Jean-Michel Basquiat is arguably one of the most influential artists of the Neo-Expressionist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and certainly one of the most significant artists of his generation. Known for his loose and rough graphic style of painting, Basquiat went from an obscure New York City graffiti artist to art superstar almost overnight. He’s a personal favorite of mine and the following is a brief overview of his life and career.
Born on the 22nd of December in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the second of four children. He had two younger sisters and an older brother, who died shortly before he was born. His father, Gerard Basquiat, was of Haitian descent and his mother, Matilde Andrades, was Puerto Rican. A rather precocious child from an early age, Basquiat had already learned to read and write by the age of four and by age eleven was fluent in English, Spanish, and French; thanks in part to his mixed background. Not surprisingly, Basquiat also showed a talent for drawing and painting early on; a talent that was encouraged and further nurtured by his mother who frequently took the young Basquiat to art museums in New York City. By the age of six, the young Basquiat was already a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum, which would remain one of his favorite museums, according to a1983 interview with Henry Geldzahler. At around age eight, the young artist was struck by a car while playing in the street. Suffering a broken arm and several internal injuries, Jean-Michel had to undergo surgery and had his spleen removed. While recovering in the hospital, his mother bought him a copy of the medical textbook “Gray’s Anatomy” by Henry Gray. The eight year old Basquiat passed the time during his month-long hospital stay by copying the illustrations from the medical textbook, this new found interest in the human form and anatomy would influence his later works, which regularly featured human organs and the skeletal system. Shortly after his recovery, Basquiat’s parents separated and from that point on, he and his two younger sisters were raised by his father. Basquiat and his father had a strained relationship leading the young artist to run away from home on at least two occasions.
Eventually, Basquiat dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School at the age of eighteen and struck out on his own, staying with friends here and there and was even homeless for a period of time. To support himself, he sold homemade post cards and T-shirts in Washington Square Park. It was during this time period that Basquiat and Al Diaz, a friend from high school, began spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan. They worked under the moniker “SAMO” and thus signed all their pieces as such. Their works, which were thought provoking and ironic, quickly gained attention throughout the street art world. However, by 1980 Basquiat and Diaz had stopped working together due to artistic differences. The end of this partnership was perhaps the catalyst that sparked Basquiat’s amazing solo career, because it was during this time that he shifted from the walls of Manhattan’s buildings to paper and canvas.
Now on his own as an artist, Jean-Michel quickly became the toast of the town, everyone wanted a piece of him and his art. In 1980, two events that will forever change the course of the artist’s career occurred: Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, an art exhibition featuring many of the biggest artists of the time and he also met Andy Warhol around this time. The exhibition further pushed the artist into the public consciousness which lead to Rene Ricard’s article “The Radiant Child” being published in Artforum magazine, bringing Basquiat international attention for the first time. Immediately upon meeting Basquiat, Warhol was struck by both his artistic talent and charm; the pair quickly became close friends.
At this point, the 21 year old Basquiat was a bona fide art superstar and a fixture of the New York social scene; frequently seen with celebrities and was even involved with a young singer by the name of Madonna for a short time. Even with all the partying and socializing, Basquiat was still churning out massive amounts of art, apparently producing over two hundred pieces in 1982 alone. Gallery openings were becoming a regular occurrence and the value of his works often doubled overnight. According to an interview from the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child by Tamara Davis, Basquiat had to hide all his sketches and other works when guests came over to his apartment, because they were taking whatever they can and selling it.
Between 1983 and 1985, Basquiat collaborated with his close friend and idol Andy Warhol on a series of works, when their show opened in New York City it was widely panned by art critics of the time. This had a profound effect on Basquiat and could have contributed to his heroin addiction. In an effort to clear his mind and kick his drug addiction, he moved out to the West Coast for a period of time, settling in Venice, California. The artist continued to produce works while in Venice, but soon missed the East Coast and moved back to New York City where he quickly picked up his drug habits again. When Andy Warhol died in February of 1987, Basquiat’s drug abuse and depression took a turn for the worst, even he knew it. He once again tried to get clean of his heroin use and flew off to Maui, Hawaii. According to his friends, he was doing extremely well during his time in Maui. In August of 1988, Basquiat returned to New York and inevitably starting using heroin again. Jean-Michel Basquiat passed away on August 12, 1988 of a heroin overdose in his Great Jones Street apartment, he was 27 years old.
During a span of only a few short years, Basquiat forever changed the street art scene and helped push the Neo-Expressionist movement to new heights. He has inspired countless generations of young artists and his art and legacy will continue to do so for many more years to come.