American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat first came to prominence as a graffiti writer in New York City, and subsequently as a wildly successful 1980s Neo-Expressionist. His paintings continue to exert a profound influence on a younger generation of artists.
Born in Brooklyn on December 22, 1960, Basquiat showed artistic talent from an early age, which his mother and teachers encouraged him to pursue. He had a difficult adolescence. When he was 11, his mother was committed to a mental institution. He briefly ran away at 15 and dropped out of high school in tenth grade.
In 1977, at the age of 17, Basquiat began trawling the streets of lower Manhattan with his friend Al Diaz. They spray-painted graffiti on derelict, rundown tenement buildings and signed their work with the initials “SAMO”, or “SAMO shit” (“same old shit”). Basquiat would scrawl concise, sometimes arcane messages that cut to the point — “SAMO is an escape clause”, or “Plush safe he think; SAMO.” A feature article that picked up on these graffiti works appeared in the Village Voice in late 1978, signaling the end of what began as a covert operation. Basquiat’s last work in this series, scrawled on several SoHo buildings, simply read, epitaph-like, “SAMO IS DEAD.”
Within a year, Basquiat had become something of a star within East Village art circles, thanks in part to frequent guest slots on a cable-TV.
He formed the band Gray with Vincent Gallo — a virtual unknown at the time — taking the stage at CBGB's, Hurrahs, Max’s Kansas City, and the Mudd Club. Later, Basquiat would again teamed up with Gallo to make “Downtown 81” (aka New York Beat Movie), for which soundtrack their band contributed several rare tracks. He also made an appearance in Blondie’s MTV video for “Rapture.”
Basquiat’s first wave of artistic validation began around June 1980 when The Times Square Show, a group exhibition supported by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab), featured his work.
His paintings from this time featured skeletal, wraith-like figures that evinced an obsessive interest in mortality, as well as multi-panel works depicting writhing masses of words and writing and dense collages that demonstrated his affinity with contemporary black culture and identity.
Over the next few years, he showed his work together with Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger, working with patrons like Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone. He became friends with Andy Warhol in 1982 and worked with him on several collaborations. By 1984, his addiction to heroin and erratic mood swings started to lead the young artist into a downward spiral that eventually led to his death in 1988 from a combination of cocaine and heroin.
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