Executed in 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) resonates with the power and raw energy for which his practice is celebrated. With his signature quick-fire execution, Basquiat assembles a dramatic series of lines, marks and gestures to produce this human head, a favoured subject for the artist which he deftly executed with relish and alacrity. Untitled (Skull) is distinguished by two hypnotic eyes that stare out manically from the surface of the work, fashioned out of generous swirls of alternating colours of oilstick that have been layered over impulsive marks and gestures the artist employed to realize his vision. Indeed the intense stare of the pair of two glowing eyes simultaneously emerges as a wholly introspective gaze. The remaining elements of the face are made up from a tumultuous array of quick, successive daubs of Basquiat’s oilstick. Strong black lines delineate the head’s dramatic profile, which the artist then enhances with passages of brown and blue pigment that recall the anatomical drawings of his treasured Grey’s Anatomy, a tome his mother gave to him when he was hospitalised to have his spleen removed following the car crash, in hopes of providing him with ‘a diagram for healing’ (P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London 1998, p. 19). The skull itself is built up from a series of almost expressionistic marks that the artist lays out across the surface. Riddled with both confident lines and spontaneous gestures that evidence his ability as a draughtsmanship to adroitly convey raw emotion, the graffiti-like and seemingly improvised scrawl epitomized in this work has rightly been canonized as the signature motif in the artist’s oeuvre. In the smudged finger and even footprint which remain as almost archaeological remnants not just of Basquiat’s process but of his very presence, Untitled (Skull) still bears witness to the artist’s humble origins as the street artist SAMO, yet it also displays the sophistication that, by this stage in his short but meteoric career, had already made him the undisputed star of the New York art world.
Untitled (Skull) carries evidence of the dynamic energy that helped propel Basquiat from the street kid who survived by sleeping on the floors of friends’ apartments to the enfant terrible of the 1980s New York art scene. This period is considered to be the epoch of the artist’s career, still displaying the sense of raw energy that first catapulted him to fame whilst matching that with a unique sense of composition to produce this complex figure with the simplest of means. Fraught with immediate tension and emotion, Basquiat’s meteoric rise as the first black artist to achieve celebrity status, was not dissimilar to the sense of anguish that was often released in his powerful drawings. Dubbed ‘the van Gogh of the streets’, he was never credited for the sophisticated understanding he possessed of the annals of art. Sparely articulated and seemingly transparent, evoking medical X-rays, the very portrayal of the figure in Untitled (Skull) centralizes the issue – suggesting Basquiat’s own fate as the superficially understood mascot of the art world. Caustically re-appropriating Modernism’s influence of African art, his deliberately crude and faux-naïve rendering of the figure evokes the image of the noble savage for which Basquiat was widely regarded by his contemporaries.
Frenetically working in his studio against a steady beat of jazz music and cartoon programs, Basquiat’s contribution was realized through the graffiti-like scrawls translated from his most revered technique--drawing. ‘Drawing for him, was something you did rather than something done’, Robert Storr notes, ‘an activity rather than a medium’ (R. Storr, quoted in D. Buchhart, Basquiat, exh. cat., Fondation Beyler, Basel, 2010, p. 10). Basquiat’s facility with his medium allowed him to fluidly pour out his compositions, impulsively filling the picture plane with the imagery he adopted. Just as Untitled (Skull) is carefully constructed in compositional terms, the artist’s use of colour as part of that structure is also important, as curator Marc Mayer notes, ‘With direct and theatrically ham-fsted brushwork, he used unmixed color structurally, like a seasoned abstractionist, but in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda... Basquiat deployed his color architecturally, at times like so much tinted mortar to bind a composition, at other times like opaque plaster to embody it. Color holds his pictures together, and through it they command a room’ (M. Mayer, ‘Basquiat in History’, Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, 2005, p. 46). Wrenched out of any identifiable context, the combination of scrawl and bold blocks of colour are reminiscent of the impassioned drawings of Cy Twombly, embodying René Ricard’s now famous iteration that Basquiat could have been the lovechild of Cy Twombly and Jean Dubufett.
Upon his meteoric rise to art world stardom in 1982, Basquiat sought to continue the debate about the nature of painting begun by the great twentieth century masters such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. Basquiat had long admired other master draughtsman, particularly the intellectual scope and visual intensity of Leonardo da Vinci and the poetic nature of Twombly’s work. The lyricism of Twombly was also a big influence on a young Basquiat. From the older artist, Basquiat gained permission to ‘draw in the raw’ – to feel capable of producing work imbued with a uniqueness and intensity that has since become one of the leading factors in Basquiat’s unique form of artistic expression.