What Makes Basquiat’s Untitled Great Art: One Painting Says Everything Basquiat Wanted to Say About America, Art & Being Black in Both Worlds

They wouldn’t have let Jean-Michel into a Tiffany’s if he want­ed to use the bath­room or if he went to buy an engage­ment ring and pulled a wad of cash out of his pock­et. 

– Stephen Tor­ton, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stu­dio assis­tant

When Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Unti­tled (Skull) sold for $110.5 mil­lion in 2017 to Japan­ese bil­lion­aire Yusaku Mae­sawa, the artist joined the ranks of Da Vin­ci, De Koon­ing, and Picas­so as one of the top sell­ing painters in the world, sur­pass­ing a pre­vi­ous record set in 2013 by his men­tor Andy Warhol’s work. Unti­tled dates from 1982, dur­ing “the young Basquiat’s mer­cu­r­ial ear­ly years,” writes Ben Davis at Art­net, “even before his first gallery show at Anni­na Nosei, when he was still a Caribbean-Amer­i­can kid from Brook­lyn ener­get­i­cal­ly boot­strap­ping him­self into the lime­light of the down­town art scene.” It is this peri­od that most inter­ests col­lec­tors like Mae­sawa.

Basquiat’s tran­si­tion from graf­fi­ti artist to art world dar­ling was dra­mat­ic, cel­e­bra­to­ry, and self-destruc­tive, all char­ac­ter­is­tics of his work. But crit­i­cal prim­i­tivism reduced him to a token — an art world atti­tude saw Basquiats as objects to be stripped of con­text, turned into dec­o­ra­tive badges of authen­tic­i­ty and world­li­ness. “Maezawa’s head paint­ing pos­sess­es a loud, gnash­ing, and con­fi­dent aura,” Shan­non Lee writes at Art­sy. But the artist’s “use of skulls… is deeply root­ed in his iden­ti­ty as a Black artist in Amer­i­ca. They are strong­ly evoca­tive of African masks, which have been so fetishized by the art mar­ket since mod­ernists like Picas­so appro­pri­at­ed them from their native con­texts.”

But head/skull motifs in Basquiat’s work are not only state­ments of dias­poric Black iden­ti­ty — they emerge through his the­mat­ic play of human embod­i­ment, men­tal illness/health, the com­pe­ti­tions of the graf­fi­ti world and the headgames of the art world, which Basquiat both mas­tered and cri­tiqued as a can­ny out­sider. “No sub­ject is more pow­er­ful or more sought after in the oeu­vre of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” notes Christie’s New York, “than the sin­gu­lar skull.” Though maybe not the most repro­duced of Basquiat’s heads, 1982’s Unti­tled — argues the Great Art Explained video above — exem­pli­fies the themes.

At only 22 years old, Basquiat pro­duced “a sin­gle paint­ing” that said “every­thing he want­ed to say about Amer­i­ca, about art and about being black in both worlds.” So sin­gu­lar is Unti­tled that it became its own one-paint­ing show in 2018 when its new own­er sent it on a tour of the world, begin­ning in the artist’s home­town at the Brook­lyn Muse­um. Maesawa’s deci­sion to share the paint­ing presents a con­trast to the way Basquiat has been treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly by oth­er own­ers of his work like Tiffany & Co., who explain their pur­chase and recent, con­tro­ver­sial com­mer­cial use of his Equals Pi by cit­ing his “affin­i­ty for the company’s state­ment blue col­or,” writes Tirhakah Love at Dai­ly Beast — a col­or they trade­marked ten years after Basquiat’s death.

The pro­pri­etary co-opta­tion of Basquiat’s life and work to sell sym­bols of colo­nial­ism like dia­monds, among oth­er lux­u­ry goods — and the turn­ing of his work into the ulti­mate lux­u­ry good — debas­es his pur­pos­es. Why show Equals Pi “as a prop to an ad?” asked his friend and for­mer room­mate Alex­is Adler. “Loan it out to a muse­um. In a time where there were very few Black artists rep­re­sent­ed in West­ern muse­ums, that was his goal: to get to a muse­um.” Find out in the Great Art Explained video how one of his most famous — and most expen­sive — works encap­su­lates that strug­gle through its vivid col­or and sym­bol­ic visu­al lan­guage.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Take a Close Look at Basquiat’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Art in a New 500-Page, 14-Pound, Large For­mat Book by Taschen

The Sto­ry of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rise in the 1980s Art World Gets Told in a New Graph­ic Nov­el

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Chaot­ic Bril­liance of Jean-Michel Basquiat: From Home­less Graf­fi­ti Artist to Inter­na­tion­al­ly Renowned Painter

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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