L’Enfant Terrible who Became
the Icon of Western 20th Century Art
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is now widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. He rose to success during the 1980s as part of the Neo-Expressionism movement. Although his life was tragically cut short, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s raw and radical paintings made a radical and a lasting impact in the art world and beyond. In a career spanning just about eight years, the young artist became a revered 20th-century icon…
By the early 1980s, Basquiat’s paintings were already being exhibited in galleries and museums internationally. In 1982, at the age of 21, he became the youngest artist to ever exhibit at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, when nearly 60 of his paintings were featured at the esteemed exhibition. At 22, he was the youngest artist to exhibit at the Whitney Biennale in New York. His ascension to the pinnacle of the art world was as fast as his life which tragically ended in 1988, he was 28 years old…
A Precautious Child
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on 22 December 1960, to a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father, Basquiat was the second of four children; he had two younger sisters, and an older brother who died not long before his birth. He was drawn to art from a young age. His mother, Matilde, appreciated his talent, and encouraged his interest by signing him up as a young member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. By age 11, he was fluent in French and Spanish, as well as English.
Acrylic, spray-paint and oilstick on canvas
72×68 inches (183.2 x 173 cm)
Sotheby’s New-York, 18 May 2017
In the spring of 2018, the very same museum whose young member was Jean-Michel Basquiat, hosted One Basquiat an exhibition devoted solely to the artist’s record breaking Untitled, a 1982 painting by Basquiat depicting a black skull with red and yellow rivulets, sold for USD 110.5 million to Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction.
At eight-years-old, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street and suffered a broken arm and severe internal injuries. While he was recuperating, his mother brought him a copy of the foundational medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy. The volume’s detailed anatomical drawings were eye opening to the young artist. Years later Basquiat named his industrial art noise band Gray (which counted actor Vincent Gallo as a member) in homage to this early influence.
Illustration from Henry Gray’s publication Gray’s Anatomy, 1918
When he was 13 years old, Basquiat’s mother was committed to a mental institution; she would be in and out of institutions for years thereafter. Basquiat attended an alternative Manhattan high school, City-as-School, geared towards the talented and the contrary — where he famously threw a pie in the face of the principal. Eventually, he began spending time around the School of Visual Arts, where he befriended students Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf.
Basquiat first achieved fame as part of SAMO, an artistic duo who wrote enigmatic epigrams in the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 1970s, where rap, punk, and street art collated into early hip-hop music culture. It was his graffiti tag “SAMO” (shorthand for “same old shit”) that first drew public attention.
Basquiat created “SAMO” with his friend Al Diaz while the pair were in high school and the tag, which often featured the copyright symbol, cropped up on buildings throughout lower Manhattan and Brooklyn between 1977 and 1980. “It was supposed to be a logo, like Pepsi.” Basquiat later told writer Anthony Haden-Guest. The end of the collaboration was announced in 1980 through a slue of tags declaring, “SAMO is dead.”
Basquiat and Warhol
Basquiat had long revered the legendary Pop artist Andy Warhol. In 1980, they met at a Soho restaurant, and Basquiat showed him a copy of one of his photo collages. The two met again two years later, when Basquiat’s art dealer Bruno Bischofberger brought him to Warhol’s Factory. Warhol was impressed with the young artist; the two soon began to work together, and became close friends.
Between 1983 and 1985 they collaborated on several paintings. According to Ronnie Cutrone, one of Warhol’s studio assistants, ‘The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again.’
Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat
The First Radical Art Show
Basquiat gained momentum with his first exhibition —the landmark DIY Times Square Show which opened in June of 1980 in an abandoned massage parlor off Seventh Avenue. The pioneering exhibition also featured works by Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer and Kenny Scharf. Along with Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scarf and Francesco Clemente, Basquiat was considered one of the leading figures of Neo-Expressionism, an art movement that reasserted the primacy of the human figure in contemporary art. In 1996 fellow Neo-Expressionist Schnabel directed a biopic of the artist’s tumultuous life with Jeffrey Wright starring as Basquiat and David Bowie as Warhol.
The media attention generated by that show helped launch Basquiat’s career. The Village Voice called it ‘the first radical art show of the ’80s’. Jeffrey Deitch wrote in Art in America that ‘a patch of wall painted by SAMO, the omnipresent graffiti sloganeer, was a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray-paint scribbles.’
In 1981, Basquiat was invited to join the gallery run by Annina Nosei, who had been greatly impressed with his work after seeing it in the groundbreaking New-York / New Wave exhibit at PS1 earlier that year.
