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Jean-Michel Basquiat: Neo Expressionist Pop Icon

Jean-Michel Basquiat, known for his raw gestural style of painting with graffiti-like images and scrawled text, was the African American artist who emerged from the “Punk” scene in New York and crossed over to the international art gallery circuit. In a few fast-paced years, Basquiat swiftly rose to become one of the most celebrated painters of the widely celebrated Neo-Expressionism art movement.

Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 22nd, 1960. His father, Gerard Basquiat, was an accountant of Ivorian descent born in Port-au-Prince Haiti. His mother was named Matilde Basquiat and was of African-Puerto Rican descent. Basquiat was one of four children born to Matilde and Gerard Basquiat, three of whom survived to adulthood. Jean was born after the death of his older brother, Max Basquiat. He had two younger sisters, Lisane Basquiat (1964- ) and Jeanine Basquiat (1967- ).


Jean-Michel Basquiat - Image by © William Coupon/CORBISJean-Michel BasquiatJean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat’s parents, particularly his mother, encouraged him to immerse himself in arts and culture from an early age. His mother, who was something of an amateur artist herself, frequently took him to visit New York’s many art museums, and even enrolled him in a children’s program at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Basquiat would later credit his mother with getting him started as an artist. Basquiat’s first artistic works were cartoon drawings, often of characters from Alfred Hitchcock films. Basquiat would sit beside his mother at night, drawing his cartoon sketches while she worked on her own designs.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, Gray’s Anatomy. The sinewy bio-mechanical 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 and his sisters lived with his father, his mother having been determined unfit to care for him owing to mental instability. They stayed in New York in Brooklyn until 1974, then moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a brief sojourn before moving back to New York in 1976. Basquiat’s mother was committed to a mental institution when he was 11 and spent time in and out of institutions for the rest of her life.

1976, Basquiat’s fifteenth year, was a tumultuous one for the precocious young artist. It was in this year that Basquiat began his five-year long collaboration with Al Diaz, a friend and fellow street artist, whose partnership would persist nearly until Basquia’s 20th year. The two began spray painting graffiti together in Lower Manhattan under the pseudonym SAMO. SAMO (stands for “Same Old Shit”) was a fictional character originally conceptualized by Basquiat during his time in an Upper West Side drama group called Family Life Theater. The character made a living selling a fake religion.

The duo’s works featured short phrases and typically included “SAMO” somewhere in the inscription. The works were highly meaningful and often consisted of short, witty poems, such as, “SAMO saves idiots, Plush safe he think; SAMO”. When the partnership fell apart in 1979, Basquiat took to spray painting pieces inscribed, “SAMO is dead” in SoHo neighborhoods.

“SAMO as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics and bogus philosophy.”

“SAMO as an end to playing art.”

“SAMO as a neo art form”

“SAMO as an alternative 2 playing art with the ‘radical chic’ sect on Daddy’s $ funds.”

“SAMO as an escape clause.”

The graffiti, which to some would be seen as trespassing and vandalism, indicate Basquiat’s possession of the locations and ideas he worked with. Possession would prove a defining theme throughout the artist’s life.

In 1976, claiming physical and emotional abuse, Basquiat eventually ran away from home. This first time he ran away and was back within a week. He slept on benches in Washington State Park and was soon taken back home by the police. His relationship with his father, however, did not improve and the young artist was soon banished from the house altogether after he dropped out of tenth grade at Edward R. Murrow High School, in Brooklyn, in September 1978, at the age of 18. Sometimes homeless, sometimes staying with friends in Brooklyn, Basquiat supported himself by selling souvenirs and working at a clothing warehouse in Brooklyn.

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 inclusion of his work in the historic, 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 was 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.

1982 was a banner year for Basquait, as 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 art works 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, their hidden feelings, and their deepest desires. In keeping with a wider Black Renaissance in the New York art world of the same era (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 features heavily 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.

In November of 1983 Basquiat and Warhol, whom Basquiat had met in 1981 through a mutual friend, began collaborating on a series of paintings. In one series of works, Warhol creates multiple works playing on the Olympic five-ringed symbol, which Basquiat opposes with his very different graffiti-style art. The collaboration lasted through 1985.

It was in late 1984 that Basqiait’s friends began to worry about his drug use. He was said to be constantly paranoid and unconcerned about everyday realities including, uncharacteristically, his appearance.

Basquiat’s heavier drug use also coincided with his growing paranoia about his own place in the art world; he was worried that he would become an artist who faded out early, or that his artwork would be stolen or otherwise taken. Basquiat has many conversations with Warhol about these fears.

16 paintings collaborated on by Basquiat and Warhol premiered in September of 1985. Reviews were mixed, and it was believed that unfavorable reviews ultimately caused an irreparable rift in the two’s friendship.

It was around this time that Mary Boone became Basquiat’s primary art dealer in New York. The relationship was short lived and volatile, however, and less than two years after it began, their work relationship ended in 1986, leaving Basquiat without a New York art dealer. It was also in 1986 that Basquiat visited Africa for the first time, to the Ivory Coast, and made his first and only trip to the South, in Atlanta.

Basquiat was very fearful of the unfavorable racial reality in America, and saw himself as in no small amount of danger. These feelings often presented themselves in Basquiat’s work, which was typically socially and politically charged.

His paintings were highly symbolic in nature and often focused on what he saw as intrinsic dichotomies, such as the wealthy versus the impoverished or integration versus segregation. Basquiat’s works typically included words or short phrases in his works, and in fact some pieces consisted solely of the written word.

Basquiat’s “Untitled (History of the Black People) from 1983” was indicative of the influence of Renaissance thinkers and artists on his work. The work itself showed many similarities to Renaissance paintings; the painting included multiple panels and revealed stretcher bars. In this particular piece, Basquiat lived out a struggle which was all too familiar to him; the racial reality of the United States. Intelligent and able to think for himself, Basquiat was very afraid, and often paranoid, of the trouble he faced as both a black man and a black artist in New York. He once told an interviewer, “I am not a black artist, I am an artist.” Though Basquiat made multiple trips to Africa and was heavily invested in African-American movements, he was also readily aware of the troubles he faced and the judgements made against him because of his race. This painting recreates his own ancestors’ arrival in the United States as enslaved persons while also drawing attention to centers of African American culture.

Basquiat quickly deteriorated after Warhol’s 1988 death, for which he painted, “Gravestone”. Facing both artistic and personal difficulties, Basquiat turns to drugs even more frequently.

In 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 were captivated by his overnight celebrity, his art, often described inaccurately as “naif” and “ethnically gritty”, held important connections to expressive precursors, such as Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died in his New York loft on August 12, 1988. The cause of death was a drug overdose. Over three hundred admirers attended a November 5 memorial for the artist, a testament to his enduring legacy as both an artist and a rising sociopolitical force. His works continue to be exhibited, studied, and sold even today.

Basquiat has been the recipient of posthumous retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum (2005) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1992), as well as 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),






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