My favourite painting: Martin Waller

Martin Waller, the co-founder of design boutique Andrew Martin chooses a raw image by one of New York's most powerful and tragic artists.

Martin Waller on his choice: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled

‘Basquiat is the culmination of the 20th-century art revolution. He stands on the shoulders of Gauguin, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko and Warhol – and eclipses them all.

The ferocity of imagery and the extravagance of colour means there’s no time for leisured reflection. You are mugged by the immediacy of Basquiat’s brutal confrontation with life.

The canvas becomes a miraculous forge where rage and beauty are fused. The despair at injustice and the prefiguring of death are utterly evident.

Yet, somehow, the appeal of his own playful charm bursts through. The street-punk anger is cloaked by the astonishing joy of his colour.’

Martin Waller is the co-founder of Andrew Martin, London SW3, which sells fabrics and cultural artefacts from around the world

John McEwen comments on Untitled

The tragically short-lived whiz-kid of the 1980s New York art scene, Jean-Michel Basquiat has proved to be no mere shooting star. In 2017, a ‘skull’ painting of similar dimensions to this one and only a year later in date sold for $110.5 million — a record auction price for an American artist.

Basquiat’s artistic origins, as a vagrant New York teenager making graffiti with a friend under the name of SAMO, suggest a feral childhood. That would be a simplification. He was born in Brooklyn, his Haitian father an accountant, his mother the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. His father instilled the work ethic and voodooism, his mother an appreciation of art.

Their son was enrolled as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and, aged six, entered an Arts-oriented private school. During a childhood convalescence, his mother gave him Gray’s Anatomy, its imagery a profound influence.

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Teenage delinquency followed his mother’s commitment to a mental institution, but it was not without purpose. Basquiat dreamed of fame and was careful to spray his graffiti on walls near art galleries. The raw and vibrant imagery — voodoo-influenced ‘fetish’ skulls was a favourite theme — soon had him talent spotted and painting on canvases, not walls.

In 1981, he was included in a prestigious exhibition ‘New York/New Wave’, which included this painting. After the opening, he burst into his father’s house at 6am to declare: ‘Papa, I’ve made it!’

In the spontaneous way of graffiti, always a race against discovery, primary intentions vie with secondary revisions, colour with monochrome, linear details with broad obliterations, although, in fact, the spontaneity of Untitled was spasmodic, because Basquiat worked on it for several months.


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