Painted on a monumental scale, this commanding portrait by Jean-Michel Basquiat was painted in 1982 at the apex of the artist’s career. Fashioned out of lavish applications of red and black acrylic paint with features starkly highlighted in white, this striking face is a superlative example of the new expressive style, which the artist championed in the early 1980s. Demonstrating Basquiat’s considerable compositional abilities, he combines large expanses of gestural brushwork next to areas of more meticulous detail, as he constructs his painting in an architectural fashion. The use of the world construct is deliberate here, as Basquiat uses not a traditional stretched canvas, but a thick, padded blanket—the type used by moving companies to protect furniture—stitched onto a robust wooden stretcher to perfectly capture the rough, urban aesthetic that dominated New York’s downtown arts scene of the period. This majestic figure’s larger than life-size depiction superbly displays the artist’s propensity for animated canvases that capture all the energy and visceral excitement of his subject matter in his unique archetypal style.
The head of this dramatic figure is, aptly enough, painted in a swath of fiery red paint. Dominating the central portion of the canvas, this substantial passage of primary color acts as the foundation upon which the rest of the figure is built. Painted in a high gloss paint, the red surface reflects the light, giving it an energetic dynamism that keeps the face alive. Individual characteristics such as the spikey black tufts of hair and spots on the scalp are added to give the figure a sense of its own individuality. This is a stark contrast to areas of black which are executed in matte paint, giving it a remarkable sense of depth, casting much of the face into shadow. The features are then delineated by a series of delicate white lines defining the piercing eyes and grimaced mouth with teeth glaring. Basquiat creates a sense of depth by painting a half-halo of black paint around the back of the head, and around the jaw line—adding a sense of almost sculptural three-dimensionality.
The sculptural aspect of the work is further enhanced by Basquiat’s very specific choice of support for Untitled. His creative impetus was such that he often took advantage of whatever surface was at hand. This dated back to his days as a graffiti artist when he would adorn the doors, windows and walls of abandoned buildings with his ©SAMO tag. As his career progressed, Basquiat continued to use unusual materials in his paintings—including a padded blanket as seen here—in addition to more traditional canvas or paper surfaces. Basquiat’s appropriation of ubiquitous objects was legendary, and having spent much of his youth moving between various friends’ apartments, the city became his canvas. From his graffiti days as SAMO to his development into an art-world darling, the environment in which Basquiat found himself had become the basis for much of his art. By using this particular form of blanket, the artist also utilizes the unique chevron pattern appliquéd into the surface to create another layer of pictorial tension. Basquiat not only disrupts the painterly layers, but also guides the eye progressively upwards over the surface of the work. This occurred in relatively few Basquiat works the most notable being Untitled’s sister work Cabeza, 1982 (Collection of Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich), in which a sinewy figure sits atop a golden yellow surface.
The noble figure that adorns the surface of Untitled could easily be part of the artist’s pantheon of kings, gods, athletes, and musicians. These figures were central to Basquiat’s oeuvre and many of his paintings feature the likes of Cassius Clay, Jack Johnson, Joe Lewis and Hank Aaron. Unlike Warhol—whose interest in Hollywood stars was centered on the power of their celebrity—Basquiat’s interest was much more political. Yale art historian Richard Farris Thompson says Basquiat’s celebration of these figures “at once celebrates and satirizes one of the few professions in which blacks are permitted to excel” (R. F. Thompson, “Brushes with Beatitude,” in R. Marshall, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, p. 50). Basquiat was one of the few artists—possibly the only one—to celebrate the African American by putting him on canvas. Therefore, in the process of creating an enduring iconography, Basquiat also infuses his work with a solid message of social consciousness: “Basquiat’s line does not seem to me an expressionistic one, for it is a line with a characteristic distinguishable in these times: its attitude is not emotional but critical. …the line is proof for him and for us, of the elasticity and clarity of seeing” (D. Davetas, quoted in L. Marenzi, “Pay for Soup/Build a Fort/Set that Fire,” Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Civico Musei Revoltella Trieste, 1999).
Painted in 1982, Untitled was produced at a pivotal moment in the artist’s career. By the beginning of that year, Basquiat had become the incumbent art star and was installed in a spacious studio in the basement of Annina Nosei’s Prince Street gallery in New York. The city had been suffering from economic stagnation and foreclosure: white-collar workers and businesses were vacating whole swaths in favor of the suburbs, and as crime levels soared, many areas were being abandoned by well-heeled residents. The drug culture filled the vacuum left by this ‘white flight’ and much of the emerging youth culture was centered on the use of hard and soft drugs. Rap, Hip-Hop and street art had become the new language of youth, and Basquiat was at the center of this new cultural movement. This downtown ethos had become a rich source of inspiration that Basquiat would continue to mine for the rest of his career. In many ways, Untitled is the quintessential painting that reflects this important period. Looking back on 1982, Basquiat himself recognized the tensions that he felt between the draw of his humble beginnings as a graffiti artist and his meteoric rise to become the wunderkind of the New York art world. “I had some money,” he recalled of that important year, “I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs (J. Basquiat, in R. Marshall, ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 241).
1982 saw Basquiat open his first one-person show at Annina Nosei’s gallery and make 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. Indeed in The Radiant Child, Rene Ricard’s influential essay which brought Basquiat to the attention of the wider art world, Ricard acknowledges the artist’s debt to Twombly, “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] from the same source (graffiti)…” (R. Ricard, “The Radiant Child,” Artforum, Vol. 20, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43).
Almost always autobiographical in some way, Basquiat’s paintings are pervaded with the sense that the artist was talking to himself, exorcising 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 vibrant colors over a number of painterly layers and bold architectonic angles, this dramatic and iconic portrait is both forceful and aggressive presences, whose impressive postures and tortured 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).