1982 was the year that Basquiat made the great breakthrough of his career and established himself as the first ever black artist to gain international prominence in the Western art world. Following the climatic year of 1981, when Basquiat had first emerged from the New York underground art scene, 1982 was a year characterized by a swift series of important one-man-exhibitions accompanied by wildly enthusiastic critical reviews. The first of these exhibitions was held at the Annina Nosei Gallery in the spring, this was followed by a solo show at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, and succeeded by Basquiat's participation as the youngest artist in the 1982 Documenta 7. In September he had a further one-man show at the Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich and in the winter a further one-man show at the Fun Gallery in New York. "I had some money," Basquiat said of this time, "I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people." (Basquiat talking to Cathleen McGuigan, "New art New Money : The Marketing of an American Artist," The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p.29).
Marking the suddenly-arrived-at, fluid and seemingly easy mature style that clearly distinguishes Basquiat's 1982 paintings, Untitled is one several paintings from this heady period that present a cross-section of Basquiat's raw urban savvy. One of a series of paintings that Basquiat made for what turned out to be a sell-out show at the Gagosian Gallery, Untitled is a flamboyant pictorial road-map of the soul outlining the earthly and spiritual dangers and pitfalls of the modern city. Mounted on his friend, the Barbadan artist, Shenge Ka Pharoah's uniquely open-cornered stretchers and juxtaposing imagery and words with a painterly style that mixes abstraction and air-can-sprayed graffiti, the painting seems to offer itself as an underworld guide to some of the mysteries and intricacies of street-life. It is seemingly littered with coded warnings, direction signs, and a wealth of other information and advice and advertises itself like some nightmarish surreal sign-post of the modern urban jungle. "Basquiat's works are direct and furious reflections of a decadent, sadistic society," a critic of the Los Angeles exhibition wrote when reviewing the show, "Calligraphic markings, puerile stick figures, symbols of angels and devils, black men and white men, teeth bared, wearing crowns, carrying scales of justice. Robotoid eyes roll back to show that the brains are fried, there is no hope. There seems to be almost no distillation or interpretation. It is as if the city itself crawled on these canvases and stomped around." (Review of Basquiat's April 1982 exhibition at Gagosian Gallery Los Angeles, reproduced in Phoebe Hoeban, Basquiat -A Quick Killing in Art, New York, 1998, p.128.)
Although there are no examples in this work of the "hobo signs" that Basquiat often copied from Henry Dreyfuss' Symbol Sourcebook (graphic signs left by hobos on the street for other homeless people as guides to the neighborhood), the assemblage of words and signs in this work tends to read in a similar way. Merging image and text, painting and overpainting, spray-can highlighting and scrawl, a compendium of seemingly arbitrary information generates a sense of both information overload and also a confused but powerful psychological portrait. This portrait is dominated by the large fearsome white skull-like head outlined in broad sweeps of red paint in such a way that the painting seems to act partially as a warning along the lines of "Beware the evil power of Whitey and his corporations!". This pervasive sense of fear of an all-powerful evil cartoon death's-head character is reinforced by the prominent highlighting of the words of the two poisonous elements "Lead" and "Asbestos" in the painting. Symbols of toxicity and danger, these words, which make a frequent appearance in Basquiat's work, are accompanied and perhaps contrasted by more positive signs of survival, endurance, and heroism in the form of Basquiat's trademark crown, his copyright sign, and "St Louis", a title which in Basquiat's world is more often a reference to "Saint" Joe Louis, (the famous black boxing champion who personified Basquiat's idolizing of the lone black hero/victim), than it is to the mid-western city of the same name.
With its arrows, ladders and drips depicting a series of convoluted possible routes around and over the picture surface, the painting seems to outline a world of mobility and flux as well as the difficulties and intricacies of successfully navigating a path through an urban jungle fraught with danger. Reading like hoarding from the set of a degenerating Gotham City, Untitled is a perfect blend of gritty gothic modernism and hip urban chic.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1984 Photograph by Robert Farris Thompson