Mary Boone Gallery, New York, USA / Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich, Switzerland
Sotheby’s London, 22 June 2007, Lot 343
Christie’s London, 18 October 2013, Lot 29
Duhamel Fine Art, Paris, France
Private Collection, Europe
Switzerland, Zurich, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Jean-Michel Basquiat: New Works, 1 January-16 February, 1985.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, France, 2000 (illustrated, plate 2, p. 16).
From New York replacing Paris as the world’s art centre after the 2nd World War, to art trends such as Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Minimalism at their peaks between the 1960s and the 1970s, up to the early 1980s, with Figurative Expression and strong emotions, Neo-expressionism characterized by distorted forms and raw strokes began to hold sway in the art worlds of Europe and the U.S.. At the time, Jean-Michel Basquiat rapidly stood out in the art scene of New York with his audacious and innovative style. His free and untrammeled creation broke barriers of social hierarchy, further surmounting the fences between the culture of the mass and fine art after Pop Art. His art traversed different regions, cultures and times and continues to inspire the development of contemporary art.
“The Radiant Child”
In his childhood, Basquiat already manifested his love and passion for art. He frequented exhibitions in the museums and was extremely interested in music under the influence of his mother, grandfather and grandmother. English and Spanish were his mother tongues; languages and texts also became a major element in his creation in the future. In 1977, he and his friend Al Diaz used the pseudonym “SAMO”(SAMe Old shit) to make graffiti in Soho and elsewhere. In 1979, with the declaration that “SAMO is dead”, he announced the end of his graffiti art before formally devoting to art-making. “Times Square Show”, the first group show he participated in next year assembled emerging artists at the time like Jenny Holzer, Kiki Smith, etc. In addition to the great attention it aroused, curator Jeffrey Deitch’s article for Art in America especially mentioned Basquiat’s art as "a knock-out combination of de Kooning and subway spray-paint scribbles". Starting from 1982, he attained a great productivity and a high frequency of exposure, successively holding solo shows in Europe and the U.S. highly acclaimed by critics and academia. He was also invited to participate in Documenta in Kassel, Germany and the Whitney Biennial as the youngest artist on show. In 1984, Basquiat held his first solo show in a museum. In February next year, he was on the cover of New York Times magazine. Untitled (Lot 187) made at the time undoubtedly testifies to the period when he made the most diverse and mature shifts in style, marking the peak of the career of the most mythic and legendary contemporary artist.
Among the diverse subjects in Basquiat’s art, portrait is certainly the most representative. Untitled represents superimposed three-dimensional contours of a figure. The artist intentionally separated the depictions of lines and colour areas, enabling the viewer to perceive, as if to see through the veins and details of the protagonist’s body and hand. Whether the rich texture of oil or freely wandering lines of oil sticks, they all show bright and bold colour applications and unruly strokes filled with explosive force, clearly disclosing the artist’s confidence and dash. Basquiat was seriously wounded after a car accident in his childhood; his mother gave him a book titled Gray’s Anatomy when he stayed in the hospital for recovery. The experience and the anatomic pictures in the book cast a profound influence on him, which is also reflected in the analysis and depiction of body in Untitled. The red and blue lines seem to respectively represent arteries and veins. Basquiat’s fast and sure lines also symbolize the running of blood. The white colour covering the black circle at the centre of the figure’s belly seems to fill up something, perhaps indicating the healed wound left on his body after his spleen was amputated. The artist conveyed his own memories and experiences of his childhood in the work, just like he said, “I start a picture and I finish it. I don't think about art while I work. I try to think about life.” Thus Untitled is not only his account of daily life in the surroundings; it is also highly biographical, as a very rare piece where he expressed his own image and writing.
In examining details of the tableau, one finds the characters “RDS” at the core of the figure’s body in Untitled do not compose a complete word. They also seem to be covered by the hole to the left, leaving the viewer to guess the full meaning. Signs of langue and letters frequently appear in Basquiat’s oeuvre, but they are not simply to convey meanings through words. Like he said in an interview, “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Although the texts on the picture seem to be written randomly and by chance, they are cleverly arranged by the artist. He carefully thought about their locations and meanings, as well as how to induce the viewer to ponder through the work. Art historian Richard Marshall explained, “To Basquiat, the meaning of a word was not necessarily relevant to its usage because he employed words as abstract objects that can be seen as configurations of straight and curved lines that come together to form a visual pattern. The visual and graphic impact of printed letters was sufficient enough to stand alone as an artistic expression.” The characters in Untitled can also be regarded as combinations of visual signs and lines. In other words, the juxtapositions at the fore and the back of characters, figure and pictorial elements form a multi-layered formulation. Basquiat applied and dissected expressions of contemporary signs yet he also returned to the most basic construction of points, lines and planes, thus creating an extremely shocking compositional form.
On the other hand, the juxtaposition of graphs and letters not only followed artists like Picasso, Matisse and Gilbert & George in the 20th century. As Brian Gormley, an artist and a friend to Basquiat, put it: Basquiat’s book collection includes a book of sketches by da Vinci; the 1635 illustrations therein had a great impact on him; Basquiat also made a screen print about these, titled Academic Study of The Male Figure in 1983. The body anatomy and the perspective manifest influences of da Vinci’s manuscripts; they also represent Basquiat’s study of human essence traced back to the Renaissance. Combined with the trendy Action Painting in New York in the 1950s and automatic writing, the core of creation no linger lies in imitating the body and accurate proportions. The artist dissected and analyzed constructions of lines and colour areas through the motion at the instance of creation, imbuing a subjective interpretation of shape and colour. Basquiat’s portrait is indeed a spiritual expression; each sign, word and figure on the picture are like immediate documentation of instants of his life.
At the first glance, the figure’s facial expression in Untitled comes from Picasso’s cubist construction; the emphasis on the details of the features and the form reveal traits of traditional masks of African cultures and reflect Basquiat’s exploration on his own culture. At the right side of the face, the artist used saturated red, yellow and blue which extend to the lip’s contour and carry a special decorative sense. The figure is depicted by lines separating the contour of the front and that of the profile. By dividing and combining the features and the differentiated structures and depictions of the two eyes, the picture seems to represent the figure’s motion and intervals while showing various faces of the protagonist. The picture contains separated contours of the human figure, the protrusions of limbs and organs, dispersed fallen geometric shapes in the background, etc. The lines either continue or disappear, the coloured areas are not always separated or overlapped; the dissection and structuring of images and things here imply traits of post-modernist “deconstruction”. Basquiat’s composition and formal elements exceed the viewer’s pattern and cognition and therefore breaks our fixed impression, leading to and catalyzing brand new visual feelings and connection of life experience, expanding the depth and form of expression of figurative themes. Thus, amid the diversified metaphors of signs and the appropriation of forms in Untitled, the artist highlighted particulars of the times and cross-cultural intersections through image-writing involved with personal experience. It indeed sums up Basquiat’s art in its maturity and implies his unusual legendary life filled with ups and downs.