GENIUS CHILD by Langston Hughes (1937)
This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can -
Lest the song get out of hand.
Nobody loves a genius child.
Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?
Nobody loves a genius child.
Kill him - and let his soul run wild.
Ablaze with vibrant color, Untitled, 1982, is the work of an artist at the height of his creative powers. Dominating the sheet is a haloed man, distorted yet powerful, whose fingertips seem to crackle with energy. The subject is one that artist Jean-Michel Basquiat revisited throughout his career- most notably on an epic scale in Profit I, 1982, arguably one of the most iconic and powerful paintings that the artist ever produced. Executed in his preferred medium of oilstick, the alacrity of Basquiat’s execution is readily apparent in Untitled. Much like staring at an original manuscript by Mozart, the viewer is able to visualize the creative energy moving through the artist’s body at a break-neck speed–almost too fast for his hands to handle. This sense of artistic flow allowed Basquiat to produce some of the most impressive and striking works of the 20th century in just nine short years.
Reacting against the austerity of Minimalism and Conceptual art, the beginning of the 1980s saw the loud and boisterous return of painting, form, and color to an otherwise staid New York art world. Instead of continuing in the Minimalist tradition, Basquiat’s work hearkens back to the feverish, gestural paintings of Abstract-Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Indeed, Basquiat’s figure’s crooked form and electric mixing of color has strong formal parallels with de Kooning’s “Women” but contains an entirely different conceptual premise.
De Kooning’s works serve as a meditation on abstraction, figuration, and the act of painting itself. Untitled is instead an exploration into contemporaneity–to Basquiat’s reality of being an African-American wunderkind thrust by his talent into the privileged white echelons of New York society. The figure in Untitled also represents another current in 1980s art–the rise of German Neo-Expressionism. In 1980, Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer shocked the international art community at the Venice Biennale with their dark, charged, and intensely Germanic paintings. Basquiat’s figure displays similarities to Georg Baselitz’s “Helden”, rudimentary giants whose power and vulnerability exist hand in hand. Yet although Basquiat‘s expressionistic gesture was described as “primitive” by critics during his lifetime, this was likely more a factor of inherent racial prejudice than assumption of artistic merit. Basquiat’s child-like line resembles the sizzling, chattering electricity of a Cy Twombly painting but combines it with the earthen urbanity of Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut–synthesizing the two into something that speaks to the speed and visual landscape of contemporary life in the 1980s.
The pace of Untitled’s execution is also evident in the inclusion of extraneous splashes, smudges, and detritus in the artwork. These marks have parallels with the beginning of Basquiat’s career–as SAMO the graffiti artist scrawling erudite phrases across New York’s SoHo neighborhood. This same urban feel pervades Basquiat’s more conventional artistic work. In the degradation of the art object, Basquiat’s practice mirrors the more performative aspects of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings with their embedded keys, cigarettes, buttons, and brushes. Friends have described visiting Basquiat in his studio and seeing the artist fully consumed with his art. Drawings covered the floor and, should the artist run out of paper or canvas, he was known to convert almost anything at hand into surfaces for his creative energy. He also frequently used drawings as medium in his paintings–pasting them onto canvas and scrawling over the top of them to create a babbling visual background reminiscent of the graffitied city streets of New York’s East Village or Lower East Side. It would have been simple for Basquiat to recycle Untitled into another artwork. Instead, it remains whole–a testament to the artist’s own estimation of the work’s power. As noted art historian Robert Storr describes: “Drawing, for him, was something that you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium. The seemingly throw-away sheets that carpeted his studio might appear little more than warm-ups for painting, except that the artist, a shrewd connoisseur of his own off-hand and under foot inventions did not in fact throw them away, but instead kept the best for constant reference and re-use. Or, kept them because they were, quite simply, indestructibly vivid” (R. Storr, Basquiat Drawings, Boston, 1990)
Perhaps Basquiat retained this drawing because he identified with the central figure of Untitled, a messianic character whose head is topped not only with a halo, but also a crown of thorns. This motif repeats throughout Basquiat’s oeuvre, morphing over time into the famous crown that adorns many of his heroic portraits of African-American musicians, artist, and athletes and serves as an encapsulation of the artist’s career. Basquiat’s early death of a drug overdose in 1989 cut short an immense talent while almost immediately catapulting his life into legend. Untitled, 1982, is Basquiat’s personal expression of this dual nature of creative genius–the radiant heights of immortality juxtaposed with the agonies of brilliance.