Untitled is an extraordinary summation of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s incandescent and all-too-brief career, executed just months before his death in 1987. This large-scale work on paper displays the artist’s compound eye for text, sign and symbol at its kaleidoscopic best, covering everything from domestic washing instructions to ancient artefacts held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Strewn across white space, the words and emblems take on a maplike quality – here a thicket of tree-like icons, there the word ‘stre[t]ch’ acting out its own verb as it runs down the page like a road or river. Iterated streams of vowel likewise extend through the word ‘Greek,’ its ‘E’s doubled and tripled in Basquiat’s typically jazz-infused improvisation of sound and form. Indeed, in this work of rich visual complexity, a near-musical pleasure can be found in its composition, replete with clashes and harmonies of tone and colour. As Demosthenes Davvetas has written, Basquiat’s work ‘is less like a mirror than like an eye and a voice: as eye, it observes and interprets life, collecting selected items and organising them within itself; thus organised, it becomes voice, a clear utterance expressing what has been seen. As voice, it approaches the aural, and many Basquiat paintings feature words that sound in one’s head as one looks at them’ (D. Davvetas, ‘Lines, Chapters and Verses: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat,’ in E. Navarra (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 3rd ed., Paris 2000, p. 59). Apart from its exhilarating visual lyricism, in this work we can see remarkable evidence of Basquiat’s process, and his distinctive blend of intuition and careful study comes to scintillating new light.
An artist as erudite as he was streetwise, books were deeply important to Basquiat. While hospitalised as a child he devoured a copy of Gray’s Anatomy that would prove formative to his later treatments of the figure; he also often referred to a 1966 book of drawings by da Vinci. Another key touchstone was Henry Dreyfuss’ 1972 Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols, which helps to decode some of the ‘hobo code’ and astrological ciphers in the present work. ‘ILL TEMPERED MAN LIVES HERE,’ ‘DANGEROUS NEIGHBOURHOOD,’ ‘THESE PEOPLE ARE RICH,’ ‘CHILD DIES;’ all these are invoked in cartographic ‘here be dragons’ style, hints of mysterious narrative emerging from forests of text and icon. Much as Cy Twombly’s poetic scrawls – another inspiration for Basquiat – were inspired by Classical verse and graffitied Roman ruins, Basquiat conjures polyvocal magic from his verbal and graphic sources. In his urbane play with semiotics, he sometimes scatters the book’s definitions beneath the corresponding symbols, or strands images far from their captions. Their darker undercurrents gesture toward Basquiat’s long-running concerns with issues of violence, gentrification and class and racial tensions in the American cultural landscape. Rather than in attempting to decrypt any overall message, however, the work’s joy lies in its quick-witted synthesis of a sweeping range of graphic signals that are by turns clashing and compatible, oblique and open, seemingly random and carefully considered.
Untitled’s most striking feature is its rare inclusion of direct visual and textual references to objects in the Met, which can all be traced to a catalogue of the museum’s collection published in 1980. The Benin bronze head and the ancient statuette of the Egyptian deity Amun-Re evoke the grandeur of early African civilisations, perhaps even hinting at a diasporic link to Basquiat’s own work. New York art-history is glimpsed in Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ gold statue of Victory acquired by the Met in 1917, itself adapted from a full-size figure on a Civil War monument in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza. The repeated epithet ‘GIRL W/ PIGEONS’ has a distinctly urban flavour, and could be a diaristic snapshot of New York life: in fact, it seems to have been inspired by the Met’s Ancient Greek marble funerary stele of a young girl bidding farewell to her pet doves. Such pleasing ambiguities would not have escaped Basquiat. Neither would the kick of playing off these precious objects against the contemporary bathos of ‘HOT IRON’ and ‘SPIN DRYING.’ Having initially found fame as a graffiti artist, by 1987 Basquiat’s sharply intelligent sloganeer’s instinct had made him a fully-fledged king of the art world. Here, he creates a feverish field of word and image that thrums with energy, capturing in a flash all the excitement, banality, boredom and danger of modern life, while simultaneously evoking the present’s manifold dialogues with the past. The result is a stunning new vocabulary for American art – perhaps even an incantatory, encyclopaedic snapshot of America itself – and an electrifying vision of Basquiat’s mercurial creative spirit.