Occupation: Graffiti artist
Movement: Neo-Expressionism, Primitivism
Jean-Michel Basquiat shot to fame because of his graffiti art in New York City. He also was a musician and producer, and became well-known for his Neo-Expressionist and Primitivist art work.
Basquiat was born in the winter of 1960, in Brooklyn. His mother, Matilde, was from Puerto Rico, and his father Gerard, from Haiti. His early artistic bent was encouraged by his mother and teachers. He first visited art museums as a child with his mother.
After being hit by a car in 1968, Basquiat spent a month recuperating in hospital. At this time, Matilde presented him with a copy of the book “Gray’s Anatomy” to keep him occupied. Medical figures from the book had a lasting impact on his art. In the same year, when his parents separated, he and his sisters went to live with their father. His mother suffered from mental illness, and spent a lot of her time in and out of mental institutions. He picked up languages quickly, being able to speak French, Spanish and English fluently by the age of 11.
Same Old Shit
When he was seventeen, in 1977, Basquiat left school midway, ran away from home. He and his friend Al Diaz explored Lower Manhattan, spray-painting graffiti on derelict, rundown tenement buildings. They signed their work enigmatically, with the initials “SAMO,” which stood for “Same Old Shit.” Graffiti works and concise, and strange messages stating — “SAMO is an escape clause,” or “Plush safe he think; SAMO” — were featured in an article that appeared in the “Village Voice” in late 1978. The last message-work appeared on several SoHo buildings, simply stating, “SAMO IS DEAD.”
Experiments in Art
Within a year, Basquiat was famous in the East Village art circles, largely strengthened by his many guest slots on a cable show TV.
Basquiat started the music band, “Gray,” with Vincent Gallo, who was not known at all at the time. Performing at many clubs, like the CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club, brought him further exposure. He and Gallo made “Downtown 81” (a.k.a. New York Beat Movie), and “Gray” contributed several rare tracks to it. He also appeared briefly in Blondie’s music video for the song “Rapture.”
Basquiat came into prominence when in June, 1980; the group exhibition by Times Square Show, supported by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) showed his work. His paintings at this time depicted skeletal, wraith-like figures deeply interested in mortality, and writhing masses of words, writing and dense collages on multi-panel works. There was no doubt about his affinity — it was with contemporary black culture and identity.
As time went by, Basquiat participated in group-shows with artists like Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger. He also worked with patrons like Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone. A December 1981 article by poet and artist Rene Ricard entitled “The Radiant Child,” published in “Art Forum” was the first major feature on him. He and Andy Warhol became friends in 1982, and worked together on several occasions. While these collaborations received little critical acclaim, he and Warhol continued to collaborate till the latter’s death in 1987. His first solo exhibition was in 1982, at the Annina Nosei Gallery, USA.
Basquiat went to Africa in 1986 to exhibit his work in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. In November, 1986, his show was at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Hanover — he was one of the youngest artists ever shown here. In spite of professional success, he struggled in his personal life.
By 1984, Basquiat’s heroin addiction was leading to erratic mood swings. He was also devastated by the unexpected death of Andy Warhol and while in mourning, he spent a lot of time alone in his studio — the intricately detailed work “Pegasus” was made in this time.
Death and Legacy
In 1988, Basquiat received critical praise when his work was shown in Paris and New York. However, he was caught in the downward addiction-spiral that caused his death. He was only 27-years-old when he died in 1988.
His works are held by private collectors, including Lars Ulrich, Steven Cohen, John McEnroe, Madonna, and Leonard DiCaprio. His work commands high prices — in 2012, the painting “Untitled” (1981) sold for $16.3 million.
First solo exhibition
Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, 1982
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992
The Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005
Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2010
Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 2010-2011
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA
Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
“Downtown 81 (unfinished New York Beat film),” 2001
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” 2010