Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
signed and dated 'Jean Michel Basquiat 81' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas
43½ x 32in. (111 x 81cm.)
Executed in 1981
Galleria Mazzoli, Modena.
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1982.
P. Hoban, Basquiat: Vita lucente e breve di un genio dell'arte, Isola del Liri 2006, pp. 449-450.
E. Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paris 2010, no. 6 (illustrated in colour, p. 6).
Milan, Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, 2006-07, no. 77 (illustrated in colour, p. 206).

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Lot Essay

'While I was there looking at the painting [the present work, Untitled 1981], the owner came closer to me and said: 'When Basquiat knew that the painting was here, he came back to see it again. As soon as he saw the painting, he started crying. He said that he would never be able to do paintings like this again'
(T. Lo Porto, quoted in Phoebe Hoban, 'Vita Lucente e Breve di un Genio dell'arte', Rome, 2006).

1981 was a remarkable year for Jean-Michel Basquiat, marking his transition from the streets to the studio. Untitled (1981) is a striking and vibrant embodiment of this period of change for both the artist and the city. Articulated through stark blocks of colour and vital bursts of improvised expression, it addresses the issues of black marginalisation as experienced by baseball player Hank Aaron, and offers a raw vitality that is unique to his early oeuvre. At the beginning of 1981, he 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. These included the New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 curated by Mudd Club founder Diego Cortez, which effectively launched Basquiat's career, and his first show in Europe at the Galleria Mazzoli, in Modena, Italy. 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 favour of the suburbs with much of Soho, Tribeca, the Lower East Side and the East Village being abandoned. At the same time television and radio were offering a sanitised form of easy-listening popular culture and mainstream art had gone soft losing its sense of avant-garde innovation. It is against this background that a new underground creativity began to emerge. From the discarded neighbourhoods 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. Untitled (1981) manifests the same grittiness, creative zeal and spontaneity that SAMO displayed during his time on the streets. Its wild agglomeration of elements and artfully combined colour palette eschew the icy serial production of Pop art in favour of a new type of Expressionism, evoking the intuitive scrawls of Cy Twombly and the raw energy of Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut. As Rene Ricard once famously asserted, 'If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel' (R. Ricard, quoted in 'Radiant Child', Artforum, December 1981, p. 43).
Ricard's text, 'Radiant Child', provided the first critical acknowledgment of Basquiat's talent and afforded the artist traction in the contemporary art world. A recent film of the same title directed by Tamra Davis (2010), offers previously unseen footage of the artist at this early stage in his career and showcases the peculiar beauty of Untitled (1981). Every element of the painting, its words symbols and images are recognizable if not necessarily easy to interpret. At times the points of reference are deeply self-referential however in Untitled (1981) Basquiat makes a reverential tribute to the black baseball idol Hank Aaron.

In 1981, Basquiat was becoming increasingly disturbed by the conditions of black society in dominantly white America. In Untitled (1981), Basquiat provides a number of direct references to the sporting icon, including two baseballs and the symbol of a hammer in the lower left hand corner, alluding to Aaron's nickname 'Hammerin' Hank'. Basquiat's repeated use of A's suggests a double reference: first in recalling the letters of Hank Aaron's surname and second, in remembering the siren of the ambulance which took him to hospital following his near-fatal car accident at the age of seven. The white ghost-like visage that dominates the top of the composition is also perhaps a reference to this period of trauma. Aaron was best known for his sporting achievements including breaking Babe Ruth's record of 715 home runs in 1974, and for setting eleven Major league records. In spite of his athletic talents, Aaron had been relegated to a segregated all-black professional team for the majority of his career and was only formally introduced into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982; a year after Basquiat's painting. In highlighting Aaron as a central figure of Untitled (1981), Basquiat was at once celebrating the pantheon of great African-American figures but also attempting to integrate black culture into the cannon of art history. His interpretations of Aaron's head, similar to those created for his work Famous Negro Athletes completed in the same year, are constructed like primitive masks out of furious jagged lines that simultaneously celebrate and satirise one of the few professions black people were allowed to excel in. The crowns placed on the multiple images of Aaron's head are clear carry-overs from SAMO street art. They bestow upon the subject an honest and un-ironic honour, recalling the quintessential answer to a question once posed by Henry Geldzahler: 'what is your subject matter?' to which Basquiat replied: 'Royalty, heroism and the streets' (H. Geldzahler, quoted in 'Art: From Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat', Interview, 13 (January 1983), p. 46).

