The Tempting Presence of Basquiat Untitled at SAM

“We’re here to see a Basquiat,” I said to my mother who joined me for a tour around the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) most recent exhibits.

“A what?” she asked.

“A painting on view for the first time on the West Coast. It’s abstract and bright. It looks like a giant screaming skull. You’ll have to see it. Let’s go there first. I want to be alone in the space with the painting before anyone else is crowding my thought.”


The painting is bigger than I expected. The 72 1/8 x 68 1/8-inch square is more of a presence than a painting. The colors remind me of ketchup, mustard, charcoal, and clouds scribbled across a complementary but hideous blue background. It is as if graffiti went on a date with decoupage. At the top, there appears to be an unfinished tic-tac-toe game. To the left, there are random letters, throughout there are remnants of figures started and scratched out. The SAM website describes these erasures best when stating, “They are witness to the artist’s process, with revisions, redactions, and erasures remaining vital elements in each finished work.”

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My mom broke the silence first, “I could look at this for days,” she said. I was surprised. I hadn’t expected her to like the work and her fascination drove home the popularly of  Basquiat.

She is right. It seems like a viewer can stare at the piece endlessly and still never see everything tucked within its layers. It is almost as if the layers have a gravitational pull. First, the viewer sees the big picture; subconsciously a step closer occurs to appreciate more delicate details and then a step closer. It takes only a few further steps until the presence is all consuming and captivating.

Perhaps, that is the magic of a Basquiat; that the work itself is beckoning viewers forward.


This work is on display at SAM until August 13, 2018.

For more information: Basquiat—Untitled at SAM