Before his first exhibition with Anina Nosei in New York, Basquiat had already gained notoriety and a kind of cult status amongst artists and the discerning public as the “public poet,” SAMO, inscribing walls and windows in uptown and downtown New York with his brief, ironic aphorisms, incitements to passers-by to step off the treadmill of life, to reject the banality of the status quo. But in 1982, he began to experience the thrill of wider recognition and financial success. However, his promotion in the press and the voracious demands of an art market hungry for new blood soon soured. An image quickly emerged amongst art pundits of the artist as a kind of strange primitive creature, uncontrollable but capable of grand, if naïve, statements in his art. The sophistication of his aesthetic, which had evolved from his SAMO days, was largely ignored.
In retrospect, it is clear that Basquiat’s work was profoundly formed by the legacy of some of the giants of modern art: his consciously child-like lines and collage owe much to Dubuffet; the practice of drawing, scribbling, writing, collaging and painting simultaneously to Twombly; the confidence to follow his own brash style of portraiture to Picasso and an interest in imagery from ancient cultures and mythological references to Pollock. In the present example, Basquiat employs expressive layers of paint, reminiscent of Willem de Kooning or Franz Kline, over meticulously assembled and hand-picked Xerox images sourced from some of his most iconic drawings. As an artist who reveled in the breakdown of artistic genres and the unrestricted nature of these new-found expressive forms such as graffiti and rap, Basquiat brought these same qualities to his visual art. Indeed the fragmented, disjointed, expressive, immediate and real qualities that define these street movements carry into the construction of Untitled. Forming the ground of the present work are a host of visual and textual references from his surrounding world. Comprising Basquiat’s trademark vernacular of words and images, these references are ‘spat’ in paint, visually stuttered, repeated and crossed out, with passages of paint acting as pauses for thought and breath. As Franklin Sirmans notes, “It is Basquiat’s overall inventiveness in marrying text and image–with words cut, pasted, recycled, scratched out, and repeated–that speaks to the innovation inherent in the hip-hop moment of the late 1970s. When it was all about two turntables and a microphone, likewise Basquiat began with simple, readily available tools: paper, pens and a Xerox machine’ (F. Sirmans, “In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip- Hop Culture,” in M. Mayer, ed., Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 94).
Untitled, 1984, is alive with the artist’s recurring obsessions with mortality, myth, fairytales and popular culture: a looming knife, amoeba-like creatures, a crudely rendered grimacing face and numerous other apparently unconnected subjects crowd this intriguing work with the artist’s preoccupations. Distinguished by its rich iconography, this painting displays the array of symbols, words, and drawings that define the artist’s practice and have continued to make it so compelling today. The layers of printed paper collage and paint intermingle with the artist’s scrawled boyish motifs and the sunshine yellow and orange of the paint surface dazzle the viewer—just as the cult of Basquiat the artist-hero dazzled the New York art world of the 1980s before it was so prematurely extinguished by his death.