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


Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
oilstick on paper
14 x 9 7/8in. (35.5 x 25cm.)
Executed in 1982
The Estate of the Artist.
Robert Miller Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1993.
Jean-Michel Basquiat. Oeuvres sur papier, exh. cat., Paris, Fondation Dina Vierney-Musée Maillol, 1997 (installation view illustrated in colour with the incorrect orientation, p. 164).
Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing. Works from the Schorr Family Collection, exh. cat., New York, Acquavella Galleries, 2014 (installation view illustrated in colour, pp. 84-85).
Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton, 2018 (installation view illustrated in colour, pp. 60-61).
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, 1990, no. 42 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
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Tessa Lord
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Lot Essay

Executed in the landmark year of 1982 – when the artist was at the height of his powers, and created many of his greatest masterpieces on paper and canvas alike – Untitled is a bold and vivid drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat. A wild-eyed visage stares from a blank void. Scrawled, whirring lines of black, carmine, pink and blue layer to form his features: bristling black hair, gritted teeth, flared nostrils, wide pupils, a sloping brow. The picture seems to superimpose multiple structures, from the chassis of the skull to the powerlines of vein and muscle that run beneath the skin. Its sanguine colours heighten the punch of bodily vitality. The face, as dual subject of physiognomy and psychology – of outer appearances and what lies behind them – was a central subject for Basquiat. Through his distinctly anatomical gaze (first sparked by a copy of Grays Anatomy and a 1966 book of Leonardo’s drawings that he read while hospitalised as a child), Untitled not only presents a powerful mask-like apparition, but also explores the interior realms of the mind and pulsing vital functions. This X-ray approach strikes a keynote for Basquiat’s practice at large, which exposed the soul of contemporary American life through its layered, kaleidoscopic and polyvocal staging of word and image.

By 1982, the twenty-one-year-old Basquiat was undisputed king of the New York art scene. He moved out of his dealer Annina Nosei’s basement studio to work in a spacious, liberating loft space in SoHo. He cemented his position in the international art world with solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, which were followed by an invitation to Documenta 7, where he was the youngest artist within a line-up of contemporary masters including Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. Amid this rising fame, he created what Fred Hoffman calls ‘an outpouring of unique and haunting images of heads in the first months of 1982 … With a few exceptions, each work presents a fully frontal head seeming to float against the white background of the paper. While the works share the physiognomy of overly large, almost bulging eyes as well as an enlarged, wide-open, teeth-bearing mouth, each image is distinct, presenting a completely different and individualised personage’ (F. Hoffman, ‘Heads,’ in Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection, exh. cat. Acquavella Galleries, New York 2014, p. 71). Untitled takes its place within this important group of drawings, and was among a suite of them shown at Robert Miller Gallery, New York, in 1990. In its overlaid vision of inner and outer life, it also relates to the face of Untitled (1981), an iconic large-scale painting now held in the Broad Art Foundation. Framed with the linear precision of scientific drawing, this work’s cavernous cranium jostles calligraphic sweeps of colour, primitivist mark-making, Cubist perspectival play and crackling rays of energy: Basquiat’s virtuoso channelling of styles seems to figure the feverish workings of his own mind. As Diego Cortez puts it, Basquiat ‘constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake.” The figure is electronic-primitive-comic’ (D. Cortez, quoted in R. D. Marshall and J-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 1, Paris 2000, p. 160). Wired with luminous red, Untitled manifests just such a direct presence, creating a captivating portrait of a state of being.

It is tempting to search for elements of self-image in all of Basquiat’s skulls and faces. The tense skeletal grin and structural breakdown of Untitled offer an all-too-easy reading of the young artist haunted by the spectre of early death. More complex than mere vanitas motifs, however, these heads are perhaps better viewed as a pictorial investigation into individuated mental or spiritual states, and as part of Basquiat’s wider uncovering of the disjunctions, links, boundaries and echoes between exteriors and what might be concealed within. As Jeffrey Hoffeld observes, ‘Basquiat’s repeated use of anatomical imagery – skeletons, musculature, and internal organs – coincides with an ever more widespread tendency in his work to turn things inside out. Inner thoughts are made public in graffiti-like litanies of words and other bursts of expression; distinctions between private spaces and public places are dissolved; past and present are interwoven, and levels of reality are multiplied and scrambled; the imagined realms of paradise, hell and purgatory become indistinguishable’ (J. Hoffeld, ‘Basquiat and the inner self’, in Jean Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier (Paintings and works on paper), exh. cat. Museum Würth, Künzelsau 2001, p. 27). The eyes and mouth – respectively the windows to the soul, and the exit point for words and thoughts – are typically oversized in the present work, opening up the face’s expressive potential to fever pitch. As if dissected for a medical textbook, inner mechanisms are glimpsed aglow behind its intense grimace. Basquiat’s work is as alive with the grit of graffiti as it is busy with the illustrative fervour of a laboratory blackboard. With striking economy, Untitled captures the practice of an artist who plumbed reservoirs of imagery, energy and voice to charge his every line with the electric life of the mind.

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