Most are aware of Basquiat's Untitled, 1981 (Skull), which remains one of his most famous paintings of all, but the item in front of us here is not quite as well known. It also does away with the artist's consistent use of skulls or full head portraits, choosing instead to focus on a few key parts of the face. The colour scheme is bright, with tones of yellow, white and red contrasting sharply against the browns and blacks. He presumably started by laying down thick paint over wide areas before then drawing lines of detail over the top. He normally accomplished the latter stage by using oil pens, which provided the benefits of oil paint but with the precision of drawing tools and served his own artistic style very well. For example, you will spot series of lines similar to a train track just below the eye, and further scribbles in yellow across to the left.
Basquiat would vary the level of abstraction across his work, though not always consciously. He allowed his expressive mind to take over and wanted to output the dark depths of his mind without censoring it with too much conscious thought. This reminds us a little of the Automatist drawings of the Surrealists, who tried to access their subconscious for inspiration for their work. Basquiat was a skilled artist but wanted his imagination and opinions to take centre stage, without worrying too much about the accuracy of his depictions. This would leave many of us confused when his work is presented, and needing some time to decipher the different touches of symbolism that are generally to be found within his work right across the 1980s.
What we have here with Head (1981) is another example of the brilliance of Basquiat - an African American who rose to fame within the contemporary art world and overcame all the many challenges that he faced across his lifetime. It is unfortunate that he is not around today to appreciate the fame that he now enjoys, even though he may have been somewhat uncomfortable with the very idea. One positive that he would have appreciated, for sure, is how his work continues to raise the issues found within his own community, which was something he was always very passionate about and remain very much in the news and current affairs today, as much as ever.