Bursting forth from the canvas in a combustive palette of scarlet red, dusky pink, vermillion and fluorescent yellow, Untitled is an intuitive, gestural maelstrom from the very height of Jean-Michel Basquiat's practice. Undertaken in 1981 and formerly owned by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Untitled is one of the artist's earliest masterpieces, marrying the gritty urbanism of his street graffiti with his raw and guttural symbolism. In the centre of the monumental composition stands an imposing, near life-size human figure, arms stretched overhead in some valedictory posture. Rough-hewn, the character is part self-portrait, reflecting the artist's short, close-cropped hair at the time, and part boxing legend, alluding to those mighty African-American champions Sugar Ray Robinson, Casius Clay and Joe Louis. Sanctified in Basquiat's pantheon of black sporting stars, the figure is crowned with a halo of scrawled, meandering paint: yellow, black and white like some radiant effigy or sacrificial martyr. He stands in as a proxy for those marginalised in contemporary America, making an incisive comment on the struggles for ethnic equality and integration. The face itself is characteristically crude; a primitive mask-like rendering with widened eyes that bore into the viewer like two rounded gun barrels. The gritted teeth, squared jaw and x-ray torso offer a disquieting glimpse into the troubled mind of this great enfant maudit. At the same time, the eye marvels at the acerbic palette, peripatetic scrawls and potent imagery, woven together on a staggering scale with more than a stroke of genius.
1981 was a remarkable year for Jean-Michel Basquiat, marking his transition from the streets to the studio. At the beginning of the year, Basquiat had been painting on found objects, discarded windows, doors, pieces of wood and metal; the debris of New York City. By the end of the year, he had become an incumbent art star, installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei's Prince Street gallery and showcased in international exhibitions. These included the New York/New Wave exhibition at P.S.1 curated by Mudd Club founder Diego Cortez, which effectively launched Basquiat's career, and his first show in Europe at the Gallerie Mazzoli, in Modena, Italy. New York had been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure: whole swathes of the city were being vacated by white-collar workers and businesses in favour of the suburbs with much of Soho, Tribeca, the Lower East Side and the East Village being abandoned. At the same time popular culture and mainstream art had lost its sense of avant-garde innovation. It is against this background that a new underground creativity began to emerge.
From the discarded neighbourhoods and tenement buildings grew an 'anti-golden age'; young street artists, writers and musicians began to transform the derelict community, reviving the urban environment with a spontaneous combustion of punk and new wave culture. It is in this nascent period that Basquiat first emerged under the epithet SAMO, becoming the flag bearer for a new generation of artists. Repeated on doorways and walls across the city, SAMO's riveting street-haiku poetry became a familiar part of the downtown experience. Although few had actually met or seen Basquiat at work, his personality animated the urban revival. Untitled (1981) manifests the same grittiness, creative zeal and spontaneity that SAMO displayed during his time on the streets. Its wild agglomeration of elements and artfully combined colour palette eschew the icy serial production of Pop art in favour of a new type of Expressionism, evoking the intuitive scrawls of Cy Twombly and the raw energy of Dubuffet's Art Brut. As Rene Ricard once famously asserted, 'if Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel' (R. Ricard quoted in 'Radiant Child' Artforum, December 1981, p. 43).
From 1981-1982, Basquiat was becoming increasingly interested in his own identity and genealogy. In particular, he began to focus on those public figures, past and present, which were setting new precedents and changing the fortunes of black and Hispanic people in dominantly white America. Turning to the pantheon of 'Famous Negro Athletes', one of the few professions black people were allowed to excel in, Basquiat made reverential tributes to fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Casius Clay and Joe Louis. In paintings such as St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes (1982), Basquiat enshrined his idol, casting the sportsman's predatory white managers as 'snakes' circling his feet. Louis had become one of the greatest heavy weight champions of all time when in 1938 he beat German boxer Max Schmeling in front of 75,000 fans at the Yankee stadium. As the press reported, 'the black warrior from Alabama had crushed the Nazi monster' (R.D. Marshall, 'Jean-Michel Basquiat and his Subjects', Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris 1996, p. 24). These events were of great significance to the artist and in Untitled, the central figure with his arms raised, recalls the valedictory wave of a victorious boxer. In casting these figures into his paintings, Basquiat was at once celebrating the pantheon of great African-American sports figures, but also attempting to integrate black culture into the cannon of art history.
Basquiat was also deeply sensitive to his environment. In Untitled Baquiat employs colour architecturally, creating blocks of opaque pigment, bound by tinted mortar. The resultant image is an over-painted city wall, effaced and defiled with unbridled temerity. These painted areas are scribbled-in perhaps impatiently, contrasting the quick, confident, linear strokes devoted to his central figure. As documented in the 1980-81film, Downtown 81, Basquiat's graffiti had a unique fluidity of movement, nimbly gliding the spray can nozzle a few millimeters from the wall, applying the paint in an almost trance-like dance of hand and body. This rhythm is evident in Untitled's composition where free and fluid gestures proliferate across the canvas. As described by his close friend Fab 5 Freddy, Basquiat's graphic style was unique, 'the way he would hold the pencil sometimes was like he was a cripple. He wouldn't hold it in a formal way. He would stick it through the fourth finger and look really awkward, so that when he drew, the pencil would just slip out of his hand. He'd let it go that way, then grab it and bring it down, then let it drift. It was amazing, this whole dance he did with the pencil' (Freddy quoted in I. Sischy 'Jean-Michel Basquiat as Told by Fred Braithwaite, a.k.a Fab 5 Freddy', Interview 22, October 1992, p. 119). In Untitled, Basquiat has applied the oil-stick with pressure, almost grinding it into the surface of the canvas. The more gestural lines result from the way he moved his hands, tracing out the form as he had done in his graffiti.
The whole act of creating was a performance for Basquiat. The improvised, abrasive quality of Untitled resonates with the experimental, neo-punk music he was making at the time as part of the band Gray. Taking inspiration from the music of John Cage, Gray described itself as a 'noise band'. Basquiat played the triangle and bell as well as an unorthodox, but beautifully abstract clarinet. As one of the former band members, Michael Holman once described, the group was trying to embrace a sort of naïveté or aesthetic ignorance. They did things that were primitive and wrong but yet somehow successful. It is this same primitive and eclectic assembly of tones, which is so stunningly effective in Untitled (1981).
Realised by a young, uninhibited Basquiat, Untitled powerfully reflects the visual and sonic experiences of the streets where he lived in the early 1980s. It is a work that burns brightly with the voracity and ambition that would shape Basquiat's career and fundamentally change the nature of art history. The first black American modernist to transcend the white establishment, Basquiat is Dionysian from start to finish. He is a painter that registers not only his own fluctuating moods but intuits the temper of his milieu with a hypersensitivity that few of his contemporaries possessed.