Painting the Head: A Narrative Journey Into Basquiat's Universe

Topics: Human anatomy, Art history, Jean-Michel Basquiat Pages: 12 (4092 words) Published: November 29, 2013
The 1980s reinvented backcombed hair and shoulder pads and brought us the death of John Lennon, the launch of MTV, and Michael Jackson's Thriller. New York, a city which has always been a melting pot of diverse cultures and nations, was bustling with young artists at the time. Amidst them, Jean-Michel Basquiat made his appearance on the art scene. Basquiat was a multi-cultural artist of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent. After his first exhibition in the early 1980s, he was immediately recognized as a new spirit who had survived the tail end of modernism and was revolutionizing art. (Mayer 42) Many of his artworks epitomize the strong sense of music and dynamism of 1980s New York. Basquiat is still greatly admired for his spontaneous use of line and bold use of colour. Perhaps it is because of its rich, layered complexity that his art continues to astound viewers, as they try to interpret and decipher the cryptic messages embedded within it. One of the most prominent works of Basquiat's career is the 1981Untitled (Head), which first presents what would become a key recurring motif in his iconography. The media immediately appreciated Basquiat's innovative style: “With its public presentation, this painting declared Basquiat’s arrival as a new and authentic voice in the world of contemporary art” (Hoffman 130). It continues to be a crucial work when analyzing his entire oeuvre. Richard Marshall said of this early period: “Basquiat used painterly gestures on canvases, most often depicting skeletal figures and mask-like faces” (qtd. in Buchhart X). Indeed, this painting depicts a solitary shape, caught somewhere between a head and a skull. Many art historians, art critics, and art lovers are mesmerized by this one piece. But what is it that makes this painting so powerful and enigmatic? Why is it so characteristic of Basquiat? In January 2011, the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris held a retrospective of Basquiat's work. During my visit to the museum, I was instantly captivated by the striking Untitled 5

(Head). To me, this painting is an iconic work and is key in understanding Basquiat as an artist. The intensity of the painting left a deep and lasting impression on me. I will therefore focus on the research question: why has the 1981 painting Untitled (Head) become Jean-Michel Basquiat's most celebrated work? What elements has he used to create such a paramount image? This essay will investigate the principal themes of the painting. It will evaluate the importance of scale, and also analyze Basquiat's use of colour and line. Finally, it will focus on the role of anatomy and heritage in an attempt to better comprehend the underlying meaning of the work. 6

Fig. 1- Untitled (Head) 1981 Acrylic and mixed media on canvas 81 x 69 1/4 in. (205.7 x 175.9 cm). The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles 7
Untitled (Head) is a work of mixed media framed in a 207 x 175.9 cm canvas. The impressive scale of the painting contributes to its striking nature. During the retrospective, this particular work had a deep effect on me. Indeed, the power it exudes violently captivates the viewer. Furthermore, the size of the head in relationship to the canvas is extremely important. It is placed in the centre and occupies most of the surface in such a way that one is forced to confront it. As it is much larger than a human head, it is rather daunting, and the fact that it is so full of life and yet so solemn makes it an incredibly powerful image, full of emotion and inner turmoil. As previously suggested, the figure in the painting is not just a representation. It is a “living entity”, filled with a supernatural spirit. Basquiat has given life to this creature. While it is contained on the surface of the canvas, it is also a container of a universe, barely held together by fragile stitches. The head creates an enclosed space; but at the same time Basquiat reveals the inner workings of the mind. However, it remains...
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