'Looking back on that important year of 1982, Basquiat remarked: 'I had some money: I made the best paintings ever'
(J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, 'New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist', The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 74).
An epic large scale diptych by Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1982, Untitled forms part of the pantheon of great double portraits including Untitled (Two Heads on Gold) and Dustheads. A pivotal year in the artist's career, the full length double portraits of 1982 marked Basquiat's ascension to the big time, the dominant figures exalt the joyous spirit of the early, heady days when he had just broken through to art world super-star status. Created at a climactic moment following the artist's break-through as an African American artist into the predominantly white art establishment, 1982 resulted in the production of some of Basquiat's most ambitious and self-assured works, including Six Crimee, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Slave Auction, Centre Pompidou, Paris, and Agony of the Feet, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Executed on a monumental scale, the two massive panels are flung together and married by a thin ribbon of red paint, creating a dynamic pairing of ying and yang figures. The polarity of the figures recalls the duality of comic book heroes and villains rising and falling at the edge of Basquiat's consciousness, standing among his boxing champions and baseball stars as the epitome of Basquiat's icons of 'royalty, heroism, and the streets' (J.-M. Basquiat quoted in H. Geldzahler, 'Art: From the Subways to Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat,' Interview, January 1983). Towering above the viewer, one is instantly struck by the monumentality of scale, the decisiveness of his line and the sheer brilliance of colour. Emblazoned in the artists' signature colour palette of vibrant red, azure blue, and blaring yellows, the two larger-than-life size figures jolt off the picture plane, their dynamic features confronting the viewer, charging the composition with the palpable energy that surrounded the artist at the time. Boldly articulated in Basquiat's confident scrawl, Untitled is a defiant assertion of artistic and individual independence. Fueled by the buzz of celebrity and television and music-fuelled creativity, coupled with a sense of the artist's own potent existentialism, the two heavy-handed postures and screaming features of the figures are expressive of the confidence that came with this newly received fame.
A product of the streets, Basquiat's graffiti-like scrawls became signature motifs in the artists oeuvre; imprints of this urban stream of consciousness are readily visible in the raw energy of this powerful double portrait. Under the epithet SAMO, Basquiat spray-painted stickmen across the streets of New York City. By 1982 this style had graduated into a more fully developed method, with figures emerging from his oneiric painting practice, which still never-the-less bore the unmistakable hallmarks of his days on the streets. Marrying the gritty urbanism of his street graffiti with his raw and expressive symbolism, the cartoon figures of Untitled appear like a riff on the tropes of traditional portraiture. The yellow figure on the right rendered in the artist's characteristically caustic faux-naive style appears as an energetic, even frantic, caricature. At his side, the red figure with it abstracted geometric breasts visually recalls the monstrous mother figures of paintings such as Mater, from the same year. Set against a background cluttered with gestural drips allusive of wastelands and urban detritus, the figures appear wrenched out of any identifiable context, the combination of scrawl and bold blocks of colour are reminiscent of the impassioned drawings of Cy Twombly, embodying Rene Ricard's now famous iteration his seminal article, 'The Radiant Child' that had helped boost Basquiat's fame that year: 'If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there... and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet' (R. Ricard, 'The Radiant Child', in Artforum, December 1981, p. 35).
Following his debut success in 1981 in the 'New York/New Wave' group exhibition at PS1, Basquiat enjoyed an extraordinary succession of six solo shows in New York, Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome and Rotterdam, all of which were greeted by rave reviews. Only twenty-one, he was the youngest artist ever to be included in the prestigious Documenta 7 exhibition in West Germany, alongside leading artists such as Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter.
In 1982, this critical success sparked a new phase in Basquiat's artistic production. Having secured the support of several ambitious art dealers and a studio in which to work, Basquiat was able to move out of the basement of Annina Nosei's gallery and into an independent studio in January of that year. Energised by this new freedom, Basquiat began to produce some of the most vital paintings of his entire oeuvre. A liberating move, the seven-story loft at 151 Crosby Street in SoHo afforded the artist space to create large-scale works such as Untitled for the first time. Looking back on 1982, Basquiat remarked, 'I had some money: I made the best paintings ever' (J.-M. Basquiat, quoted in C. McGuigan, 'New Art New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist', in The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1985, p. 74).
Painting frenetically in his new studio against a steady stream of jazz music and cartoon programs, Basquiat painted impulsively, pouring out his creativity in a rapid and cathartic stream of pent up emotion. Working quickly in oil stick and acrylic, he combined drawing and painting to create a fresh medium he called 'extra large'. Fusing the adroitness of drawing and the richness of painting, there is an immediacy to Untitled, a spontaneous projection of the sounds and images he was inspired by. The resulting paintings appear like a stream-of-conscious explosion of the 80s street culture; a complex assemblage of symbols inspired by the television shows and song lyrics incessantly passing through his head. In Untitled, the cartoon-like figures appear near hallucinatory, like visions of Sesame Street puppets frozen in mid-dance, their exaggerated hands extending in an animated wave. Basquiat's reference to cartoon and comic book characters sets this work to some extent in the high/low tradition of Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, but where Lichtenstein laboured over the design of his compositions - seeking to recompose imagery sources from comic books - Basquiat's facility with his medium allowed him to fluidly pour out his compositions, impulsively filling the picture plane with the imagery he adopted.
Maintaining a fine balance between control and spontaneity, menace and wit, cryptic triangles, circles, and tally marks punctuate the background of the painting, appearing like a mathematical nightmare that not only alludes to the chaos of the urban environment and his own personal history tagging graffiti slogans, but also to the artist's own sense of vertigo when facing the entrenched values and structures of predominantly white American society. Deliberately flattened and reduced to their most basic forms, their silhouettes are confidently articulated in thickly applied oil stick; their caricatured figures fusing with incongruous elements such as tribal masks, hieroglyphic images, and signals of the city's streets. Not irreducible to a single source, the iconography only hints at the inspiration he found in his chaotic downtown studio. Basquiat didn't absorb life in an orderly fashion and this conflation of sources provides an aperture into at the fertile ideas ricocheting around his brain.
The fusion of pictorial styles in Untitled speaks of Basquiat's vitality of experience with a raw and spontaneous energy of painterly expression, it reflects the multiplicity of sounds, sights, and chaotic energy of the New York beat scene of which the artist was an integral part. Echoing the urban hubbub of New York City, Untitled functions as a similar paean to 1980's New York as Mondrian's masterpiece Broadway Boogie Woogie is to 1940's Manhattan. Deconstructing the melody of contemporary television and music of the city streets, Untitled rejoices in a dynamic rhythm through the continuous opposition of pure, confident, gestural marks which recall the zeitgeist of the city at that time.