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Jean-Michel Basquiat

“I had some money, I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960. His mother was of Puerto Rican heritage, and his father a Haitian immigrant, the combination of which eventually led to the young Jean-Michel's fluency in French, Spanish, and English. Basquiat displayed a talent for art early in his childhood, learning to draw and paint with his mother's encouragement. Together they attended New York City museum exhibitions, and by the age of six, Jean-Michel found himself already enrolled as a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum. After being hit by a car as a young child, Basquiat underwent surgery for the removal of his spleen, an event that led to his reading the famous medical and artistic treatise, Grey's Anatomy. The sinewy biomechanical images of this text, along with those equally linear personages that Basquiat enjoyed in popular graphic novels, would one day come to inform his mature, graffiti-inscribed canvases. After his parents' divorce, Basquiat lived alone with his father, his mother having been determined unfit to care for him owing to mental instability. Claiming physical and emotional abuse, Basquiat eventually ran away from home and was adopted by a friend's family. Although he attended school sporadically in New York and Puerto Rico, he finally dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School, in Brooklyn, in September 1978, at the age of 18.

Basquiat's art was fundamentally rooted in the 1970s, New York City-based graffiti movement. In 1972, he and an artist friend, Al Diaz, started spray-painting buildings in Lower Manhattan under the nom de plume, ‘SAMO’, an acronym for "Same Old Shit." With its anti-establishment, anti-religion, anti-politics credo packaged in an ultra-contemporary format, SAMO soon received media attention from the counter-culture press, the Village Voice the most notable among them. When Basquiat and Diaz had a falling out, Basquiat ended the project with the terse message: ‘SAMO IS DEAD’, which appeared on the façade of many SoHo art galleries and downtown buildings. After taking note of the mantra, contemporary street artist, Keith Haring, staged a mock wake for SAMO at his club, Club 57. Homeless and sleeping on park benches, Basquiat supported himself by panhandling, dealing drugs, and peddling hand-painted postcards and T-shirts. Basquiat frequented the Mudd Club and Club 57-both teeming with New York City's artistic elite. During his stint as a punk rocker, he appeared as a nightclub DJ in the Blondie music video, Rapture. After the inclusion of his work in the historical, punk-art Times Square Show of June 1980, Basquiat had his first solo exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery, in SoHo (1982). Basquiat's rise to wider recognition coincided with the arrival, in New York, of the German Neo-Expressionist movement, which provided a congenial forum for his own street-smart, curbside expressionism. Basquiat began exhibiting regularly with artists like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, all of whom were reacting, to one or another degree, against the recent historical dominance of Conceptualism and Minimalism. Neo-Expressionism marked the return of painting and the re-emergence of the human figure. Images of the African Diaspora and classic Americana punctuated Basquiat's work at this time, some of which were featured at the prestigious Mary Boone Gallery in solo shows in the mid-1980s (Basquiat was later represented by art dealer and gallerist Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles). Rene Ricard's Artforum article, "The Radiant Child," of December 1981, virtually solidified Basquiat's position as a formidable figure in the greater art world.

The following year in 1982, Basquiat continued to thrive as a successful, high-in-demand artist. He opened six solo shows in cities worldwide and became the youngest artist ever to be included in Documenta, the international contemporary art extravaganza held every five years in Kassel, Germany. During this time, Basquiat created some 200 artworks and developed a signature motif: a heroic, crowned black oracle figure. Dizzy Gillespie, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali were among Basquiat's inspirational precursors; sketchy and Neo-Expressionist in appearance, the portraits captured the essence rather than the physical likeness of their subjects. The ferocity of Basquiat's technique, those slashes of paint and dynamic dashes of line, presumably revealed his subjects' inner-self, hidden feelings, and their deepest desires. In keeping with the wider Black Renaissance in the New York art world at the time (such as with the new, widespread attention at the time being given Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence), another epic figure, the West African griot, also became a heavily featured icon in Basquiat's work of the Neo-Expressionist era. The griot propagated community history in West African culture through storytelling and song, and he is typically depicted by Basquiat with a grimace and squinting elliptical eyes, their gaze fixed securely on the observer. By the early 1980s, Basquiat had befriended Pop artist Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated with on a series of works from 1984 to 1986, such as Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) (1985-86). Warhol would often paint first, then Basquiat would layer over his work. In 1985, a New York Times Magazine feature article declared Basquiat, the hot young American artist of the 1980s. Unfortunately, coinciding with all of this success, Basquiat was increasingly becoming addicted to heroin and cocaine, which untimely led to his tragic death in 1988 at the age of 27.

During his short and largely troubled life, Jean-Michel Basquiat nonetheless came to play an important and historic role in the rise of Punk Art and Neo-Expressionism in the New York art scene. While the larger public latched on to the superficial exoticism of his work and was captivated by his overnight celebrity, his art, was often described inaccurately as "naif" and "ethnically gritty"; These traits held important connections to expressive precursors, such as Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly. A product of the hyped-up 1980s, Basquiat and his work continue to serve for many observers as a metaphor for the dangers of artistic and social excess. Like a superhero of a graphic novel, Basquiat seemed to rocket to fame and riches, and then just as speedily, fall back to Earth as a victim of drug abuse and eventual overdose. He was the recipient of posthumous retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum (2005) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1992), as well as ©The Art Story Foundation – All Rights Reserved. For more movements, artists and ideas on Modern Art visit www.TheArtStory.org the subject of numerous biographies and documentaries, including Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010; Tamra Davis, Dir.), and Julian Schnabel's feature film, Basquiat (1996; starring former friend David Bowie as Andy Warhol), Basquiat and his countercultural example persist. His art remains a constant source of inspiration for many contemporary artists and his short, but seemingly epic life, a constant source of intrigue for a global art-loving public.