Basquiat was deeply sensitive to his environment. In Untitled (1981) Basquiat employs colour architecturally, creating blocks of opaque pigment, bound by tinted mortar. The resultant image is an over-painted city wall, created from a combination of collaged paper, painted wood, acrylic and oil stick. Basquiat was skilful with colour, using pigment with an unbridled temerity. In Untitled (1981), he artfully marries vibrant hues of yellow and aquamarine with dark and sanguine shades of red, blue and black. These painted areas are scribbled-in perhaps impatiently, contrasting the quick, confident, linear strokes devoted to his drawings of figures and symbols. As documented in the 1980-81 film Downtown 81, Basquiat's graffiti had a unique fluidity of movement, nimbly gliding the spray can
nozzle a few millimeters from the wall, applying the paint in an almost trance-like dance of hand and body. This rhythm is evident in Untitled's composition where patterns of simple forms and gestures proliferate across the canvas. As described by his close friend Fab 5 Freddy, Basquiat's graphic style was unique, 'The way he would hold the pencil sometimes... He wouldn't hold it in a formal way. He would stick it through the fourth finger and look really awkward, so that when he drew, the pencil would just slip out of his hand. He'd let it go that way, then grab it and bring it down, then let it drift. It was amazing, this whole dance he did with the pencil' (Fab 5 Freddy, quoted in Ingrid Sischy 'Jean-Michel Basquiat as Told by Fred Braithwaite, a.k.a Fab 5 Freddy', Interview 22, October 1992, p. 119). In Untitled (1981), Basquiat has applied the oil-stick with pressure, almost grinding it into the surface of the canvas. The more gestural lines result from the way he moved his hands, tracing out the form as he had done in his graffiti.

The whole act of creating was a performance for Basquiat. The improvised, abrasive quality of Untitled (1981) resonates with the experimental, neopunk music that he was making at the time as part of the band Gray. Taking inspiration from the music of John Cage, Gray described itself as a 'noise band'. Basquiat played the triangle and bell as well as an unorthodox, but beautifully abstract clarinet. Untitled (1981) offers a similarly eclectic assembly of tones. Pictorial elements are randomly affixed to the surface and washed with bold painterly gestures. The collage that results from Basquiat's process, finds surprising harmony on the canvas. As one of the former band members, Michael Holman once described, the group was trying to embrace a sort of navet or aesthetic ignorance. They did things that were primitive and wrong but yet somehow successful. Basquiat's paintings he suggests are the perfect realisations of this musical ambition.

Untitled (1981) is a unique work realized by a young Basquiat. It powerfully reflects the visual and sonic experiences of the streets where he lived in the early 1980s. The work is both radical and chaotic, combining elements of painterly expression with primitive symbols and street art motifs. As Tony Shafrazi, one time dealer to Basquiat once suggested, the artist's outstanding contribution to art was his ability to invent and give life to symbols, imbuing them with transformative powers. Basquiat's work burns brightly with a voracity and ambition that fundamentally changed the nature of art history. Basquiat in his short career became the first black American modernist to transcend the white establishment. In his artistic reenactment of those forms and memories that informed his life, he effectively peeled the skin back to the bone, uncovering a history of his own construction as a black American male. In Untitled (1981), Basquiat offers a distinctly urban elegance. His series of strokes, hatches and gestures are at once beautifully executed and idiosyncratic. He is Dionysian from start to finish; a painter that registers not only his own fluctuating moods but intuits the temper of his milieu with a hypersensitivity that few of his contemporaries possessed.

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