Although a self-taught artist, Basquiat had a deep understanding of art history, acquired at least partially through frequent visits to New York´s major art museums, beginning when he was only four or five years old. Significant influences ranged from Picasso, Pollock, Dubuffet and Twombly through Leonardo da Vinci. Fluent in French and Spanish (Basquiat´s father was born in Haiti; his mother was from Puerto Rico), he was a precocious reader in both languages, as well as in English. His special interests included Symbolist poetry, mythology, history and medical texts, particularly Gray´s Anatomy.
Basquiat emerged at a crucial, still insufficiently understood period of American art. He became a full-time painter in 1980, just as the New York art world was about to explode from a circumscribed, uptown world to the galleries in Soho and, shortly thereafter, the East Village. It was the birth of the era of artist as celebrity, and the ambitious artist could became a celebrity in the downtown club scene from which the hip-hop movement arose. Young artists were creating short-lived venues to show their own work and that of their peers. Basquiat first received critical attention in the now-legendary Times Square show of 1980, a weekend-long venue in an empty building that exhibited the work of several hundred artists.
Most of Basquiat´s work incorporates text with imagery; indeed, some of the drawings are purely writing. Certain words like "tar," an anagram for "art," recur throughout his work, as does "salt," indicative of the artist´s interest in the concept of possession. (Salt was once used as currency.) Basquiat devised a group of symbols, such as the copyright mark (artistic possession), a notary-public´s stamp, and, most ubiquitously, a three-point crown, denoting approval or admiration. A natural and vigorous draftsman, he had become equally adept as a colorist by 1982.
This exhibition, on view at The Museum of Fine Art, Houston from Nov. 20 to Feb. 12, 2006, compries 67 paintings, many drawn from European collections, and 36 drawings, all of which examine the artist´s work in the context of his role as the last Modernist.
All images courtesy of The Museum of Fine Art, Houston. 3 Quarters of Olympia Minus the Servant: The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Arroz con Pollo: The Stephanie and Peter Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Conn.