ALL OF BASQUIAT’S WORK IS AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SEARCH FOR WHOLENESS.
—ROBERT FARRIS THOMPSON
This large and electrifying portrait of a totemic, black hero figure standing proud amidst a dynamic chaos of gestural painterly form and color is one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s most impressive and important works. Part self-portrait, part idol, part dream image and part nightmare vision, Untitled is one of a famous sequence of three large-scale paintings on the theme of the prophet that Basquiat made in 1982.
Sometimes referred to as Basquiat’s “annus mirabilis,” 1982 was the year in which the young artist’s meteoric rise to international stardom was accompanied by an astonishing burst of creativity and the production of many of his finest works. Full of nervous energy, ambition, and enthusiasm, and also exulting in his new-found fame, it was at this time that Basquiat first began to fire on all cylinders, creating a body of work against which the entirety of his later career would be judged. The pictures that Basquiat painted during this extraordinary period were a startling sequence of hauntingly powerful images, all made on a theme that he defined as “royalty, heroism, and the streets.” A dynamic fusion of graffiti-like imagery, automatic writing, and half-formed thoughts drawn from every area of contemporary life, these are works that poured out of the young artist in an almost continuous stream of consciousness born of poetic instinct, and pure, painterly impulse. Basquiat himself recalled of this heady and unique moment in his career that it was a time when he felt as if he had “superpowers.”
It had been almost overnight, it seemed, that Basquiat had come to prominence among the international art world. Only one year earlier, in 1981, the twenty-one-year-old Brooklyn boy had been living a shifting, semi-homeless existence on New York’s Lower East Side before making the transition from the graffiti artist and cult street sensation known as SAMO to the accomplished young painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Now supported by his first dealer, Annina Nosei, who had provided him for the first time with a regular supply of high-quality oil paint, stretched canvas, and a place to work, the year 1982 was to be distinguished by an ever-more extraordinary sequence of paintings, each made for a swift succession of increasingly radical and groundbreaking one-artist exhibitions. The first of these was held at the Annina Nosei Gallery in the spring of 1982 and then followed up by a solo exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. In the summer, Basquiat’s inclusion as the youngest-ever artist to exhibit at Documenta, held that year, established him as a leading figure on the world stage and in September he held a further one-artist show at the Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zürich. Finally, in the winter, yet another solo exhibition held at the FUN Gallery in New York completed Basquiat’s spectacular apotheosis. Looking back at this remarkable year, Basquiat remarked simply: “I had some money. I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs, and was mean to people.”
The vast majority of the paintings that Basquiat made during this period are oriented around the subject of a lone black hero figure. These include works with named luminaries such as Marcus Garvey, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Sugar Ray Robinson, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, but they also include many other unnamed, anonymous, or forgotten black heroes, as, for example, an anonymous figure whom Basquiat labeled only as the “Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta.” Other Basquiat paintings from this time portray even more enigmatic, mysterious, and often shamanic-looking personae. These are figures who appear to have been drawn from an inner world of his own imagination and frequently take the form of saints, prophets, and ghosts. This latter type, which is the kind that Basquiat presents in Untitled, often serves as a kind of alter ego and/or proxy self-portrait. Part of a well-established artistic tradition of self-portraiture in the guise of a mystic or holy visionary that extends all the way from Albrecht Dürer to Egon Schiele, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Joseph Beuys, such figures are often also, as in Basquiat’s case, as expressive of the artist’s own inner state of being as they are posturing. Largely responsible for Basquiat becoming known at this time as a neo-expressionist artist, these figures are ones that lend a deeper meaning and intention to his work than that of other hero figures.
Throughout 1982 and afterwards, all these different hero figures began to function rather like talismans or spiritual guides within an ever-widening personal mythology that Basquiat was only beginning to weave into his work at this time. Often lonely and isolated figures, they appear to lay claim to an entire world of black heroes and a pantheon of forgotten gods that, until Basquiat’s rise to fame, were almost entirely unseen within the white-dominated canon of Western art. As Robert Farris Thompson—one of the few art historians whom Basquiat admired—has pointed out, like all shamanic figures, the saints, heroes, and prophets of Basquiat’s work inevitably remain inseparable from their collective history. They proclaim: “I’m with you but the history walks with me too.”
