"the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel's repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it is his. He won that crown" (J. Basquiat, quoted by Rene Ricard, "The Radiant Child," Artforum, December 1981, p. 37).
Standing proud and tall, the regal figure in Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled is one of the most striking portraits in contemporary painting-an exemplary example of the artist's unrivalled ability to produce visually powerful images that are both deeply personal, yet contain important universal themes that still resonate today. In this monumental work from 1982, Basquiat summons up an intoxicating mixture of line, color and form that results in a mighty, mythical figure that is, in equal parts, classical anti-hero, king, skeleton and self-portrait. An icon of self-made power, Untitled represents a victor as well as a victim, a figure who manages to triumph in a world where the odds are firmly stacked against him. This life-size painting, meticulously rendered with abundant layers of painterly gestures, exemplifies Basquiat's unique style in which he conjures up a repertoire of energetic gestures, daubs, drips, scrapes and scratches into one unrivalled creation. Not since Picasso has the expressive power of paint been harnessed with such dramatic effect in the creation of the human figure. The energy, vitality and sheer breadth of artistic virtuosity that can be seen within the confines of this painting acts as both an homage and a proclamation; with Untitled Basquiat puts the world on notice--notice as to who he is and what he is capable of doing, and in the process creates one of the most powerful and intoxicating portraits in modern painting.
Basquiat's part human/part mythical deity commands the center of this large-scale painting, his right arm held aloft as if in some commanding gesture of welcome. Upon his head is a magnificent three-pointed crown--Basquiat's signature motif that first began to appear during his days as a street artist and which soon developed into his own personal moniker. This large gleaming regal headdress sits at the apex of a body comprised of a tumultuous conglomeration of mark making techniques. Additive and reductive gestures race across the surface of the work as Basquiat assembles the body at a breakneck speed. Layers of red, brown and white acrylic paint and oilstick come together in furious unison -merging to produce the mottled complexion of subdued flesh tones. The mesmerizing eyes are emphasized by the artist's extensive use of thick black oilstick, enhanced by a circle of glowing red, resulting in the demonic look of a possessed figure. While it is these hypnotic eyes that instantly command our attention, it is Basquiat's complex construction of his assembled layers of paint that build up the face and body which has the power to captivate and enthrall. The artist then places this imposing figure in a benign and peaceful patchwork of gentle pink, cream, yellow and sky blue tones. The apparent disconnect between the calm setting and the frenzied execution of the central figures may seem at odds with his energetic painting style but, as Fred Hofmann points out, the effect is quite deliberate "by applying thin, subtly modulated hues, he could build up rich atmospheric effects, thereby creating an area in which his figures could breathe and interact" (F. Hoffman,"The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works," in M. Mayer (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 134).
While the head is made up of a single, unified composition, the body is constructed with a more complex arrangement of figural forms. The black torso appears to have been opened up, with the internal organs and blood vessels denoted by various circular forms and meandering red flourishes of Basquiat's brush. This part of the figure is one of the artist's famed 'boxers'--as denoted by his bright red Everlast boxing shorts. Bold and brave, figures such as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson were, for Basquiat, some of his favorite heroes-personal champions and highly visible African Americans who succeeded in predominantly white world. Basquiat's energetic style and choices of subjects reflected the very personal struggle the artist felt in his quest to become an established artist, as Fred Hoffman recognized, "Many of the dualities suggested in his work evolve out of the recognition of his predicament as a young black man in a white art world" (F. Hoffman, "The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works," in M. Mayer (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 130).
Painted on wood panel, the range of painterly techniques that Basquiat deploys in Untitled is staggering. From broad planes of flat color to expressive drips and delicate scored marks using the wooden end of his paintbrush, Basquiat mines not only his own unsettled years growing up but also a broader range of art historical sources to arrive at his unique style. "If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel," Rene Ricard pondered in his pivotal 1981 Artforum essay which introduced Basquiat to the art establishment, "The elegance of Twombly is there [and] from the same source (graffiti) and so is the brut of the young Dubuffet. Except the politics of Dubuffet needed a lecture to show, needed a separate text, whereas in Jean-Michel they are integrated by the picture's necessity" (R. Ricard, "The Radiant Child," Artforum, Volume XX, No. 4, December 1981, p. 43). While the artist often worked at a frenetic pace, each mark and gesture was carefully thought out-a considered element in a united, deliberate whole. "What he incorporates into his pictures," Ricard continues, "is specific and selective. He has a perfect idea of what he's getting across, using everything that collates to his vision" (R. Ricard, ibid., p. 37).
