Jean Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was an unorthodox painter starting his career as a graffiti artist in the streets of New York to eventually emerge as a lead figure in the “Neo-Expressionist” art scene. Animate and inanimate forms in rather violent representations, with a brutal force of emotions, characterize ‘Neo-Expressionism.’ In line with this, outrageous color schemes and grotesque expressions also were integral to Basquiat’s works. In the year 1981, the artist came up with his first major work, “Untitled Head,” which also became one of his choicest paintings.
“Untitled Head” is a skull artwork made with diverse materials, and acrylic on canvas, set in an 81″ X 69.3″ frame. It features a human skull head, kept in place with the help of numerous stitches. The skull art is shown broken in several places, including the teeth, near the left eye, and towards the back of the skull. This skull piece, “Untitled Head” does not follow a uniform tone for skin or bones. Rather, it is adapted to a grim pattern in raw colors, as if to indicate rot and decay. These features give it an appearance of ‘Folk’ or ‘Tribal Art.’ The most remarkable aspect of “Untitled Skull,” is the eyes, which are looking down towards the floor, while capturing the despair of the ‘head’ with great finesse. The very combination of sad eyes and broken teeth is capable of signifying a blend of gloom and fear, which this piece intends to convey.
The background of the “Untitled Head” skull piece is an abstraction in blue, orange, red, and white. This is an excellent example piece of the “Memento Mori” artistic movement, and in this case, the skull art represents a classic example of Jean’s frantic pace, spontaneity, and experimental style. Due to his involvement in graffiti at the start of his career, Jean Michel had developed a sense of urgent (to avoid being caught by the police) execution, which crept into his “Untitled Head” skull art too. Let’s take a close look at the “Untitled Skull,” near the top of the canvas, some words are scribbled in bold saying, “Head of” and the name that followed these words was later scored. This becomes even more intriguing in the light of the belief that most of these “heads” were Jean Michel’s self-portraits. It appears that on the account of their portrayal, he himself was not comfortable with the idea of identifying with them.
Despite its ‘shock’ appeal and disconcerted impression, skull art such as “Untitled Head,” carried phenomenal commercial value, commanding a staggering price of $19,000 in the year 1984, just two years after its initial price was quoted at $4,000.