Rise to Stardom
The year 1982 was particularly significant for Basquiat. In March, Nosei hosted his first solo show, which sold out. He travelled to Modena, Italy, and the paintings he produced there, such as Untitled, Profit 1 and Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, are considered among some of his most important pieces. In 2016, Untitled established a world record for Basquiat at auction, when it sold for USD 57,285,000 at Christie’s in New-York.. A year later, a 1982 skull painting sold for $110.5 million in New York, setting a new world record for the artist at auction.
Acrylic on canvas
238.7 x 500.4 cm (94×197 inches)
Christie’s New-York, 10 May 2016
Later that year, Basquiat exhibited at Documenta VII in Kassel; in December, Artforum magazine published an essay on the young artist, launching him to superstardom. Basquiat himself would later say that 1982 was when he ‘made the best paintings ever’.
Boy and Dog In A Johnnypump, 1982
She is going to be a big, big star
Basquiat also spent time on the West coast in 1982, working in a space below Larry Gagosian’s California home. This led to his second show at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, in 1983. But he was not the only soon-to-be-famous guest under Gagosian’s roof: Basquiat brought along his then-girlfriend, an up-and-coming singer called Madonna. ‘He told me, “She’s going to be a big, big star’’,’ the art dealer later recalled…
In California, Basquiat was drawn to the pieces Robert Rauschenberg was producing at the renowned print studio Gemini G.E.L. Basquiat visited Rauschenberg several times, and would continue to draw inspiration from the Abstract Expressionist artist.
A New Art Champion
Basquiat’s work resonated with many in the art world who were eager to cast off the Minimalist trend that had dominated the late 1960s and 1970s. In Basquiat, a key member of the Neo-Expressionist movement, they found a new champion. As The New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl would later write of Basquiat’s paintings from 1982, ‘You can’t learn to do this stuff. It’s about talent, served by commensurate desire and concentration — and joy.’ Basquiat, said Schjeldahl, was ‘a painter to the core’.
Jean-Michel Basquiat painting in St. Moritz, Switzerland, 1983
Photograph by Lee Jaffe/Getty Images
Music, and jazz in particular, was crucial to Basquiat’s work. His art offered a vibrant visual counterpart to the prevailing emphasis on improvisation, non-linear structure and sampling. His paintings frequently celebrated his favorite jazz heroes, such as Charlie Parker, in much the same way that he paid artistic tribute to famous athletes, boxers, and other personal icons, many of whom struggled to gain the recognition of their white counterparts.
Acrylic and crayon on canvas
60×60 inches (152.4 x 152.4 cm)
Equally key for Basquiat was hip-hop, the emergence of which paralleled Basquiat’s own artistic rise. In 1981, he made a cameo appearance as a DJ in the video for Blondie’s chart-topping single, Rapture — the first rap video ever broadcast on MTV. He also produced a legendary hip-hop record, Beat Bop, a rap battle between MCs K-Rob and Rammellzee, illustrated with Basquiat’s own art. With original copies extremely rare, it has become one of the most sought-after rap records ever made.
Basquiat and the Black Culture
Basquiat was one of few African Americans in a predominantly white art world. Throughout his career, his deeply political art foregrounded blackness, and the ordeals and traumas experienced by black people in America. His focus on black culture was atypical of many artists at the time, and his work helped bring attention to the lack of diversity in the art world.
Irony of Negro Policeman, 1981
Acrylic and crayon on canvas
According to scholar Richard Marshall, Basquiat ‘continually selected and injected into his works words which held charged references and meanings — particularly to his deep-rooted concerns about race, human rights, the creation of power and wealth.’ ‘I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them,’ Basquiat himself explained, later adding, ‘the black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings.’
Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets
Along with the boxer, the king is probably one of Basquiat’s most enduring motifs. He began using the crown as his signature when he co-opted the doors of SoHo art galleries as his canvases. Early on, Basquiat described his subject matter as “royalty, heroism and the streets”; as his career progressed the early crowns developed into fully-fledged figures in gleaming headgear. Basquiat’s regal warrior is, in part, an emblem of his success: Basquiat, ‘King of the Streets’, had conquered the art world.
In 1983, at just 22 years old, Basquiat was included in the Whitney Biennial, becoming the youngest artist to have represented America in a major international exhibition of contemporary art. In 1985, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. Basquiat was at the peak of his career — but was battling a severe drug addiction, which had led Nosei to stop representing him.
Many close to Basquiat would later say that only Warhol had been able to get Basquiat to rein in his drug use; when Warhol died, in 1987, Basquiat spiraled downwards. Basquiat died on 12 August, 1988, in New York City, of an overdose.