JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT | Untitled, 1981 | acrylic, oilstick, and spray paint on wood
Sold for $16,322,500 at the Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 10 May 2012, New York, achieving an auction record for the artist. [Video]
Basquiat’s great strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting. (Jeffrey Deitch, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Annina Nosei,” Flash Art, 16, May 1982, p. 50).
It would be insufficient to discuss Jean-Michel Basquiat’s radical art without touching upon the biographical and ideological forces that gave rise to his work. As a product of two national identities, Haitian and Puerto Rican, Basquiat was instilled with the nuances of cultural differentiation early on in his life. And, living a biracial childhood in Brooklyn, he was exposed to both the difficulty of black struggle and the wealth of his diverse heritage. He harnessed these differences to a brilliant degree, establishing his fluency in French, English, and Spanish by age eleven. In addition, his fascination with knowledge created lasting obsessions, namely with human anatomy and skeletal structure inspired by a copy of Grey’s Anatomy. Human anatomy would later become one of the trademark visual tropes in his oeuvre. Yet, perhaps most impressively, he employed his intellect toward self-improvement: his skills in drawing and painting were entirely self-taught, a remarkable marriage of observational discipline and extraordinary creativity.
Basquiat, at the youthful age of twenty-one, had already developed an utterly mature style, filled with a richness of history and biographical experience. Untitled, 1981 demonstrates both racial conflict and artistic virtuosity in decidedly religious tones, indicative of the lasting imprint of Basquiat’s Catholic upbringing. The piece itself, in terms of medium, is typical of Basquiat’s early career, where his unorthodox choices of materials are most heavily distributed. He employs a combination of acrylic, his most conventional medium, with the choice of paintstick, utilized for the sake of its fluidity in drawing. However, Basquiat’s street-inspired practices make themselves evident with the use of spray paint, which figures prominently in Untitled, 1981. Finally, all of his methods of technique lie firmly on a board of wood, which bears the immense cultural significance of Basquiat’s picture with sturdy resolve.
By actually including the human figure in his work (as opposed to American Abstract Expressionists), Basquiat subordinates the notion of abstraction to the expressive opportunities inherent in representation: “His works appear to break down the dichotomy between the external and the internal, intuiting and revealing the innermost aspects of psychic life.” (F. Hoffman, “The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works”, Basquiat, Edited by M. Mayer, New York, 2005, p. 131). Representation actually makes introspection a richer and more revelatory experience for Basquiat. It is true that the disintegration and reintegration of his figure may never be entirely complete, as we still observe rogue body parts in Untitled, 1981, namely a toe at the lower-left portion of the figure. However, we may presume that this allows Basquiat to take stock of himself metaphorically, discovering the depth of his fracture and incompleteness.