Painted in 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled is an epic painting, its monumental size and visceral painterly energy marking it out as one of the artist’s most accomplished works. Measuring more than sixteen feet wide and nearly eight feet tall, it is also one of the artist’s largest canvases, yet it is the dynamism with which Basquiat constructs his painterly surface that distinguishes this work, especially considering it was painted when the artist was only 22 years old. The full force of his painterly energy can be witnessed across every inch of this vast canvas; from the lavishly fashioned demonic figure that occupies the central portion of the canvas, to his extensive repertoire of painterly drips, splashes and impulsive brushwork, the surface of Untitled acts as a totem to Basquiat’s capricious talent. Painted during his trip to Modena in Italy, Untitled belongs to a significant group of paintings that helped to forge his reputation as one of the most exciting and radical artists of his generation.
Dominating the canvas is a dramatic figure; a heroic self-portrait with Basquiat depicting himself as a devil rising amidst an explosion of expressive gestures. The horned figure commands the composition, standing as he does with his limbs outstretched almost touching either side of the canvas. Although most of his body is left to Basquiat’s imagination (save for the three broad sweeps of black paint that define his ribcage); it is Basquiat’s face which displays the full force of the artist’s painterly prowess. Crowned by a pair of dramatic horns, the grinning face portrays a threatening menace. Piercing eyes stare out from the surface of the canvas, built up from consecutive layers of orange, red, white and black paint. Harried circles made by the movement of Basquiat’s brush contain deep pools of pigment as he lays down multiple layers of red, followed by white before finally topping it off by accentuating highlights of black. The result engages the viewer with an almost hypnotic feeling of entrapment, pulling them in with the devil’s spellbinding stare. The rest of the facial features are constructed in this same fashion, resulting in a strong, wide nose and wild, grimacing teeth. In contrast to the precise definition of the devil figure, across the rest of the canvas, Basquiat orchestrates a flurry of loose drips, daubs, and splashes of paint set amidst of expressionistic brushstrokes. Ranging from broad swaths of muted pinks, yellows, reds and blues to streaks of explosive reds and neon greens that appear to have been thrown directly at the surface of the canvas, the result is an active surface which displays the full richness of Basquiat’s painterly repertoire. Thus, Untitled becomes a stage upon which the artist unleashes an exorcism of creativity across its surface.
This is the largest in a series of paintings which Basquiat undertook during two periods he spent in Modena, Italy, in the spring of 1981 and 1982. He was initially invited to Europe by Emilio Mazzoli to participate in his first ever one-man show after the dealer saw the artist’s work in January 1981 at the legendary New York/New Wave show at New York’s P.S. 1. After the initial trip he returned again in March 1982 and it was during this stay that he painted Untitled and a sister painting Profit 1, which are widely considered to be among the artist’s most important paintings. The contrast between the divine figure in Profit 1, bedecked in a bright red shirt and sporting a large glowing halo, and the dark, ominous background against which he is silhouetted make this painting one of the most powerful and poignant of the artist’s career. The dichotomy between heaven and hell can also be seen in Untitled, except here the sentiment is flipped in that that the horned figure of the devil is situated in a vibrant multicolored backdrop, far removed from the menacing nature of his being.
With paintings such as the present work, Basquiat follows in a noble tradition of 20th century artists who channeled their creative energy into producing groundbreaking canvases. Basquiat was a remarkably erudite scholar of art history and from a young age would spend time in the museums of New York teaching himself about, and admiring the work of, the great painters from the art historical canon. He particularly admired such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly. He was an ardent admirer of Picasso, from whom he gained the confidence to allow himself to be liberated from the concords of conventional painting. He admired his epic sense of scale and rapid deployment of paint onto the canvas surface. He also admired the way in which the Spanish artist constructed his figures, particularly how he rejected the need to depict the subtle nuances of the human face, instead focusing only on the most powerful features. As curator Richard Marshall explained, “Picasso’s work gave Basquiat the authority and the art historical precedent to pursue his own brash and aggressive portraits…” (R. Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993, p. 16).