Beginning in 1981 Basquiat began moving away from the streetscapes and cars that populated his very early paintings and initiated his unique version of the human figure. As curator and early Basquiat scholar Marc Meyer points out there are two main categories of figures in the artist's paintings-icons and heroes. The figures that fall into the first category serve the same purpose as the West African statues and Christian iconography that would have been familiar to the artist through his Catholic/Hispanic/African heritage. This iconography of African masks, Voodoo figurines and Western religious symbols such as angels, haloes, devils, saints and martyrs all feature heavily in the artist's work. Fighting legends were also a particular favorite of the artist and he incorporated several of the sport's greats into his paintings. One particular work from 1982, the same year as the present lot, includes the Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Robinson in one single canvas. One of his most famous 'boxer' paintings is St. Joe Louis Surrounded By Snakes, in which the fighter is seated resting between bouts, surrounded by the faces of the (predominantly white) trainer and advisors who would eventually lead him to his financial downfall. Basquiat often then promotes his heroes to the status of Kings e.g. in CPRKR, his 1982 eulogy to the jazz trombonist Charlie Parker, Basquiat annotates Parker's initials in big, bold letters in the upper portion of the painting, which are then become transmogrified into the moniker 'Charles I' by the time Basquiat paints his name again along the lower edge of the canvas. Also aware of the fragility of life at the top in Charles the First, his three paneled painting from 1982, scrawled across the bottom of canvas is the phrase 'most young kings get thier [sic] head cut off' with the 'young' carefully struck out with an ominous sense of prophecy.
While many of Basquiat's large scale paintings feature one (or sometimes two) of the artist's cast of characters-be it boxer, king or one of his own personal heroes--Untitled contains elements of all three, with the image of the King, featured so prominently here, being among his most important and enduring motif. In one of his earliest paintings, executed just as the artist began his ascendency into the established art world, Basquiat produced a work in which a shimmering golden crown is placed high above the stylized head of a man as if in the process of regal coronation. Basquiat described his subject matter as 'Royalty, Heroism and the Streets' and as his career progressed these early single crowns developed into fully fledged figures, resplendent with gleaming crowns perched high on top of their heads. In addition to these stately figures, Basquiat's paintings came to be populated by a pantheon of other icons and heroes-including baseball players, boxers, musicians and civil rights leaders. Basquiat admitted that his paintings were "condensed histories" (J. Basquiat, quoted by Henry Geldzahler in L. Warsh Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, New York, 1993, p. 8), and in Untitled, these figures are compressed--concertina like--one on top of another resulting in this one fantastical demigod.
The human figure was central to Basquiat's art, particularly in the guise of a black man, and ranged from the direct self-portrait to the anonymous everyman or one of the artist's own personal heroes. Basquiat had a particular kinship for another of the most famous painters of the human figure--Pablo Picasso. This is particularly evident in the language with which Basquiat portrays his figures-the deliberately "primitive" and childlike naivet and its intermingling of imagery, graphic notation and painterly gesture. A visionary much like Picasso himself, Basquiat saw the world through his own unique lens portraying his subjects with a sense of energy and immediacy that virtually leaps of the page. He once said of his relationship with Picasso, "Picasso arrived at primitive art in order to give of its nobility to western art. And I arrived at Picasso to give his nobility to the art called "primitive" (J. Basquiat, Basquiat, exh. cat., Museo Revoltella, Trieste, 1999, p. 126). The pace at which Basquiat worked was also a match for Picasso, who often completed a couple of paintings in a day. Indeed this was recognized by Andy Warhol when he watched Basquiat at work in his studio once, telling him, "I mean, you're faster than Picasso. God, that's greaaaat" (B. Colacello, quoted in P. Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, London, 2008, p. 141).
Basquiat depicted his Spanish hero a number of times and his admiration for him was clear. In 1984 he painted Untitled (Pablo Picasso), a tour-de-force in his homage to the artist who was depicted wearing one of his classic stripy t-shirts. While Basquiat's earliest figures were frontal, flat, and rendered with stick-figure simplicity, his portrayal of Picasso was dramatically different, admiringly resplendent with an almost fully modeled face. Basquiat's paintings employed a style that was in many ways as radical as Picasso's, depicting the face with the same lyrical simplicity as Picasso did in his pre-Cubist breakthrough, like the Iberian masks that inspired his famous self-portrait of 1907. In another of Basquiat's homages to Picasso, Untitled (Pablo Picasso), the Spanish artist is shown in his youthful state with the words 'PICASSO FIFTEEN YEARS OLD' written across his chest. Only twenty four when he produced this portrait, Basquiat is acknowledging the master's genius, while at the same time staking his own claim for a place in the genre of figurative painting.
Basquiat's reign over the New York art world was brief, yet his influence has been long lasting. No-one before, or since, has managed to capture the artistic and cultural zeitgeist of the times in which they lived with such distinction and sophistication. Basquiat's totemic figures, such as one depicted in Untitled, still rule the art world and are among the most challenging and exciting depictions of the human figure in the last one hundred years. In paintings such as this, he manages to condense not only century of art history into one painting but also include a very contemporary view of the world. As Rene Ricard eloquently put it, he not only had an "observable history in his work" but here also "was the look of the times" (R. Ricard, "The Radiant Child," Artforum, Volume XX No. 4, December 1981, p. 40). Like many of the greatest artists of the twentieth century Basquiat not only had the ability to articulately depict his view of the world, he also something powerful to say. As dealer Fred Hoffmann put it "Underlying Jean-Michel's sense of himself as an artist, was his innate capacity to function as something like an oracle, distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and in turn, projecting outward through his creative acts" (F. Hoffman, "The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works," in M. Mayer (ed.), Basquiat, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, p. 129). As an oracle of the late twentieth century, Basquiat had few equals.