A master drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled from 1982-83 is realised with an expressive power that rivals, and often surpasses, his canvases. Unique in its dense idiosyncratic mark-making, the work contains a frantic discharge of a distinctly human kind of madness, directly scrawled, etched and slashed onto the paper. Drawing upon observations of the role of the African American male in the urban politics of the time, Basquiat rendered the age-old trope of traditional portraiture in his own unique way. The head is set adrift,wrenched out of its identifiable context, while at the same time flattened, in a manner very much reminiscent of Jean Dubuffet. Basquiat's graffiti-like and seemingly improvised scribbling and hieroglyphic scrawls, which were to be rightly canonized as the signature motifs in the artists oeuvre, are so readily visible in the deliberate rawness of this powerful work, which maintains a fine balance between control and spontaneity, menace and wit.
Although Basquiat's meteoric rise in the art world had afforded him widespread fame by 1982, he was acutely aware of the inherent racism within its ranks. He was particularly sensitive about being constantly stereotyped and pigeonholed as a black artist of untamed and 'primitive' talent and was anxious about being cast in the role of a mascot by the predominantly white art establishment. As the first African American to reach the apex of the official international art world, Basquiat reacted defiantly against such prejudice with works like Untitled, in its scheme of red, yellow and brown, a colour combination Basquiat seemed to favor for its primary intensity, bringing his ethnic identity to the fore.
The figure in Untitled is drawn in the artist's characteristically aggressive faux-naive style. He appears as an energetic, even frantic, caricature of the artist himself; a projection of his fears, anxieties, and rebellious rage, with an unvarnished directness that recalls Picasso's late work. This troubled anti-hero has a supernatural aura, a cross between a futuristic automaton, a grasping voodoo effigy, and an Aztecan mythological figure. The raw energy and urban-primitive aesthetic of Untitled seems to mockingly assume the mantle of noble-savage Basquiat himself tried to shake off and stands out as the artist's ultimate critique of the constitution of black identity at the peak of his creative powers.