Jean-Michel Basquiat, the legend

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Legend

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22 1960 into a middle-class family in Brooklyn, New York. Basquiat was one of the most influential and internationally recognized African-American artists of the late twentieth century. His father was born in Port au Prince, Haiti, and his mother was a New York native of Puerto Rican descent. According to his claims, his father was physically violent and his mother was volatile. Despite suffering from depression, his mother made time to take him to the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum. 

Basquiat showed an early aptitude for art, learning to draw and paint with his mother’s encouragement and frequently using items (such as paper) brought home from his father’s employment as an accountant. He became a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum when he was just six years old.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: early influences

At eight years old, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street. While he was recovering his mother brought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, the fundamental medical textbook whose anatomical pictures influenced him for the rest of his life. Many of his childhood interests including cartoons, Alfred Hitchcock pictures, anatomy, and French and Spanish textbooks influenced his later work. 

His parents separated when he was seven with his mother being determined unfit to care for him due to her mental health problems. Basquiat lived with his father and his two sisters in Boerum Hill. Citing physical and emotional abuse, he dropped out of high school and ran away from home at the age of seventeen, fleeing to lead a new life in New York City. 

Basquiat’s art was fundamentally rooted in the New York City graffiti scene of the 1970s and his work launched fellow graffiti artists into the New York gallery scene. In 1976, he and his high school friend Al Diaz started spray-painting buildings throughout lower Manhattan and Brooklyn under the pseudonym “SAMO” (shorthand for “same old shit”). These contained cryptic messages and often featured the copyright symbol. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat - SAMO

Basquiat’s street artworks on canvas and paper and those on found materials, t-shirts, and commercial items were largely text-based and communicated an anti-establishment, anti-religion, and anti-politics message. These messages were supplemented by anatomical diagrams, numerals, pictograms, commercial graphic art, allusions to African history, stick figures, and maps. 

During this time Jean-Michel Basquiat was frequently homeless, sleeping in Washington Square Park, run-down motels, and friends’ apartments. He supported himself by selling sweatshirts and postcards with his drawings, panhandling, and distributing narcotics. His graffiti tag “SAMO” grabbed the attention of the counterculture press, most notably the Village Voice.

This was a publication that recorded art, culture, and music and considered itself distinct from the mainstream. However, when Basquiat and Diaz decided to end their collaboration in 1980 due to a disagreement, Basquiat ended the project with a series of tags proclaiming, “SAMO is dead.” 

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s place in the canon of art history was solidified during a brief period of strong artistic output from 1980 to 1984. His work was originally seen in the landmark “Times Square Show” in June 1980, a breakthrough shows that featured painting, graffiti, and performance art. Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, and Kenny Scharf also contributed to the groundbreaking exhibition. Basquiat then dived into New York’s urban avant-garde culture of the 1980s where he was recognized for his combination of multicultural iconography, incisive social commentary, and distinctive graphic style. 

The limelight suited Basquiat and in 1980 he appeared in the music video for Blondie’s song “Rapture.” In 1981 he appeared in art writer Glenn O’Brien’s film “Downtown ’81” playing a nearly autobiographical character. Basquiat soon became an integral member of the social circle around the Mudd Club and in 1981, Mudd Club co-founder Diego Cortez put the 21-year-old Basquiat in a group show called “New York/New Wave”. 

Basquiat’s wildly expressive paintings earned him considerable acclaim, which eventually led to his meeting with a gallery owner named Annina Nosei who set on representing the young artist. In September 1981, she provided him with a studio and a loft on Crosby Street in Soho to stay in and work on his art. That was a period of tremendous expansion for his practice in which Basquiat developed a more confident Neo-Expressionist style.

During this period, Basquiat produced around 200 pieces of art and established a distinctive motif: a crowned black oracle figure that both acknowledged and challenged Western art history. Basquiat elevated historically disadvantaged artists to royal status by adorning black masculine characters, including athletes, musicians, and writers, with the crown.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work was filled with imagery commenting on race relations in America, reflecting his awareness of his identity as an African-American in the art world. Rather than being preoccupied with the fetishized Black male body, his works emphasized the intellect and passion of his characters. ‘The Death of Michael Stewart’ created during that time period is his most enduring statement on police violence. It remembers the killing of the young Black artist Michael Stewart by New York City Transit Police.

Basquiat’s rise to prominence coincided with the advent in New York of the German Neo-Expressionist movement, an art movement that reasserted the centrality of the human form in contemporary art. Basquiat’s popularity among contemporary art enthusiasts was rapid and critics soon acclaimed him as a genius. Many celebrities and artists embraced him once he rose to fame quickly in the early 1980s. 

In 1981, he met his longstanding friend and mentor Andy Warhol at the late-night hangout Mr Chow’s. From 1984 through to 1986, the two artists worked together on a series of pieces in which Basquiat’s virtuoso graffiti scrawl was overlaid over Warhol’s vibrant Pop imagery. Madonna and Basquiat began dating in 1982 while both were on the verge of mainstream stardom. In 1983, he co-produced the rap record Beat Bop with Rammelizee and K Robb. By 1984, Basquiat had left Annina Nosei for Mary Boone, a 1980s art world powerhouse.

With his newfound business success, Basquiat lavished money on exquisite wines and the most luxurious hotels. He was frequently seen with Keith Haring and Andy Warhol and would arrive at Mr Chow’s dressed in Armani suits. His libertine squanderings were characterized by irreverence – he was known for painting over his designer suits, lending exorbitant sums of money, and even throwing $100 bills out the limousine window to panhandlers.

The New York Times Magazine featured a shoeless Jean-Michel Basquiat on its cover in 1985. The article, titled “New Art, New Money,” was purportedly about the artist. However, its true focus was the indistinct idea of the “art star”, a celebrity who not only made plenty of cash but also did not care if others knew how much money they made. 

Basquiat developed a severe heroin and cocaine addiction, possibly as a result of his newfound fame, the stress of maintaining his job, and the pressures of being a person of colour in a mostly white art community. Warhol’s death in 1987 had a profound effect on Basquiat who went on to produce numerous final pieces in a frenzy full of apocalyptic images.

Toward the end of Basquiat’s life, his pieces were selling for around $25,000 to the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art despite the fact that neither had granted him a show. Despite his enormous renown, Basquiat’s career was short-lived. Basquiat died of an accidental heroin overdose on August 12 1988 at the age of 27, capping off a brief but extremely impactful career.

Basquiat’s most iconic works today are massive and frantic. One of his most ambitious works, Dustheads (1982), is a seven-foot-tall painting with two vibrantly coloured, disordered figures against a black background. Untitled (Devil) by Jean-Michel Basquiat was sold at Christie’s in May 2016 for $57.3 million.

Because it incorporates the devil figure that appears throughout most of Basquiat’s work, the billboard-sized image has become an iconic one for Basquiat collectors. Basquiat’s Untitled sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s the following year, becoming the artist’s most expensive piece. The painting created at a time when Basquiat’s renown was growing, depicts a massive skull-like figure against a mostly blue background. When it was sold, the painting became one of the top ten most valuable works of art in history.

Today, Basquiat’s paintings can be found in museums all over the world including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. He is regarded as one of the most valuable artists in the art market with his works often fetching tens of millions of dollars at auction. Basquiat’s unique aesthetic continues to inspire current artists, as does his brief life.