Untitled is a masterpiece that exemplifies Basquiat's brief but prolific career. Executed at the peak of his creative powers, when the artist was just twenty-two years old, the painting attests to his precocious talent. Synthesizing a myriad of concerns and techniques, he creates a work that is at once stunningly beautiful and loaded with content. Astonishingly physical in its muscular execution and visceral apprehension, deeply cerebral in its pronouncement against contemporary socio-economic injustices and touchingly poignant in its autobiographical undertones, Untitled is rife with multiple interpretations. It reflects the characteristically complex milange of technical, conceptual, personal energies that embodied Basquiat's work.
Amidst the riot of symbols, scrawls and unmixed, saturated color that spreads across the picture plane, a crude mask dominates the upper left quadrant of the canvas. A central motif in Basquiat's oeuvre beginning in 1982, the human form (in the shape of a "primitive" mask, skull or stick figure) floating in a pulsating, all-over field of painterly gestures and linear scribbles became symbolic of the black man making his way through the gritty, cacophonic, urban world. Acutely aware of racism through personal experience, Basquiat lashed out through his art, which he described as being "80 violence," producing raw, violent images that confronted the predominantly white art world. Glowering fiercely at the viewer, the ghoulish, beady-eyed, saw-toothed mask in Untitled, acts as a totem against prevailing racial prejudices, embodying in some part, the artist himself. Basquiat admired a host of important Twentieth--century Black figures from athletes such as Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson and musicians such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, and frequently cited them in his work. Stating that the subjects of his work were "royalty, heroism and the streets," he included these black "heroes" that populated his personal pantheon of "royalty," conferring them a religious or royal aura by equipping them with a halo or crown. Estranged from his father, Basquiat searched for a surrogate paternal figure as well as a role model from which to forge his own identity. Depicting these iconic, historical figures like "primitive" icons, Basquiat conflated role model, father figure and self-portrait; indeed, these forms stood as projections of the artist's hopes and fears. While the mask in Untitled does not embody a specific character, it nonetheless bears the same connotations. This is underscored by the inclusion of two red crowns on the lower right of the work, drawn from his private iconography of symbols, intended to suggest superiority.
The gestural brushwork and repertoire of symbols and letters that populate Untitled resemble the graffiti of the streets that were central to the Basquiat's artistic career as the graffiti artist SAMO from 1977 through 1980. Like non-sequiturs, the jarring abutments of pure color and unrelated symbols create multiple points of focus, becoming a metaphor for the competing exigencies of the urban experience. Somewhat like an oracle, Basquiat distilled perceptions of the external world to their essence; in his original guise as SAMO, he spray painted pithy aphorisms on urban edifices. This method of working became the basis for his early artistic output: containing a single word, a short phrase or a simple image referring to a person, event or recent observation, each drawing refined external perception to its core.
While the graffiti-style suited Basquiat's persona as well as his desire to convey street culture, he was determined to establish himself as a serious artist. He validated his style by employing vetted art historical sources. He greatly admired the work of Cy Twombly, whose fusion of imagery and writing conveyed the disorientation and perpetual onslaught of modern living, and through his work became exposed to Leonardo's codexes, which featured disjointed notes that abutted unrelated drawings. However, Basquiat digested his sources, and introduced a powerful brutality and physical presence to his work that did not characterize the work of his predecessors. In this way, he found affinity with Jean Dubuffet, whose deliberately raw, crude style and primitive figuration possessed the immediacy and shorthand of scratched graffiti. Similarly, while Basquiat's muscular, gestural brushwork conveyed the anger and existentialism of youth, it was indebted to Post-War masters such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Indeed, the white drips on the lower left and lower right of the canvas, while directly resembling graffiti, also bear deliberate reference to Pollock, whom he admired. Picasso's brash, aggressive style and purposely naive hand was another important influence; indeed Basquiat's masks re-appropriate the Spanish master's quoting of African sculpture in his work and restore to them a charged African identity that Modernism purged from its formalist bent.
Basquiat was supremely gifted and possessed an instinctive formal understanding of color, draftsmanship and composition that belied his years and lack of formal training. Untitled is a captivating balance between painting and drawing. A chromatically gorgeous blend of pink, blue, white and yellow, the work is structurally built up through blocks of pigment. Deploying color with unbridled temerity, Basquiat displays the adeptness of a seasoned abstractionist but does so in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda. Yet, the work is as much a drawing as it is a painting, featuring areas of swiftly delineated signs and doodles executed with an oil stick or scratched in with the back of a brush. Evoking the famous art historical debate between the linear and the painterly, Basquiat generates a truce between the rival camps of Ingres (pro-drawing) and Delacroix (pro-painting) with his equally skilful rendition and balance between both forms of description in Untitled.