Towering nearly two metres in height, Untitled is an electrifying monument to the human form dating from a pivotal moment in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career. Painted in 1984—the year of his first solo museum exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh—it captures the thrilling maturation of his visual language just three years after he burst onto the New York art scene. Basquiat had been fascinated by the human skull and body since childhood, when he devoured a copy of Gray’s Anatomy in hospital. Here, the figure looms large like a totemic x-ray, visibly crackling with nervous energy. The head, with bared teeth and a gleaming eye, is fractured in the manner of a Picasso portrait, while an enlarged hand reaches out, stained—like Basquiat’s own—with paint. Lines pivot and ricochet like improvised jazz against a backdrop of free impasto, splashed, smeared and dripped with intuitive abstract flair. Letters, shapes and symbols—some half concealed—punctuate the surface, navigating a vibrant spectrum of teal, blue, red, green and neon yellow. Alive with colour, gesture and texture, it is a testament to the rich command of paint and imagery that powered Basquiat’s meteoric yet tragically brief career.
I don’t think about art while I work. I try to think about life”
Henry Gray’s seminal textbook, with its exquisite medical drawings, had been gifted to Basquiat by his mother after he was hit by a car in the street. Just eight years old at the time, he sustained multiple injuries, including a broken arm and several internal complications that required his spleen to be removed. The book sparked a lifelong fascination with human anatomy that, over the years, would lead him to explore sources ranging from the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and the sculptures of antiquity to African tribal art, Cubism, cartoons and graffiti. Here, the skull is divided and spliced like two diagrams fused together, its eyes pulled in opposing directions. Teeth are picked out with graphic precision, while ribbons of paint flow throughout the structure like blood vessels. Lower down, Basquiat maps the internal architecture of the torso, turning it inside out. The figure’s arms are severed like the Venus de Milo—a motif he used on various occasions—while red lines circle the figure’s interior like rims on a glass vial. A single line penetrates a hole at the top of the windpipe, leading to a black-rimmed void that perhaps alludes to Basquiat’s own surgical scarring. Power and fragility shift in and out of focus, as flesh gives way to internal chaos.
[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”
The work also bears witness to the depth of Basquiat’s abstract painterly technique. In 1981, the critic Rene Ricard had described the young artist as the lovechild of Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly: a dualism that is particularly evident here. The blue, red, white and black lines that demarcate the figure’s facial features evoke Dubuffet’s celebrated Hourloupe idiom, while the spirit of art brut lingers in Basquiat’s raw, impulsive brushwork. Echoes of Twombly, meanwhile, are palpable in the work’s sweeping backdrop of green and teal, which—with its scrubbed textures and lyrical drip stains—is reminiscent of the artist’s Dionysian painterly outpourings. Basquiat’s partially-visible symbols and letters, too, chime with Twombly’s cryptic sign systems: the inscription ‘RDS’ at the centre of the composition reads like a vestige of ‘WORDS’, alluding to the artist’s fascination with the poetics of erasure. Elsewhere, the ghosts of Abstract Expressionism loom large, notably conjuring the gestural dynamism and vibrant palette of Willem de Kooning. The visceral nature of the figure prompts particular comparison with the latter’s celebrated Women, who similarly confront the viewer as writhing carnal specimens.
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 from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet”
1984 was a significant year for Basquiat. Following his rapid rise to fame during the early part of the decade, the artist began to consolidate his success through a series of new endeavours and partnerships. His friendship with Andy Warhol gave rise to one of twentieth century’s most fascinating series of artistic collaborations during this period, uniting two generational figureheads of American painting. Alongside his first museum exhibition—which travelled from Edinburgh to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam—Basquiat made his historic debut with the New York dealer Mary Boone. As Jeff Bretschneider recalls, the show affirmed the artist’s blue-chip status: ‘Andy was standing in the entrance of the gallery, and he stood there the entire length of the show’, he explains. ‘It was a barometer to where Jean was in the art world. The opening was like a circus. It was like the Day of the Locusts, with people pushing up against this velvet rope that separated Jean-Michel from the thronging mass’ (J. Bretschneider, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York 1998, p. 236). It was a far cry from his days as anonymous street artist SAMO, who—just three years prior—was daubing his tag upon the crumbling architecture of the Lower East Side.
As his star rose throughout this period, Basquiat was perpetually haunted by his own image. Despite his celebrity, he was deeply conscious of his status as a marginalised black artist in a predominantly white art world, and keenly aware of the precarious heights he had reached at the age of just twenty-three. Alongside his body of self-portraits, many of Basquiat’s figures represent reflections on his own situation, plagued by complex feelings of scrutiny, judgement, heroism and martyrdom. The artist’s frequent depictions of enlarged hands may be understood within this context, functioning as expressions of his own creative power. In the present work, an electric current seems to flow from the piercing white of the eye through the vital organs to the fingertips, where sinuous blue veins flicker with life. The thumb and fourth finger are saturated with blue and green pigment, as if caught in the very act of painting. Elsewhere, Basquiat frequently paid tribute to black boxers and jazz musicians, who took centre stage within his pantheon of idols. The hand, in this light, becomes a symbol for artistic triumph more broadly, bruised from delivering a winning blow or glowing with heat after a virtuosic solo.
For Basquiat, mortality and immortality were one because he remains eternal through his paintings”
Bound up in Basquiat’s self-image, too, was the prospect of his own demise. From the very beginning, his skull-like heads had flickered with ominous overtones, culminating in the poignant masterpiece Riding with Death shortly before his tragic passing at the age of twenty-seven. While the present work surges with vitality, it also trembles with knowledge of the body’s impermanence, its wounds, scars and fractures laid bare before the public. Interestingly, the painting is eerily prophetic of a later work by Martin Kippenberger—executed the year of Basquiat’s death—whose protagonist is similarly caught between living and skeletal states. Kippenberger was one of a number of artists who would continue the Neo-Expressionist trajectory set in motion by Basquiat, charting a comparable course of painterly introspection and bathos in his work. In this sense, the present painting not only acknowledges the artist’s mortality, but also anticipates something of his legacy. Like the figure itself, with its all-seeing eye, it looks both inwards and outwards, forwards and backwards. The hand reaches out across the void, and into the future.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot (detail).