First appearing in Crystal Bridges’ 1940s to Now Gallery in 2016, Untitled, 1981, is a paradigm of the most prolific stage of artmaking in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s unfortunately short career: 1981 to 1983. His work from this period is often raw, colorful, and exposed. It is less meticulously designed and more subconscious than his later work, making the resulting artworks feel more open and less contrived, perhaps partially because the paintings were completed before the artist was propelled into the popular spotlight in 1983.
Often combining a variety of influences, like Christianity, voodoo, and his own Puerto Rican and Haitian heritages into one piece, Basquiat’s early figures carry out their own ritualistic functions. The figure in Untitled could easily represent Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns, a “fisher of men.” Similarly, it could represent a Haitian voodoo priest called a Bokor. In this case, the cross-hatching evident on the scales of the fish could be indicative of a puffer fish—the poison of which was used widely in certain voodoo ceremonies.
From a technical standpoint, Untitled is an incredible example of Basquiat’s early style that incorporated visible pentimentos. Traditionally, a pentimento is a moment within a painting in which a previous compositional choice or image can be seen through the top paint layer. Basquiat used this idea to his advantage, often painting in a variety of thick and thin layers that purposefully allowed exposure of the layers beneath. This can be seen especially in the face of the crowned figure, with layers of green, gray, pink, black, and red.
When painting, Basquiat often worked his canvases horizontally on the floor, similar to Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. Evidence of this method of working can be seen in the center of the bottom edge of the canvas—a footprint buried underneath a few layers of paint.
Born in Brooklyn on December 22, 1960, Basquiat spent most of his early life in Brooklyn, often visiting museums in the area with his mother. After his parents’ divorce in 1968, Basquiat’s home life quickly crumbled. He ran away from home on several occasions, preferring the site of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village to his father’s house.
1981, the year Untitled was completed, marks an incredible transition point of Basquiat’s life; he moved from sleeping on friends’ couches to a small studio apartment of his own after acting in an independent film. With a job and some income, in 1981 the artist and his work began to move off of the streets and into the gallery, shifting from brick walls and subway cars to paper products and canvas stretchers. This shift allowed Basquiat to begin a more traditional and serious studio practice. By doing so, his work gained attention from the arts community and he received his first solo show in Europe.
By 1985, Basquiat had conducted solo exhibitions internationally, garnering the intense attention of the media and the public at large. He became a pop culture icon and a household name by the mid-1980s, appearing on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
Basquiat had long admired Pop artist Andy Warhol. In 1982, they were formally introduced by an art dealer, and formed a strong professional and personal bond. Of the pair, artist Keith Haring said, “The mystery that was Warhol was challenged by the complexities that were Basquiat. Their projected ‘images’ were powerful and uncompromising, while they both harbored a vulnerable, humble spirit which endowed both of them with a sense of humor. They ‘understood’ each other.”[i]
Basquiat’s relationship with Andy Warhol was a grounding force as his fame increased, and they often collaborated on a variety of projects. Warhol served as Basquiat’s leading hand for years—often pulling him back from the cliff of heavy drug use and self-debilitating tendencies. However, after Warhol’s death, in February, 1987, Basquiat quickly spiraled out of control and spent time in and out of rehab until August 12, 1988, when he was found dead in his apartment of a drug overdose at 27 years old.
[i] Keith Haring, “Painting the Third Mind,” in Ménage à Trois: Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente (New York, New York: Kerber Art, 2012).
Basquiat, Jean-Michel. “Art: From subways to Soho.” Interview by Henry Geldzahler.
Interview Magazine, January 1983.
Emmerling, Leonhard. Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1960-1988: the explosive force of
the streets. (Köln: Taschen, 2011).
Sirmans, Franklin, Robert Farris Thompson, and Robert G. O’Meally. 2014. Basquiat
and the Bayou, presented by the Helis Foundation, a project of Prospect New