Basquiat frequently championed his favorite cultural heroes through a kind of literal and visual homage to them within his work. Untitled (Max Roach) participates within a group of works where Basquiat demonstrated his affinity with the innovative Jazz community of his day. Here, Basquiat refers to the celebrated drummer and Jazz musician, Max Roach, one of the most important drummers in history, as well as a pioneer of “Bebop”—a style of Jazz which revolutionized the music scene of the 1950s. Basquiat strongly identified with the stylistic and improvisational character of Bebop. Its emphasis on a nonlinear structure, composed of syncopated rhythms and asymmetrical phrasing, provides a kind of musical parallel to Basquiat's own brand of visual lyricism.
In Untitled (Max Roach), the black background is punctured by a staccato rhythm of signs and spaces which jump out from the support. It appears to encapsulate the light and dark of the hi-hat cymbal marking time against the resonance of the bass drum accent, thus echoing the musical signature of the “bop drummers,” a stylistic group of which Max Roach formed a part. Furthermore, the recognition of familiar signs articulated time and again in Basquiat's work such as Venus, the crown and the halo display familiar notes which recall Bebop's own creative tendency to sample previous works and repeat melodic refrains amidst improvisation. A classic
symbol in Basquiat’s oeuvre, the crown also appears emblazoned on the painting’s verso opposite the artist’s signature and a drawing of a figurative head.
Basquiat's meteoric rise on the downtown New York art scene at the dawn of the 80s is legendary. After growing up as part of a middle-class family in Brooklyn, he dropped out of school at 17, heading to downtown Manhattan to drift between friends' apartments and abandoned warehouses for a period, making his mark with spray paint on the streets as graffitero SAMO (with Al Diaz), while setting his sights firmly on making it in the New York art world. He proved to be a prodigious draftsman and painter, and quickly ascended to the heights of fame and recognition, first in the New York art world then on a national and international scale, before his untimely death at the age of 27. Basquiat took the streets of lower New York as his main subject and source of inspiration, starting his career by spray-painting enigmatic poems, slogans, and symbols on city streets, coded criticisms of contemporary culture that set him apart from the colorful graffiti tags that predominated at the time. Throughout his decade as a mature artist, Basquiat maintained the combination of social criticism and poetic expression that characterized his earliest creations as SAMO, which gives his richly inventive formal innovations a depth and resonance that makes him one of the most important and critical artists of the late 20th century.
As Basquiat famously declared in a 1983 interview, he defined the subject of his art as “Royalty, heroism and the streets” (quoted in H. Geldzahler, “Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Interview, January 1983). The human figure quickly emerged as the central theme in Basquiat's work, which he would use as a vehicle for melding autobiography with references to popular culture and black history. He had been aware of art history since his childhood, when he would visit the Brooklyn Museum of Art, not far from his home in Boerum Hill. “I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them,” he noted. Addressing this glaring lacuna, Basquiat declared that “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings” (Ibid.). Basquiat celebrated many heroes of black history in his works, particularly athletes and musicians. Yet while he celebrated the achievements of black luminaries such as the jazz musician Max Roach or the boxing champion Joe Louis, he also specifically focused on these figures because he identified with their personal struggles and inner demons. Basquiat identified with the crises that these figures endured and used his work to commemorate them.
As an artist who reveled in the breakdown of artistic genres and the unrestricted nature of these new-found expressive forms such as graffiti and rap, Basquiat brought these same qualities to his visual art. Indeed the fragmented, disjointed, expressive, immediate and real qualities that define these street movements carry into the construction of Untitled (Max Roach). As Franklin Sirmans notes, “It is Basquiat’s overall inventiveness in marrying text and image—with words cut, pasted, recycled, scratched out and repeated—that speaks to the innovation inherent in the hip-hop moment of the late 1970s. (F. Sirmans, “In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip- Hop Culture,” in M. Mayer (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 94).