The iconographic roots of many of these figures lie in African and Oceanic art, which Basquiat had admired ever since he was a child when his mother took him regularly on trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the spring of 1982 all these different hero figures began to coalesce in his paintings into a singular, more mysterious and sacred type of holy man or prophet: a figure best seen in a sequence of now-famous paintings that Basquiat made on a visit to Italy and which are among the largest and most ambitious he ever produced. Standing in a sequence of three vast canvases, this figure took the form of a prophet in Profit I; an angel in Untitled (Angel); and a devil in Untitled. This magnificent trilogy of paintings presented a series of self-projections into the role of a shamanic spirit figure who stands with grimacing face and arms outstretched in an ambivalent gesture of either exultation or rage.
In the summer of 1982 Basquiat followed up this epic sequence of paintings with another trilogy of proxy self-portraits also on the theme of the prophet. From a photograph taken in Nosei’s basement while Basquiat was working on these three new Prophet paintings, Untitled appears to be the central painting in this prospective new trilogy. In these new versions, however, Basquiat’s image of the prophet or seer has now taken on a different form. The figures presented in these three paintings are more totemic and idol-like, displaying a stronger and more troubled sense of psychology and inner life. More distinctly African, they are electrifying and electrified figures whose inner anatomy is also sometimes visible—as if seen through an x-ray. The powerful face of the figure in Untitled in particular resembles West African sculpture. In this regard it may anticipate the griot figures that Basquiat would begin to paint a year or so later. It is, indeed, as more of an earth-bound griot than as shadowy, shamanic, spirit figures that all three of these new Prophets manifest themselves in these paintings from the summer of ’82. The griot in West African tradition is more of a storyteller than a shaman. He is a wandering philosopher, a street performer, and social commentator—a figure with whom Basquiat, through his own wanderings among the 1980s New York art scene, would increasingly come to identify. The three prophets depicted in this new trilogy on the theme of the artist-as-seer are all rapid-fire outer manifestations of Basquiat’s own inner psyche at this time and give form to a self-image that appears to radiate energy and psychic power.
Not long after this photograph of these three prophet-themed paintings was made, however, Basquiat underwent a falling out with Nosei and the story of these paintings becomes one integral to artist’s abrupt departure from her gallery. Accounts vary, but at some point over the summer (and while Nosei was away), Basquiat is known to have returned to the basement of her gallery and to have destroyed a number of his paintings that were stored there. This seems to have included one of his three Prophet paintings. Nosei herself has said that Basquiat explained to her that he was concerned about what he called “ghosts” coming through some of the paintings. Basquiat’s friend Fab 5 Freddy on the other hand has claimed that this assault was a deliberate act of control on Basquiat’s part and a symbolic way of cutting his ties with Nosei. It was, after all, only paintings deemed to have belonged to her that Basquiat destroyed.
Whatever the case, of the three Prophet paintings, only two of the original trilogy survived: the left-hand painting, now known as Untitled (Prophet I), and Untitled. Basquiat then subsequently continued to work on both of these paintings, refining and revising their appearance extensively from the states in which they had appeared in the photograph of Basquiat and Nosei in her basement. In the case of Untitled in particular, Basquiat completely transformed the picture from its earlier, simpler, and solely graphic representation into a powerful painterly expression of a prophet figure dissolving into (or perhaps emerging from) an abstract field of strong, thick gestural brushwork. The finished painting is, in this respect, much closer in style to the prophet, angel, and devil figures emerging from similarly highly painterly, abstract backgrounds in the great, large-scale canvases that he had made in Italy that spring.
In the overt painterliness of its style and also the way in which the original image of Untitled is now immersed in a new dynamic semi-abstract composition of colorful brushwork, Basquiat can also be seen here to be taking on the giants of twentieth-century painting: figures like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and perhaps also the great undisputed king of modern art, Pablo Picasso. As the many boxing images in his paintings suggest, Basquiat saw himself as a young contender entering into the ring of such painterly greats at this time and in Untitled, he seems to have deliberately attempted to fuse a dynamic self-image with the overtly gestural, painterly style of America’s leading Abstract Expressionist masters, Pollock and de Kooning.
Following its completion in 1982, Untitled was acquired in 1985 by the Marieluise Hessel Collection, which was conceived as an educational collection for the students of the legendary Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
The Basquiat was included in a series of exhibitions curated by the college and was one of the sensational highlights of the recent major Basquiat retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2018–19.
There, for the first time since its creation in Annina Nosei’s basement studio in 1982, it again hung next to Untitled (Prophet I). And proudly, this is the first time that Basquiat’s masterpiece will be exhibited in Asia.
Text by Robert Brown