Painted in 1981, Basquiat's huge painting Untitled (Head) stretches before the viewer like a decorated wall. The symbols, letters, numbers and head resemble the graffiti that had been so central to Basquiat's life until only just before this work was created. For Untitled (Head) dates from the very turning point in the artist's career. Although he had already exhibited in a group exhibition the previous year, it was the exposure that he gained at Diego Cortez' New York/New Wave exhibition in 1981 that truly launched him. Suddenly, important and known people were taking notice of this former graffiti artist, and celebrity and success beckoned.
Success and supplies came hand in hand. The year of his first group exhibition had been marked with other successes, not least Basquiat's star role in Glenn O'Brien's film New York Beat (recently released under the title Downtown 81). In this, Basquiat is shown wandering New York, guiding thte viewer on a slightly fantastical tour of the art scene. Working on the film exposed Basquiat to potential clients and patrons among the crew (co-star Debbie Harry bought one of his paintings for $100), as well as a fee for his role. With this, he bought proper art materials, and the art that he previously been mostly limited to walls and paper now exploded onto canvas. It is for this reason that his catalogue raisonné begins with works from 1980.
These early paintings were still filled with the explosive and iconic force of Basquiat's graffiti origins. The white areas of the canvas recall the spaces left on the walls of the city. There is thus an immediacy to Untitled (Head), in the sparseness of the left-hand half of the painting, that highlights the various designs and elements, adding to the raw vigor of the piece. Less, Basquiat felt, was more: 'I like the ones where I don't paint as much as others, where it's just a direct idea' (Basquiat, quoted in H. Geldzahler, 'Art: from subways to Soho: Jean Michel Basquiat', pp. 18-26, Jean Michel Basquiat: Gemëlde und Arbeiten auf Papier, exh.cat., Vienna, 1999, p. 21). Even the application of the paint appears expressive, a testimony to the furious exertions of the artist himself, justifying the artist's own claim that his work was 'about 80 anger' (Basquiat, quoted in ibid., p. 26).
Even when Basquiat had become fully established as a world-famous, celebrity artist, he found himself confronted by racism, one of the causes of his great anger. It was as a proud black artist that he celebrated African and Afro-Caribbean culture in his paintings, as well as his pantheon of black heroes. These would often come to be illustrated as crowned as Basquiat stated, his art was concerned with 'Royalty, heroes and the streets' (Basquiat, quoted in ibid., p. 23), and these themes combined all those. In Untitled (Head), a large black head dominates the centre of the canvas, looking out at the viewer. While it may not be crowned, the scale alone ensures that this head dominates the picture, confronting and perhaps even accusing, but regardless of either its presence here is completely unapologetic, Basquiat placing the huge head at the centre of a white-dominated art world and artform. Although the features have been deliberately rendered in a general, slightly childish sense, the viewer cannot help but feel that there is something self-portrait-like and autobiographical about the image. It appears to be the artist himself who looks out from the maze of his life and memories and symbols at the viewer, an angry young man at the centre of his angry painting. This is not so much a painting about royalty, but is certainly about the street, and it is from the street and life on it that he also derived his anger.
Just as Untitled (Head)'s energy is fuelled by the street, so its contents are informed by the street. It is littered with links to his street life and street art. During the late 1970s, he and his fellow student Al Diaz collaborated as SAMO, a graffiti duet that had taken its name from the phrase 'the SAMe Old shit'. With their strange, subversive scrawlings, this pair had gained notoriety and a vague cult following. The growing interest had even led to an article about the artists in The Village Voice. In 1979 the partnership had ended, and the pair had gone their separate ways, but the experience and the kudos that SAMO gave Basquiat would flavour his works for the rest of his life.
In some of his earlier canvases, SAMO haunts the artist not only in the graffiti-like assortment of figures, but also specifically in the house symbols with an 'S' in the square. This 'S' is often cited by critics as an abbreviated reference to SAMO, therefore appearing on the wall of the diagram houses in the left and the right of the painting, hinting at some nostalgia, the artist casting his mind back to his days as street artist.
The life of the street, and also the influence of the street itself on the artist, is reflected in the grid-like pattern in the lower right of Untitled (Head). This formal formation is a 'skelly court', chalked or inscribed in pavements for use in a game played by children. (The idea of play may also be evident in the house sign, reminiscent of the home base in baseball). The skelly court is the sign and the evidence of a street in everyday use, as an inhabited, community area with its own readymade images and iconography.
This element, chalked onto the streets among which Basquiat lived and painted, is therefore an icon of play and of oneness. It was a seminal element in his art of the period, an adopted form like an iconography trouvé, a graffiti from outside the world of graffiti, a sign that kids, not just artists, occupied these streets. The street as urban habitat featured, almost a character in its own right, in much of Basquiat's earliest art, and was often its theme. It often provided even the supports for his paintings, as he would decorate found objects - doors, fridges, boxes - with his art bringing its very fabric into his art. Just as he scavenged materials, he scavenged his visual language: the adoption of the skelly court symbol within Basquiat's work is symptomatic of his life-long, sponge-like absorption of symbols and symbolism, taking features from books and from everyday life, from ancient cultures or comics, from sports and history. By taking this skelly court, Basquiat has appropriated the sign for his own use, but has also enshrined it in oil, celebrating this facet of life in the street.
Basquiat does not merely celebrate this sign, but also imbues it with a mystique aura. Now, it mixes with his own personal, private iconography, developing its own opaque implications within his visual lexicon. In part it appears to recall the games of Basquiat's own youth, while in its pattern it resembles crossroads, central to the voodoo mysticism and imagery that so intrigued the painter. Basquiat's inclusion of this symbol in Untitled (Head) reinforces its mystic quality. It would spring into being on streets throughout New York, as though it was part of some arcane urban code. Basquiat has taken this recognizable image, but has filled it with meaning, converting it into some secret marker.
By combining these various elements, Basquiat presents us with a picture that is at once a personal journey through some of his memories, and a celebration of the life of the city and of the street, linking his past as a graffitist with his new status as an established artist. It blends anger, nostalgia and passion to present us with a new and vivid impression of the urban world he inhabited, and a vivid image of the new Basquiat.
SAMO graffiti, film stills from New York Beat, 1980-1981 Photographs by Edo Bertoglio c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Installation view of the exhibition at Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, 1986 Photograph by Jörg Waschkowski c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris