‘[Basquiat] constructs an intensity of line which reads like a polygraph report, a brain-to-hand “shake”’
Untitled (Orange Sports Figure) (1982) is a thrilling work by Jean-Michel Basquiat that captures the artist’s visual and semiotic genius during the year he was catapulted to global stardom. In January 1982, Basquiat had moved from the basement of his first mentor Annina Nosei – whose gallery first sold the present work – to a liberating loft space at 151 Crosby Street, where he would produce some of his finest paintings. Electrically vivid in acrylic, oilstick and spraypaint on canvas, Untitled (Orange Sports Figure) displays the vitality of this period, as well as the streetwise ingenuity that had first won Basquiat acclaim as a cult graffitist in 1980-81. Its composition centres around his most celebrated emblem, the crown: instantly recognisable but rarely featured in his paintings, it gleams here in rare metallic gold, haloed in a glow of white.
The background is painted in jagged swathes of yellow, ochre, orange and black. Scrawls and splashes abound. Explosive accents of red ignite the surface. Among several other important elements of Basquiat’s symbolic vocabulary - all executed in strikingly large scale –is a grinning, skull-like face, which quivers above the crown with layered outlines of black, red and white. Its gritted teeth are echoed by a large grid-like structure below, itself inspired by the form of a baseball scorecard. An actual baseball, another signature motif, adjoins the face. An outlined house to the right contains the letter ‘S’, alluding to Basquiat’s previous graffiti identity as SAMO©. An arrow points upwards, rhyming with the baseball’s curved stitching but offering no clear path or direction: each glyph makes compositional sense, but there is no coherent whole to be decoded. Fragments of letter and line seem to be overpainted or buried, bearing out the artist’s claim that ‘I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them’ (Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier (Paintings and works on paper), exh. cat.,Museum Würth, Künzelsau, 2001, p. 54). This colourful synthesis of text, picture and sign is typical of Basquiat’s work, which draws on a vast range of visual and literary sources, overlaying and remixing myriad registers of image and voice. The strong icons, nervy lineation and almost Abstract Expressionist brushwork of Untitled (Orange Sports Figure) create a bold chorus that exemplifies the young artist’s extraordinary power.
Untitled (Orange Sports Figure) presents a number of themes that are central to Basquiat’s oeuvre. Inspired by his fascination with African masks, the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Grey’s Anatomy – which he read as a child while recovering from a car accident – the grinning skull of the head represents an anatomical gaze that courses throughout the works of 1982. It is both a memento mori and an art-historical reservoir, infused with traces of its own pictorial past. The cranium in Untitled (Orange Sports Figure) seems to hold a brain abuzz with scribbled motion, as if figuring the whirr of Basquiat’s imagination. The work’s link with baseball is another key refrain. Baseball players, particularly the right fielder Hank Aaron, loomed large among Basquiat’s pantheon of black heroes, which also included boxers such as Joe Louis and jazz artists like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Basquiat elevated these African-American athletes and musicians to mythic, royal or saintly status by evoking them alongside his famous crown motif. In doing so, he also frequently applied these associations to himself, conjuring a compound identity of majestic black personas. While his vibrant rehearsals of his heroes’ identities enabled him to celebrate them as champions, conquerors and kings, they also let him evoke the complexities of racial history in the United States: intricate, intertwined strata of personal and cultural pasts are embedded in the pictograms, hieroglyphs and physical layers of his art. Bringing together chromatic vigour, symbolic force and rich cultural intrigue, Untitled (Orange Sports Figure) stands as a multivalent talisman. It resounds with the depth of Basquiat’s engagement with the world around him, and is alive with the unparalleled creative energy that would fuel his meteoric rise and fall as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.