Please note this work is accompanied by a certificate issued by the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s frenzied and electric Untitled of 1982 depicts one of the artist’s most celebrated themes, rendered in rapid-fire execution in dynamic slashes of red, blue and black oilstick. The human head is among Basquiat’s most autobiographical subjects, which he obsessively explored particularly during the pivotal year of 1982. His depiction here is violently slashed and scribbled in a seemingly feverish attempt to produce on paper the inner workings of his own mind, which is especially felt in the jutting red slashes that seem to burst forth from the totemic figure’s head and neck. The work belongs to a series of heads from 1982, many of which can be regarded as self-portraits that were executed at a crucial moment in the artist’s meteoric rise to fame. Untitled bears witness to Basquiat’s humble origins as the street artist SAMO, yet it also displays the sophistication that, by this stage in his short but brilliant career, had already made him the undisputed star of the New York art world.
Untitled displays Basquiat’s unique capacity to convey raw, unabashed emotion within an idiosyncratic style of unparalleled draughtsmanship. He depicts the figure with wild, violent daubs of red and black, vigorously working the surface of the page to build up a palimpsest-like arrangement of interlocking and overlapping marks. The bulging eyes and gaping mouth evoke a primal, visceral being, a living embodiment of the raw stuff of human passion and excess, delineated by wide strokes of black ink and accented in red oilstick. Touches of blue linger around the figure’s forehead and nose, a cool contrast to the blood-red slashes, which evoke the anatomical renderings of the human body that Basquiat knew from his beloved copy of Grey’s Anatomy. Smudges and smears mark the unworked sections of the sheet that provide a lasting embodiment of the physical vestiges of Basquiat’s working practice (he was often so completely submerged in his work that he was in constant physical contact with it). The vivid coloration and frenetic rendering lends an unmistakable vitality to the figure, which displays the hunger and raw life force that only Basquiat could so forcefully capture.
In Basquiat’s most celebrated work, words were almost always included in various iterations and forms, and upon further inspection, Basquiat provides the words “PESO NETO” and “©” copyright symbol -- two recurring idioms in Basquiat’s oeuvre -- in the lower right quadrant of the drawing, barely visible beneath two rectangular splotches of black ink. Words were often subject to manipulation in Basquiat’s work, often erased, crossed-out or their letters rearranged, and in the present drawing, the two phrases have been essentially redacted. “Peso neto” is a Spanish phrase that translates roughly to “net weight,” and Basquiat used the phrase for the title of a painting he included in his first one-man exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery in 1981 called Crowns (Peso Neto).
Basquiat once claimed that he “used words like brushstrokes,” and in the present drawing he conflates the two, brushing over his own words, in a controversial gesture that evokes the provocative graffiti of his alter ego SAMO of just a few years earlier. Writing in his 2011 monograph on the artist, the author Leonhard Emmerling relates the phrase “peso neto” to other oft-used phrases in Basquiat’s oeuvre that refer to the rapidly changing art market of the 1980s, such as “estimated value” and “per capita.” The market demand for Basquiat’s work reached a fever pitch, especially in these early years which resulted in the artist’s harried attempt to keep up his supply to meet the rapidly-ensuing demand: “In the space of just a few months he went from being a zero to being someone with boundless amounts of cash, transformed into a commodity on a market surging with wealth” (G. Mercurio, “The Moon King,” The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, Milan, 2006, p. 20). Since Basquiat’s work was so inexorably linked to his own personality, he began to feel as if he himself were being put on the market, as Rene Ricard so tellingly remarked in his seminal article from Artforum in 1981: “It is not a piece of art signed by SAMO, it is a piece of SAMO” (R. Ricard, quoted in Gianni Mercurio, ibid., p. 19).
Basquiat may have intended the drawing as his own self-portrait, in which he renders himself in a frenzied struggle with the life that he most desperately craved yet struggled to maintain. Particularly lavish attention is paid to the wide, bulging eyes of the figure, which are delineated in ever-widening concentric circles that seem to propel the eyes deeper into the head, as if rapidly receding from the world around him. If the eyes are the window into the soul, Basquiat’s are tormented, locked in an epic, primal struggle. The red oilstick slashes that he displays around the eyes lend a bloodshot effect that some critics have compared to the body’s physical reaction to the drug “angeldust,” or PCP, which was rampantly abused for its hallucinogenic properties at the time. Basquiat also includes a halo above the figure’s head, widely outlined in black ink and punctuated with short black lines that recall another recurring motif, the crown of thorns. Together with the evocative phrase “net weight” and “© that Basquiat has effaced, the cumulative effect is rather harrowing. Does Basquiat equate the price of his paintings with his own self-worth? Does he feel there is a price upon his head?
Basquiat’s relationship to the art market that both sustained and overwhelmed him was a complicated one, especially given the charged atmosphere of New York City in the 1980s, as escalating crime and rampant drug use created a hostile environment that drove out the middle class but fostered a burgeoning and vibrant culture that exploded in the city streets. Looking back on 1982, Basquiat acknowledged the tensions that he felt existed between his humble beginnings as a graffiti artist and his meteoric rise to fame. “I had some money,” he recalled of that important year, “I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people” (J. Basquiat, in R. Marshall, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 241).
During the pivotal year of 1982 that Basquiat rendered the present drawing, he was living at 151 Crosby Street in Soho, in an apartment that the gallerist Annina Nosei had provided for him. He kept a studio in the basement of her gallery where he churned out drawings and paintings marked by skeletal figures and mask-like faces at a frenzied pace. A brilliant draughtsman, Basquiat drew continuously and effortlessly, in works that combined the graffiti-like scrawls of SAMO with the lyrical scribbles of Cy Twombly, the primitivism of Jean Dubuffet and the genius of Picasso. Though their relationship would only last a year, Annina Nosei introduced Basquiat to an influential stream of collectors, who seemed to continually barrage his studio so that he couldn’t work fast enough. Reminiscing on this era, the curator and art dealer Jeffrey Deitch recalls: “Jean-Michel showed us the drawings that he was working on. There was no drawing table and no neat stack of finished work. The drawings were scattered all over the floor, walked on like they were part of the linoleum. … There did not seem to be any separation between life and art. Jean-Michel drew constantly, on the street and wherever he was staying. … From the beginning of his career, he was already the center of attention” (J. Deitch, quoted in Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, the Studio of the Street, New York, Charta/Deitch Projects, p. 10).
The haunting intensity of Untitled carries the evidence of that charismatic energy that propelled Basquiat from a street kid who survived by sleeping on the floors of friends’ apartments to the enfant terrible of the 1980s art world. This distinctive period is considered to be the pinnacle of the artist’s career, still maintaining the palpable sense of raw energy that first propelled him to fame. Untitled displays the unparalleled draughtsmanship that marks that era, in which Basquiat portrays a self-referential figure, a potential self-portrait, with a unique sense of composition that expresses a vibrant emotional intensity of a brilliant young artist that is achieved through the simplest economy of means.