Untitled (Head) by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1981)

The work of Jean-Michel Basquiat is bold, intelligent and above all, original. His elegant fusion of graffiti, iconography and Afro-Caribbean imagery captivated the art world of the 1980s, of which Basquiat was one of the youngest and most successful members. Untitled (Head) of 1981, painted when Basquiat was just twenty, is a testament to his immense skill and unique artistic vision.

At the age of 7, Jean-Michel Basquiat was hit by a car whilst playing in the street. While recovering from his severe injuries in hospital, the artist’s mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, the famous medical textbook. From the pages of this classic, Basquiat would forever be fascinated by the complex internal construction of the human body, in contrast to its more mundane outward appearance.

In Untitled (Head), the artists fascination with the juxtaposition of the interior against the exterior is clear. Despite having teeth, a nose, and eyes, this decaying face clearly alludes to the bodily interior; a skull. Bold black skin on the left of the skull recedes to make way for the bright yellow of a defined jaw bone, orange shards  of bone where teeth once were held, and a deep blue eye socket. Indeed in many places, great chunks seem to missing from the face. The abstract lines and shapes of graffiti covering the right hand side of the head also further the impression that we are seeing this face without its skin.

In spite of his vibrant tropical pallet of blues, oranges, and yellows, this image is both dismal and highly morbid. Not only is the face literally decaying down to its bones, but also notice how the corner of the mouth is turned down, mirroring the downward glance of two bulbous eyes. Notice how firmly the teeth are clenched together, or how the stark blue of the background contributes to this generally mournful tone.  Obsessed and terrified by the idea he would never live to old age, Basquiat presents us with a quasi self-potrait. The artist pierces through his subject, breaking the barriers of the external and revealing not only the internal physiology of the sensory organs, but also the very psyche of the subject.

In this way, Basquiat’s Untitled is, on one level, easy to understand; the image of the skull, the colours, and its construction are all simply done. Yet, despite this simplicity Untitled (Head) remains fantastically obscure. The artist provides no answers for his audience when they inevitably come to question what Untitled really means. If this is a self-portrait, what was the artist saying about his own perceptions of society? What was he saying about race, which in so many of his paintings plays such a dominant role? While Basquiat permits our clear perception of the individual elements of this work, their ultimate and collective meaning is entirely obscured. This colossal visage is captivating, and painted with what can only be described as calculated incoherence – the artists trademark.

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