Presenting an intoxicating array of mysterious figures, enigmatic signs, symbols and cyphers, Untitled (Soap) presents one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s most active surfaces. The painting acts as a guide to the artist’s peripatetic technique, as Xeroxed sheets of the artist’s drawings, energetic gestures manifested in oilstick, and pools of acrylic paint come together in seemingly effortless fashion to present the full range of his practice. Offering both elements of his own life, and that created by his fertile imagination, the present work was executed during a particularly prolific period of Basquiat’s career. Coming off the back of his breakthrough year of 1982, the artist was finally being given the critical attention that his work deserved, and Basquiat had finally migrated from street artist to celebrated wunderkind of the New York art world.
In this cacophonous composition, the viewer is confronted by the full force of Basquiat’s artistic dexterity. In many ways, this painting is dozens of works in one: Xeroxed sheets filled with expressive drawings, overlaid by two dramatic heads, and finally, a motif from Basquiat’s extensive mental library of advertisements and other commercial imagery, namely the titular bar of soap. The Xeroxed sheets offer up an encyclopedic display of the depth and variety of Basquiat’s graphic initiative. Across the more than two dozen sheets, he renders a vast array of objects, both real and imagined. Ranging from fantastical creatures, anatomical renderings, drawings of money, and even firetrucks, these often very personal motifs are drawn from the artist’s lived experience plus his own fertile imagination. Overlaid on this graphic foundation are two examples of Basquiat’s most important expressive device—his iconic animated heads. One dark and brooding, the other bright and vibrant, these offer up the full range of his energetic techniques. Layers of flat acrylic paint are then adorned with details rendered in oilstick; the speed at which the faces are created can be seen in the small drips and splashes that evidence the artist’s rapid painting method. Distinguished by their deep piercing eyes and grimaced teeth, they are accomplished examples of this important motif. Next, Basquiat balances this whole composition by including one of the many objects/phrases/symbols drawn from his extensive memory, specifically a bar of soap. Attracted by their form, their design, or even simply the plosive sound of their names as they are spoken out loud, Basquiat stored up these motifs to use them as and when he saw fit. Finally, Basquiat pulls all these dissonant elements together by joining the prominent graphic forms with a large circular motif, mirroring the smaller round 25cent coins that populate the Xeroxed sheets upon which they sit.
With a Xerox machine, glue, oilstick, and acrylic paint, Basquiat wove dense networks of information in two- and three-dimensional spaces. His spaces of knowledge not only inspired later generations but also anticipated the present.”
Basquiat’s use of photocopied sheets are a consistent and important part of his oeuvre. It began early with his postcards made out of Xeroxes of collaged images which, in 1979, he famously sold to Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler after spotting them eating in a restaurant. Evoking the graffiti and bills posted on sites and billboards all over the city, the sheets provided the artist with a constant supply of visual stimuli. He sought to collage from his everyday life anything he perceived with his five senses. He had a voracious appetite for new source material, and these sheets provided him with an almost limitless source. “He used his collaged drawings and Xeroxes as a counteract to painting,” writes Dieter Buchhart, “They counteract formally and materially with his, often intense, painterly work… With a Xerox machine, glue, oilstick, and acrylic paint, Basquiat wove dense networks of information in two- and three-dimensional spaces. His spaces of knowledge not only inspired later generations but also anticipated the present” (D. Buchhart, “It’s All Xerox: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Spaces of Knowledge Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Xerox, exh. cat., Nahmad Contemporary, New York, 2019, p. 18).
Basquiat’s status as a famous over-acknowledged artist in the media limelight had given American art what has so long been devolved to European artists: the artiste maudit, a sort of absolute criteria, from another world and another society that imposes a language that is so very different that it seems to be the last link of the chain.”
