Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat

“Untitled (Skull)” Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat – An Analysis

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) painting is a striking example of his distinctive style and profound commentary on identity and mortality. Created in 1981, this dynamic work captures Basquiat’s raw, expressive technique, blending elements of street art with neo-expressionism. The painting features a powerful, fragmented skull, rendered with vibrant colors and frenetic lines, symbolizing the chaos and complexity of human existence. Basquiat’s use of text, symbols, and abstract forms reflects his deep engagement with contemporary culture, history, and his own personal experiences, solidifying his status as a transformative figure in the art world.



Key Takeaways

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) exemplifies his unique style and thematic focus on deep social issues.
  • The 1981 painting played a significant role in establishing Basquiat’s reputation in the New York art scene.
  • Analysis of Untitled (Skull) reveals a fusion of street art and fine art, challenging traditional views of art and society.



Historical Significance

ArtistJean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)
Date Created1981
MediumAcrylic and oilstick on canvas
GenreNeo-Expressionism and Graffiti Art
Dimensions (cm)205.7 x 175.9
Series/VersionsSingle artwork
Where Is It Housed?The Broad, Los Angeles, United States
What It Is WorthEstimated over $100 million (based on recent auction results for Basquiat’s works)

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled paintings, particularly the one known as “Skull,” capture the fervent essence and energy that the artist brought to the canvas. Basquiat, a notable figure of the early 1980’s New York art scene, possessed a distinctive style that combined elements of graffiti with Abstract Expressionism. He often used social commentary in his work to address deeper themes of race, identity, and class. The 1981 Untitled (Skull) painting is a powerful example of his raw and emotive approach, featuring a starkly depicted skull that is both haunting and captivating.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat History Panel of a collaborative mural picturing Jean-Michel Basquiat (2022) by Kevin Ledo; Terence Faircloth, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, via Flickr

This painting was revealed at Basquiat’s debut solo exhibition in New York City, where it immediately drew attention and helped cement his place in the art world. Through its X-ray vision-like depiction, the skull lays bare the complex interplay of life, death, and the inherently fragile nature of human existence. Despite the frequent reference to this piece as “Skull,” it remains part of Basquiat’s series of Untitled works.

In this way, it underscores his nonconformist approach and resistance to conventional interpretations.


Cultural Impact

Basquiat’s work, particularly the Untitled (Skull)  painting, has left a lasting imprint on contemporary art and culture. The painting is seen as a critical junction of expressive figuration and social commentary. Brooklyn Museum considers it a key artifact demonstrating Basquiat’s unique ability to distill varied historical and cultural references into a visually arresting form.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat Series Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Rob Corder, CC BY-NC 4.0, via Flickr


Market Value

At auction, the painting has performed impressively, echoing Basquiat’s reputation as a leading figure in the art market. In May 2017, Untitled (Skull) achieved a sale price of $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York City, which at the time, set a record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by an American artist.

This monumental sale not only signified the market’s recognition of Basquiat’s work but also positioned him alongside art market titans such as Picasso and da Vinci.



Artistic Analysis of Untitled (Skull)

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) is a complex painting that reflects the artist’s unique style through its striking visual elements and layered technique. This section will explore the nuances of the artistic process, the powerful subject matter, and the distinctive use of color and line, along with the symbolism and style that characterize this celebrated piece.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat Analysis Untitled (Skull) (1981) by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 4.0, via Flickr


Artistic Process

Jean-Michel Basquiat often combined oil stick and spray paint in his works, creating richly textured layers that are evident in Untitled (Skull) . He worked with an improvisational approach, allowing the dynamic interaction between these materials to guide the painting’s development.

The layering technique contributes to the painting’s abstract quality and its tactile depth.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat Process Use of Different Mediums in Untitled (Skull) (1981) by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 4.0, via Flickr


Subject Matter

The central image in Untitled (Skull) is a skull, rendered with a raw and visceral edge that captures the viewer’s attention. This isn’t just any skull; it is a larger-than-life representation that dominates the canvas, inviting interpretation and contemplation of its meaning.

