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Post Lot Text
This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
A prime example of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s signature style, Untitled (Head) provides dramatic evidence of the remarkable confidence and talent of an artist who had just embarked on a period of artistic greatness. Painted in 1982, when Basquiat was only twenty-two years old, this work displays evidence of Basquiat’s compositional skill, in addition to his prowess as one of the most skillful colorists of his generation. This intensely self-assured figure is comprised of Basquiat’s swift flourishes of thick, gestural oilstick interspersed with passages of vivid color, all set against a backdrop of warm ochre. The dramatic combination of color, line and form encapsulates Basquiat’s iconic style—one that was to burn brightly, if only for a brief period.
The array of painterly gestures that make up Untitled (Head) is distinguished by both its range and method of application. From the sweeping serpentine strokes that define the figure’s jawline to the bursts of short staccato energy that delineate the tufts of hair on the head, Basquiat eloquently displays the full range of his skills in this particular composition. The artist begins to build up the face with a base of almost fauvist color, starting with a large area of flesh-toned pink before venturing into subsequent layers of deep royal blue with warm orange highlights ending with flourishes of deep red. But even with these passages of dramatic color, the full detailed rendition of the face does not become apparent until the delineating features—the eyes, nose, mouth and teeth—are laid down using thick black oilstick. This activity continues (albeit in a slightly more restrained way) as Basquiat moves down the body to compose the torso with a reductive series of assured black, white and blue strokes. Although less animated than the head, they are no less accomplished as he continues the sense of frenetic movement by creating the body of a series of energetic loops and swirls. This, combined with the structural complexity of the head, results in one of the most accomplished of his career.
Because of the rawness and frenzied execution of his canvases, Basquiat’s skills as a colorist are often overlooked. Marc Mayer, the curator of the critically acclaimed retrospective of the artist’s work at the Brooklyn Museum in 2005, argues that this quality is one of the most neglected aspects of Basquiat’s oeuvre: “It is remarkable that someone so young could exhibit such a firm command of color—a notoriously difficult aspect of picture making—without concentrating on it exclusively. Basquiat understood color like few others and used it with unbridled temerity…” (M. Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2005, p. 47). The artist deeply admired Jackson Pollock’s chromatic masterpiece Guardians of the Secret (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), in particular the way that Pollock used passages of color to conjure up figurative imagery. Basquiat’s non-representational use of color, and particularly the juxtaposition of highly keyed tones of primary color, also recalls the radical innovation of Henri Matisse or the colorful mask-like portraits of the Russian Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky. Yet, while the Fauves were concerned with unpacking the representational nature of color in painting, Basquiat was more concerned with the influence of color in defining the structure of his paintings. As Mayer notes, “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, Ibid., p. 46).
Painted in 1982, Untitled (Head) was produced during a period in which he was catapulted from an itinerant teenager who spent much of his time daubing the urban landscape of downtown New York with his graffiti tag SAMO to the wunderkind of the New York art world, fêted by everyone from prominent collectors to dealers and other artists such as Andy Warhol. Basquiat’s paintings from this period present an intoxicating combination of youthful bravado but also an incredible maturity for someone who was still relatively young. Bruno Bischofberger, Basquiat’s dealer at the time, summed up Basquiat’s work from this period thus, “It was just a symphony of great paint, and very strong character. In it was something really new and different” (B. Bischofberger, interviewed by B. Gorvy, Christie’s, April 2013).
The head became a favorite subject matter of Basquiat’s during this period, and many of his most proficient paintings contain accomplished studies of both the physical and psychological characteristics contained within the human face. His skull-like masks are central to Basquiat’s work and are often regarded as a vanitas representing the fragility of life—something that would become all too prescient in the case of Basquiat. Just as Leonardo da Vinci was able to capture to a remarkable degree the individual psyche of the person he was drawing, so too was Basquiat able to summon up an almost autobiographical array of feelings, emotions and often frustrated anger in the course of his paintings. Indeed, although the subject of Untitled (Head) has remained unidentified, with his spikey dreadlocks, it could in fact be a self-portrait of Basquiat himself, containing all the bravado and youthful exuberance of an artist at the peak of his career.
Largely self-taught from his frequent visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, Basquiat revitalized the debate about the nature of painting started by many of the great 20th century masters such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning for a new generation. As Mayer states, Basquiat was “…a sophisticated and thoughtful artist with great resources of concentration, possessed of an unusual pictorial intelligence and an uncanny sense of unfolding history and of how to avoid its traps[.] Jean-Michel Basquiat was an articulate and prolific spokesman for youth: insatiably curious, tirelessly inventive, innocently self-deprecating because of youth’s inadequacies, jealously guarding his independence, typically disappointed by the inherited world he defensively mocked, yet filled with adulation for his heroes. His work is likely to remain for a long time as the modern picture of what it looks like to be brilliant, driven, and young” (M. Mayer, op. cit., p. 46.).