Brushstrokes of Rebellion: Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled 1982 Skull Painting

A painting titled "Untitled (Skull)" by Jean-Michel Basquiat, finished in 1981. The painting features a skull with a crown in Basquiat's signature bold style, surrounded by layers of text, symbols, and graffiti-like markingsImage © Flickr (CC) / Untitled (Skull) © Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982
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Urban artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, left an indelible mark on the landscape of 20th century art. A seamless blend of emotion, cultural commentary and personal narrative, his expressive works changed the course of art history. Sitting within the artist’s highly decorated portfolio is Untitled 1982. This skull paintings stands out as a poignant form of self-expression and has captured the attention of viewer and collector alike.

Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat dominated the late 70s, early 80s downtown New York Street scene. Adopting the moniker SAMO and establishing a unique visual style, the artist garnered attention which subsequently saw him propelled into the commercial art world in 1981 when his work was hung in the New York/New Wave MoMA exhibition.

1982 was arguably the most formative of Basquiat’s career, with claims that his newfound access to materials and studios led to the most confident and dynamic paintings of his career, whilst proceeding the demand for work that came later in his career as a result of this success.

“For Basquiat it all converges in 1982. Those of us who were there at the time and saw those paintings just couldn’t believe it. The level of achievement was astonishing. It was almost a miracle… His peers had already anointed him as the best artist in the community, and he had the accolades of 'New York/New Wave' which inspired an increased confidence in the pairing: in the strength, in the line.”
Jeffrey Deitch, Art Dealer & Curator
Jean-Michel Basquiat sat on top of a case covered in his distinctive symbols Image © Vision Invisible, CC via Flickr / Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lizzie Himmel, 1985

Unveiling Basquiat's Untitled Masterpiece

At the forefront of his 1982 portfolio is Untitled 1982. A compelling take on self-portraiture, this canvas depicts a skull suspended between the realm of life and death. Listless and haunting, the eyes convey a sense of introspection while the sunken face and lobotomised head provide a glimpse into the artist’s psyche.

Expressive, painterly strokes dominate the blue graffiti background, creating a foreground that is charged with commentary and creative insurgence. Executed in oilstick, acrylic and spray paint, the anatomical skull is surrounded by iconography that is indicative of Basquiat’s oeuvre. A three-pronged crown appears in the top corner, and illegible typography is slotted in throughout. The skull motif itself has been interpreted as reference to his father’s Haitian background, symbolising voodoo rituals and mementos of death which are particularly prominent in Caribbean and African cultures.

A Symphony of Colour and Symbolism

A masterful amalgamation of contrasting elements, Untitled 1982 showcases Basquiat’s ability to manipulate colour, form and symbolism to evoke profound narratives. Juxtaposing the strong black strokes against vibrant bursts of colour and spirited marks forms a dynamic energy which captivates the viewer. There is clear intention behind this, with the artist displaying his ability to create tension within a composition and convey a story behind the visual.

Basquiat’s iconography takes on a new dimension as he draws on inspiration from African masks and skulls. Having been long associated with notions of identity and spirituality, the artist’s interpretation of the mask motif perhaps speaks to his own identity as a Black artist newly navigating the commercial art world. Making this symbol the focal point of his work, Basquiat invites the viewer to contemplate both the multiplicity of identity and the complexity of living up to the expectations of modern society, juxtaposing this with the overarching theme of mortality that floods through the depiction of the skull.

Despite the artist’s departure from street art into the commercial art scene, Untitled 1982 retains the gestural energy and movement seen in his early graffiti works. There is a sense of haste which permeates through the swooping brushstrokes and figurative lines, encapsulating the bursts of creativity that were felt by the artist. Basquiat’s mark making is elevated through the use of bold, primary colours, ensuring that there is a sense of vibrancy within the darker subject of mortality and identity. The gnashing teeth and angry eyes pitted into the skull enhance the dynamism of the work, almost allowing the subject to jump out from the canvas into the space of the viewer. The artist’s ability to harmoniously combine colour and symbolism is exemplified through the crowned skull, articulating his ability to layer meaning within his work.

Devi in red and blackUntitled (Devil) © Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983

Decoding the layers: anxiety and success

Untitled 1982 gains additional layers of significance when considered within the context of the artist’s debut in the New York/New Wave exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (1981), and his first solo show at Annina Nosei Gallery, Soho (1982). Marking a pivotal moment in Basquiat’s career, these exhibitions saw him transition from using Downtown Manhattan as his canvas to physical canvases in prestigious gallery spaces. The intensity of the skull painting with its haunting imagery and visceral energy served as a powerful statement within the confines of the gallery space, captivating audiences and critics alike.

Basquiat's success with critics and gallerists undoubtedly came with immense pressure to perform. Garnering popularity across the globe, the artist was recognised by Italian art dealer Emilio Mazzoli which led to his first international show in May 1981. This followed by the demand for a second exhibition in 1982 where Basquiat was required to produce a group of eight paintings in one week. However, this exhibition did not come to fruition as the artist felt exploited by the order for the paintings in a short space of time, later recalling that “it was like a factory, a sick factory. I hated it. I wanted to be a star, not a gallery mascot”.

Now coined The Modena Paintings, these canvases have become some of Basquiat's most important works, with the likes of Untitled (devil) achieving $85,000,000 at Phillips auction in 2022. Despite not being exhibited together at the time of creation, the paintings were reunited and displayed at the Fondation Beyeler, Switzerland for the very first time in 2023, demonstrating the artist's legacy and history that is embedded within his works even forty years later.

A black and white photograph of  Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger and Fransesco Clemente, New York, 1984.Image © Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger and Fransesco Clemente, New York, 1984

Setting records: a testament to artistic genius

Untitled 1982 established iself as one of Basquiat's greatest when it went up for auction at Sotheby's New York in May 2017. Realising an astounding $110,487,500, this moment marked not only the highest price ever paid for a Basquiat work but also set a new benchmark in contemporary auction. Far exceeding its pre-sale estimate of $60 million, Untitled 1982 was already surrounded by excitement as this was the first time it had been publicly seen since 1984. Having previously sold for $19,000 at Christie's New York, the painting was held in Jerry and Emily Spiegel's private collection for over thirty years, adding an air of rarity to the piece. Since it's sale in 2017, the acrylic canvas has been loaned to several museums for public display.

This record sale by an American artist has since been exceeded by Andy Warhol's Shot Sage Blue Marilyn which sold for $195 million in May 2022, however the prestige surrounding the Untitled 1982 painting has not diminished, underscoring the enduring allure and timeless significance of Basquiat's artistic vision and rebellion in his brushstrokes.

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