist on the precipice of a burgeoning yet short-lived career. Prior to 1981, Basquiat considered himself a graffiti artist, a label that has connected him to artists from multiple generations, from Keith Haring to KAWS. It is during 1981 that Jean-Michel’s politically charged and culturally relevant body of work begins to bridge the divide between the international art market and the local arts scene of New York City. In Untitled, he established control over his medium, oilstick, as he maneuvers from the street to the studio.
Three totemic heads, situated amidst scrawl and scribble, gaze out blankly - expressionless and totally still. A young Basquiat creates depth sparingly with thickly applied brown oilstick, resulting in figureheads with long, narrow and flat facial features. The two larger heads turn slightly away from each other while the third, with its empty stare, evokes a mask. Quick successive ticks, reminiscent of hair, outline the tops of the two middle men and beneath them, letters form illegible clusters – KLAXAR – next to coherent words like WOOD and ALCHEMISTS. Spread throughout, color is condensed discretely and drawn with pressure in patches of yellow, blue and pink while orange forms a pseudo-grid. Basquiat, known for his arsenal of personal hieroglyphs, tucks a crown between repeated ‘E’s in the upper right corner. Executed on paper, this drawing feels full, but not overwhelmed; incomplete and abstracted figures populate the upper left. Under the epithet SAMO, Basquiat spray-painted similar figures across the streets of New York City but here the artist has carefully kept negative space surrounding the composition, providing a margin, or boundary of enclosure, firmly placing this work’s creation within a studio. A product of the streets, Basquiat's graffiti-like scrawls are undergoing translation as he negotiates the transition from avenues to canvases.
Marking his transition from the streets to the studio, 1981 was a remarkable year for Jean-Michel Basquiat. At the beginning of the year, Basquiat 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. Only twenty-one, he was the youngest artist ever to be included in the prestigious Documenta 7 exhibition in West Germany, alongside leading artists such as Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter. Seen in this work, his combination of scribble and bold clocks of color are suggestive of the impassioned drawings of Cy Twombly. Rene Ricard stated in his seminal article from 1981, ‘The Radiant Child’, which contributed to Basquiat’s rising fame, “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 so is the brut of the young Dubuffet” (R. Ricard, 'The Radiant Child,' Artforum, Vol. 20, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43).
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. At the same time popular culture and mainstream art had lost its sense of avant-garde innovation. It is against this backdrop that a new underground creativity began to emerge. From the discarded neighborhoods and tenement buildings grew an 'anti-golden age'; young street artists, writers and musicians began to transform the derelict community, reviving the urban environment with a spontaneous combustion of punk and new wave culture. It is in this nascent period that Basquiat first emerged under the epithet SAMO, becoming the flag bearer for a new generation of artists. Repeated on doorways and walls across the city, SAMO's riveting street-haiku poetry became a familiar part of the downtown experience. Although few had actually met or seen Basquiat at work, his personality animated the urban revival.
Basquiat was a remarkably erudite scholar of art history and from a young age would spend time in the museums of New York teaching himself about, and admiring the work of, the great painters from the art historical canon. He particularly admired such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly. He was an ardent admirer of Picasso, from whom he gained the confidence to allow himself to be liberated from the concords of conventional painting. He admired his epic sense of scale and rapid deployment of paint onto the canvas surface. He also admired the way in which the Spanish artist constructed his figures, particularly how he rejected the need to depict the subtle nuances of the human face, instead focusing only on the most powerful features. As curator Richard Marshall explained, “Picasso’s work gave Basquiat the authority and the art historical precedent to pursue his own brash and aggressive portraits…” (R. Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993, p. 16).
The art star burned bright and departed early at the age of twenty-seven in 1988 – making each year spent in the international contemporary art scene critical to his story as an artist. This work exemplifies the vocabulary for which he becomes so well-known while contextually placed in his most critical period. His subject matter, three heads, is something that he continued to explore throughout his life, ‘What drew Basquiat almost obsessively to the depiction of the human head’, writes Fred Hoffman, ‘was his fascination with the face as a passageway from exterior physical presence into the hidden realities of man’s psychological and mental realms’ (F. Hoffman, ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing’, in Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Works from the Schorr Family Collection, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2014, p. 74). This breakthrough work from 1981 showcases the artist’s abundant talent, command of line and mastery of color. Most of all, Untitled foreshadows his mature iconography characterized by bold mark-making and unparalleled, highly recognizable energetic force.