The active surface of Untitled, with its liquescent application of paint, evokes the fluid composition of Jackson Pollock’s large-scale paintings such as Lucifer, 1947 (The Anderson Collection at Stanford University). Pollock, who like Basquiat often unleashed his creativity on a grand scale, once proclaimed that “Painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through” (J. Pollock, quoted by quoted by Kirk Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 48). Just like Basquiat, Pollock embraced the notion of chance in his paintings and while he carefully introduced the liquid canvas to the surface, he was prepared to let the laws and physics of gravity dictate the final path of the journey the paint would take across its surface. As can be witnessed in Untitled, just as Pollock embraced the physical nature of his medium to dictate much of the finished look of his dripped and poured paintings, Basquiat whole-heartedly embraced the liquid qualities of the paint to define many of the compositional aspects of his painting.
Basquiat’s central figure in Untitled also recalls, formally at least, the work of another early 20th century modernist, Max Ernst. The tall, vertical figures that populate the German painter’s canvases and sculptures bear some of the same totemic formalism as Basquiat’s figures—the example in Untitled being particularly noticeable. Like Basquiat, whose inspiration is rooted in the myths and folklore of his Puerto Rican/Haitian heritage, Ernst’s formal inspiration was indebted to his interested in the folklore of the Native American peoples of the Southwest Plains. Ernst’s move to Arizona in the 1940s caused an influx of mythological forms to enter into his work, much of which was inspired by his new neighbors, the Hopi, Navaho and Apache Indians. The following description of Ernst’s work from this period also seems remarkably appropriate to Basquiat’s work too. “…he never tried to capture the appearance of the human being… Throughout his [Ernst’s] work, man is represented by some substitute, either imaginary form, or a mark…by a schematized figure whose head may be a rectangle, a triangle or a disk. In a similar manner, the Indians used geometric forms in their paintings, figurines and masks. Here the head may be a circle, there a square and elsewhere a triangle… Thus forms do not represent appearances, but ideas” (P. Waldberg, quoted by K. Varnadoe, Primitivism In 20th Century Art, vol. II, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, pp. 564-65).
1982 was a marquee year for Basquiat as it saw him continue his meteoric rise within the New York art world as he was rewarded with his first solo show at Annina Nosei’s gallery. He also made an important trip to Los Angeles where he was introduced to—and proved to be a major hit with—influential collectors such as Eli and Edythe Broad, Douglas S. Cramer and Stephane Janssen. He was also the youngest of 176 artists to be invited to take part in Documenta 7 in Germany where the expressive nature of lyrical lines was compared to that of the other master draughtsman of the post-war period, Cy Twombly. This comparison to Twombly must have been particularly rewarding for Basquiat as he was the only artist whom Basquiat acknowledged publically as being influential to his career, as Marshall explains, “From Cy Twombly, Basquiat also took license and instruction on how to draw, scribble, write, collage, and paint simultaneously. One of the few art artworks that Basquiat ever cited as an influence was Twombly’s Apollo and the Artist (1975), and its impact is apparent in numerous loose, collaged and scribbled Basquiat works…” (R. Marshall, “Repelling Ghosts,” in R. Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1993, p. 16).
Indeed, Basquiat’s work found favor with many influential critics who had yearned for the return of “the expressive” ever since the triumph of Minimalism in the late 1960s and 1970s. In Basquiat they found a new champion who clearly reveled in the joy of the artist’s hand. “What has propelled him so quickly,” extolled Lisa Liebmann in her Art in America review of Basquiat’s 1982 exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery, “is the unmistakable eloquence of his touch. The linear quality of his phrases and notations…shows innate subtlety—he gives us not gestural indulgence, but an intimately calibrated relationship to surface instead” (L. Liebmann, quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, “Chronology,” in R. Marshall (ed.), Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 239).
Almost always autobiographical in some way, Basquiat’s paintings are pervaded with the sense that the artist was talking to himself, exorcising creative demons, exposing uncomfortable truths and trying to explain the way of things to himself—an effort that became increasingly pronounced at this time. Executed in vivacious colors over a background of complex painterly layers and bold architectonic elements, this dramatic and iconic portrait is both a forceful and an aggressive presence, whose impressive postures and dramatic features are expressive of the artist’s own fears and anxieties. When questioned about his method of constructing an image, Basquiat would go on to confirm, “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life” (J. M. Basquiat, quoted in Basquiat, exh. cat., Trieste, Museo Revoltella, 1999, p. LXVII).