The skull motif reoccurs in Basquiat’s oeuvre, often serving as a commentary on mortality and the human condition.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat Subject Close-up of the Skull in Untitled (Skull) (1981) by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 4.0, via Flickr


Use of Color and Line

Bold colors and energetic lines are hallmarks of Basquiat’s style, both of which are prominent in Untitled (Skull). The juxtaposition of vibrant shades against a neutral background makes the skull appear to pulsate with life, despite its association with death. The oil stick allows for thick, bold strokes, while spray paint provides a softer, more diffused effect. 

This showcases Basquiat’s ability to manipulate these mediums masterfully.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat Color Use of Color in Untitled (Skull) (1981) by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 4.0, via Flickr


Symbolism and Style

Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) is imbued with a rich array of symbolism, drawn from his personal lexicon that includes references to his heritage, history, and contemporary societal issues. His style can be described as neo-expressionist, with a raw, unfiltered quality that challenges traditional notions of high art.

The skull in Untitled (Skull) can be interpreted as both a universal symbol and a deeply personal motif within the context of Basquiat’s body of work.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat Style Style of Untitled (Skull) (1981) by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 4.0, via Flickr



Provenance and Exhibition

The provenance and exhibition history of a single artwork can shed light on its journey through time and its impact on the art world. The Untitled (Skull) painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat has an intriguing ownership history, has been displayed publicly to wide acclaim, and maintains a substantial legacy that continues to influence contemporary art and popular culture.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat Context Melting Point of Ice (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Rob Corder, CC BY-NC 4.0, via Flickr


Public Displays

Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) has been featured in a number of public displays, traveling across various exhibitions and galleries worldwide. The significance of public display escalates as these exhibitions offer a rare opportunity for the public to encounter the work outside of a private collection.

Museums and galleries utilize this powerful piece to anchor significant exhibitions, often showcasing the painting with strategic lighting and placement that accentuates Basquiat’s bold use of color and the prominent Red Skull at the center.


Legacy of Untitled (Skull) Today

The legacy of Untitled (Skull) extends beyond the art world into popular culture, influencing a range of merchandise from posters to prints. The image of the skull has become iconic, frequently replicated and framed, finding its way into the homes of enthusiasts who may never see the original canvas. As an embodiment of 1980s New York art scene energy, Untitled (Skull) continues to captivate and inspire, solidifying Basquiat’s reputation as one of the most significant artists of his time.

Untitled Skull Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat Legacy Riding with Death (1988) by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Fred Romero, CC BY 4.0, via Flickr


Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) painting remains a powerful testament to his artistic genius and cultural significance. This work encapsulates his ability to fuse raw emotion with complex themes of identity, race, and mortality, creating a visual language that speaks to the human condition. The painting’s intense energy and layered symbolism continue to captivate audiences, reflecting Basquiat’s enduring influence on contemporary art. As a pivotal piece in his oeuvre, Untitled (Skull) not only highlights his unique approach to art-making but also cements his legacy as a visionary artist whose work challenges and inspires.




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Significance of the Untitled (Skull)  Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat?

The Untitled (Skull)  painting is emblematic of Basquiat’s exploration of African-American identity and his critique of power structures. The skull motif represents both a symbol of mortality and a defiance of traditional Western art norms.


Which Materials and Techniques Did Jean-Michel Basquiat Employ in His Untitled (Skull)  Painting?

In the Untitled (Skull)  painting, Basquiat used a combination of acrylic and oilstick on canvas, integrating his characteristic bold lines and vibrant color palette. This method was part of Basquiat’s signature approach to creating raw and powerful compositions.


What Was the Price at Which Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) Painting Was Sold?

The Untitled (Skull) painting by Basquiat was last reported to have sold for $110.5 million at auction in May 2017. The sale spotlighted the painting’s monumental value in the contemporary art market.


Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, ““Untitled (Skull)” Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat – An Analysis.” Art in Context. June 6, 2024. URL: https://artincontext.org/untitled-skull-painting-by-jean-michel-basquiat/

Meyer, I. (2024, 6 June). “Untitled (Skull)” Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat – An Analysis. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/untitled-skull-painting-by-jean-michel-basquiat/

Meyer, Isabella. ““Untitled (Skull)” Painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat – An Analysis.” Art in Context, June 6, 2024. https://artincontext.org/untitled-skull-painting-by-jean-michel-basquiat/.

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