His use of Xerox also highlighted Basquiat’s drawing practice, something which remained important throughout his career. Even when he is painting, Basquiat is drawing and drawing becomes the artist’s preeminent mode of thinking and making. "Drawing, for him, was something you did rather than something done," Robert Storr once noted, "an activity rather than a medium" (D. Buchhart, Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyler, Basel, 2010, p. 10). To this end, even the artist's most iconic paintings are derived from his most simplified motions. Frenetically working in his studio against a steady beat of jazz music and cartoon programs, Basquiat's unique amalgamation of dissonant images and 80s street culture resulted in a complex assemblage of the images and symbols constantly coursing through the young genius's mind.
Basquiat’s unique amalgamation of dissonant images and 80s street culture resulted in a complex assemblage of the images and symbols constantly coursing through the young genius’s mind.”
One aspect of Basquiat’s art which is demonstrated with particular aplomb in Untitled (Soap) is the layered structure of his paintings. Many of the artist’s enigmatic symbols are seen as snatched glimpses of earlier layers of painting that peak through the final veil of acrylic, teasing and tantalizing the viewer with a taste of what has gone before. Mysterious symbols, cryptic glyphs and an almost inscrutable script are all part of Basquiat’s expressive language—almost recognizable to us, yet unwilling to reveal themselves totally to the viewer and withholding their total comprehension at the very last minute. Basquiat often worked at a frenetic pace (sometimes working on several canvases in a single session) and would frequently rework a section of his canvas after the benefit of spending a short period of time working on something else. This pace can clearly be seen in the flurry of drips and flourishes of Basquiat’s brush.
The figures of strong Black men, juxtaposed next to the imagery of fragmented words, symbols and motifs which Basquiat adopted has been likened to his way of “repelling ghosts,” a favorite phrase of the artist’s. The disjointed words sometimes erased, sometimes “etched” onto the canvas with unequalled force affirm Basquiat’s peculiar situation in which he tried to bridge the abyss between the evanescence of life and its affirmation through the painter’s gesture. With its combination of images both temporal and spiritual (the proliferation of what appear to be ladders throughout the composition, for example), Untitled (Soap) has been likened to a declaration by Basquiat of his world. From the distinctly temporal forms to the more spiritual elements, it becomes a philosophical rendering of the artist as much as a physical one.
This self-revelation and cultural attitude can be found amidst the themes of his personal symbolism in the spontaneous precision of the painting’s brush strokes. Representative of his former life within the grime and graffiti of New York City streets, Basquiat uses fast-drying acrylic material to present a spontaneous façade of Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut sensibility. He conceptually combines text and image for an enigmatic message of both academic art historical discourse as well as the popular culture of graffiti design. Like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Basquiat took his inspiration from what he saw around him and was also interested in the incorporation of consumer culture in the form of comic books and cartoons for the furthering of mass appeal and invitation of low art into high culture. However, he uses the sociopolitical subtexts differently than the Pop artists’ playful message by delving into their remarks on the American institutionalization of racism and prejudice. Furthermore, he flaunts a freedom of expression in his style that differs greatly from the mechanical and reproductive aesthetic of Pop art.
The range and depth of Basquiat’s extraordinary talent is clearly on display throughout this magnificent painting. Like an alchemist, he turns simple motifs into a cacophony of riotous color and form. Although never formally trained as an artist, Basquiat’s natural talent as a painter and draughtsman, together with his profound life experiences enabled him to develop his own unique aesthetic language. “Basquiat’s status as a famous over-acknowledged artist in the media limelight had given American art what has so long been devolved to European artists: the artiste maudit, a sort of absolute criteria, from another world and another society that imposes a language that is so very different that it seems to be the last link of the chain” (J. Prat, The “Child King” of the Eighties, in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 2000, p. 12). Basquiat, a celebrity of both the elite art world and his counter-culture of the New York City streets, helped discover a unique vocabulary for American art through his own form of visual communication. Untitled (Soap) encapsulates the artist’s tragically brief yet vibrantly expressive and extraordinarily significant career.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).