© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS, New York 2014
[MUSIC: Public Image]
Broad Director Joanne Heyler.
It almost looks like a map of the anatomy of a brain and a head, almost as if you're seeing through someone’s face and into someone’s thought process directly. And I think that's one of the reasons people are tempted to think of it as a self-portrait, even though that's never really been verified.
I remember the moment we met Basquiat, it was in Soho, when he was working and living in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery. He was in his 20s, the age of one of our sons. His passion made a great impression on us and we acquired several of his works.
1981 was a fraught time for Jean-Michel Basquiat: The young black artist was about to open his first New York solo show to a predominantly white art world. That tension, that ambivalence, and insecurity, bursts at the seams. At the top and bottom of the painting, marks resembling words behave like code, something only the artist could decipher, a kind of communication breakdown.
Though Basquiat was known for working at a furious pace, often producing multiple works in one day, it took him over a year to finish this one.
Many of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings are in some way autobiographical, and Untitled may be considered a form of self-portraiture. The skull here exists somewhere between life and death. The eyes are listless, the face is sunken in, and the head looks lobotomized and subdued. Yet there are wild colors and spirited marks that suggest a surfeit of internal activity. Developing his own personal iconography, in this early work Basquiat both alludes to modernist appropriation of African masks and employs the mask as a means of exploring identity. Basquiat labored over this painting for months — evident in the worked surface and imagery — while most of his pieces were completed with bursts of energy over just a few days. The intensity of the painting, which was presented at his debut solo gallery exhibition in New York City, may also represent Basquiat’s anxieties surrounding the pressures of becoming a commercially successful artist
In the late 1970s, brief, cryptic messages began to appear on the streets of Manhattan, all signed SAMO. These subversive, sometimes menacing statements, “Playing Art with Daddy’s Money,” “9 to 5 Clone,” and “Plush Safe…He Think,” piqued the curiosity of viewers around New York and soon gained notoriety in the art world. The works of SAMO, a tag calling up associations like “Sambo,” “Samson,” or “Same Old Shit,” eventually became known as the poetic defacements of Jean-Michel Basquiat, with partner Al Diaz.
Born in Brooklyn to middle-class Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, Basquiat left home as a teenager to live in lower Manhattan, playing in a noise band, painting, and supporting himself with odd jobs. Around 1980, Basquiat’s work began to attract attention from the art world, particularly after a group of artists from the punk and graffiti underground held the Times Square Show in an abandoned massage parlor. A wall covered with the spray paint and brushwork of SAMO received favorable notices in the press and Basquiat started selling his paintings out of his tenement apartment.
Many of Basquiat’s paintings are in some way autobiographical and Untitled, 1981 is largely considered a form of self-portraiture. The skull here exists somewhere between life and death. The eyes are listless, the face is sunken in, and the head looks lobotomized and subdued. Yet, there are wild colors and spirited marks that suggest a surfeit of internal activity. Developing his own personal iconography, in this early work, Basquiat both alludes to modernist appropriation of African masks and employs the mask as a means of exploring identity. Basquiat labored over this painting for months—evident in the worked surface and imagery—while most of his pieces were completed with bursts of energy over a few days. Presented at his debut solo gallery exhibition in New York City, the intensity of the painting may also represent Basquiat’s anxieties surrounding the pressures of becoming a commercially successful artist.
Two famous men from the history of Jazz appear in Basquiat’s Horn Players, 1983: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the upper left, Parker, whose nickname was “Bird,” holds his alto saxophone while Gillespie appears on the right with a trumpet. Basquiat’s painting is a tribute to jazz, specifically the bebop of Parker and Gillespie, and makes its tribute known by both rounding up the symbols and visual references of jazz while at the same deploying those references in a way as though to recreate music itself. The three panel work is full of repetition and visual punctuations. Art historian Robert Farris Thompson likens the multiple slashes of white paint across the surfaces to visual music, they “form their own beat, one, two, one-two-three. This is the clave beat, main artery of Afro-Cuban music.” Overall, the painting has the sense of rhythms emerging and then fading away, emerging again and recombining as though demonstrating the improvisation of jazz.
 Robert Farris Thompson in “Jean-Michel Basquiat,”Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2014, p. 19