A poet, musician, and art prodigy, Jean-Michel Basquiat is arguably the most celebrated– and possibly most commercially exploited– American painters of the Neo-Expressionism/punk art movement.
So much has been written about Basquiat’s almost mythic persona and role in reviving NYC’s art scene in the 1980s. Basquiat’s signature painting style of obsessive scribbling, elusive symbols and diagrams, and mask-and-skull imagery earned him cataclysmic stardom and international recognition by the time he was 20.
And despite its “unstudied” appearance, Basquiat’s work is one of the few examples of how a graffiti-based and counter-cultural practice could become a fully recognized and popularly celebrated artistic phenomenon.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960, at Brooklyn Hospital to parents Gerard Basquiat, who was from Haiti, and Matilde Andradas, a Puerto Rican Brooklyn girl. Basquiat grew up most of his life in East Flatbush.
At an early age, Basquiat showed an affinity for drawing, often using paper his father brought home from the accounting firm where he worked to make drawings inspired by television cartoons. His mother had a strong interest in fashion design and sketching. She often would draw with Basquiat and was eager to foster her son’s interest in art often taking him to Brooklyn Museum, MOMA and a number of design houses.
At age 8, while playing ball in the street, Basquiat was hit by a car, suffering various internal injuries, along with a broken arm. He also had to have his spleen removed. While hospitalized and recovering at King’s County Hospital, Basquiat received a copy of Gray’s Anatomy from his mother. The book made a lasting impression on Basquiat, influencing his later work which was often interspersed with anatomical drawings and prints and also became the name of the band he co-founded in 1979, Gray.
Basquiat’s art also drew influence from his Caribbean heritage— a convergence of African-American, African, and Aztec cultural histories with classical themes and contemporary heroes like athletes and musicians.
In Capricorn fashion, Basquiat was a quietly determined social climber: “Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix …. I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous”
Basquiat’s fascination with stardom and “burning out” is a recurring subject in his life. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, two people whose work and artistic achievement Basquiat admired, both died of drug overdoses at the age of 27 in 1970. His admiration for musicians, singers, and boxers like Joplin, Hendrix, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Joe Louis is shown later in various paintings.
Under the tag name of SAMO, he transformed his own observations into ubiquitous text messages scribbled all around the city across public buildings. A lot of his scribbled messages were a single word, short phrase, or a simple image referring to a person, event, or recent observation.
“We had pretty much stopped looking at the walls until this fall, when we noticed something new,” said artist Philip Fatflick in the Village Voice. “SAMO is the logo of the most ambitious-and sententious-of the new wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs.”
Basquiat produced five key works over an eighteen-month period: Untitled (Head) (1981), Acque Pericolose (1981), Per Capita (1981), Notary (1983), and La Colomba (1983). These works not only offer insight into this period in Basquiat’s career but reveal the depth of his concern for portraying spiritual experience through a lens of feuding dualities. Often associated with Neo-expressionism, Basquiat received massive acclaim in only a few short years, showing alongside artists like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Francesco Clemente.
“I don’t think about art while I work,” Basquiat once said. “I think about life.”
In 1983, he met Andy Warhol, who would come to be a mentor and idol. The two collaborated on a series of paintings before Warhol’s death in 1987, followed by Basquiat’s own untimely passing a year later, at age 27 from a drug overdose.
For some critics, Basquiat’s swift rise to fame and equally swift and tragic death epitomizes the overly commercial and hyped-up international art scene of the mid 1980s, a cultural phenomenon symptomatic of the largely artificial bubble economy of the era– one that was doomed to burst, along with those inside of it.
“I wanted to be a star, not a gallery mascot” said Basquiat of how he viewed his place in the art world at the time.
Basquiat, on behalf of Brooklyn, we acknowledge your vast, indelible contributions to art and music and black history. You will be remembered, always!