Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) Untitled, 1981 Acrylic and oilstick on Canvas 78 x 68 in, 198 x 173 cm Estimate in the region of $20 million. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2012.
Loic Gouzer, International Specialist of Post-War and Contemporary Art, declared: “In contrast to most artists, Basquiat created his best paintings at the beginning of his career. Untitled 1981 unites all the elements of energy, freedom and boldness that one looks for in Basquiat. The market has been waiting a long time for a work of this caliber and freshness, therefore we expect it to set a new record for Basquiat, an artist who is in the process of being recognized as a classic of Post-War American Art alongside Warhol, De Kooning and Pollock.”
This work is a remarkable and important early example of the potency of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s unique artistic language. Painted in 1981, as the artist emerged from the underground world of street art into the adulation of the New York art scene, this monumental painting displays the powerful iconography and painterly energy that enraptured both critics and collectors alike until the artist’s untimely death seven years later at the age of just 27.
Standing boldly at the center of the canvas, the majestic figure of the fisherman proudly displays his catch, a large fish dangling at the end of a long line. The dark figure, whose skeletal contours are outlined in stark black and white, is crowned with what appears to be a wreath made from barbed wire—twisted pieces of sharp metal appearing as a halo around the figure’s head. The raw intensity with which Basquiat depicts the man’s features recalls the naïve figures which populated the artist’s street art, scrawled and scratched across the abandoned buildings of the city’s less desirable neighborhoods. In stark contrast to the dark figure’s haunting raw expressionism, Basquiat locates his protagonist against a background composed of a palette of vibrant yellows, creams, pinks and mauves, thereby forcing our attention onto this central character and pushing the figure to the forefront of the composition. As an early example of Basquiat’s rich visual language, Untitled attests to the artist’s growing use of iconography in his art.
Whereas in later paintings, in which the artist depicted figures representing some of his childhood heroes such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Casius Clay and Joe Louis, Untitled features a figure that remains a mysterious apparition, which appears to be an amalgamation of characters from Basquiat’s own vivid imagination made up from a heady concoction of observations of New York life mixed together with the rich symbolism of his Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage. Whilst not overtly representational, this particular figure may have its origins in any number of sources, from the glimpses of the dispossessed fishing along the banks of New York’s numerous waterways to the obvious Christian symbolism (the ‘crown of thorns’ and Jesus’ instructions to his Disciples to become ‘Fishers of Men’). But perhaps the strongest resonance comes from the artist’s own cultural legacy. The boxy shape and cross hatched markings of the fish caught at the end of the line indicate that it could be a Puffer Fish, valued by Haitian Vodou culture for its poison, by which the Bokor (a Vodou priest) is believed to create zombies through a potion. Indeed the central figure in Untitled could easily be Basquiat’s rendering of a Bokor, as the man’s ashen complexion recalls the ash smeared onto the faces of those participating in religious festivals and ceremonies. The figure of the fisherman was clearly an important one for Basquiat during this pivotal period of his career as it makes an appearance, with slight compositional variations, in a number of his other works.