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Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an Americanmarker artist and the first painter of African descent to become an international art star. He gained popularity first as a graffiti artist in New York Citymarker, and then as a successful 1980s-era Neo-expressionist artist. Basquiat's paintings continue to influence modern-day artists and sell for high prices.


Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New Yorkmarker. His mother, Matilde, was Puerto Rican and his father, Gerard Basquiat, is an accountant of Haitianmarker origin. Because of his parents' nationalities, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish, and English from an early age. He read in these languages, including Symbolist poetry, mythology, and history. At an early age, Basquiat displayed an aptitude for art and was encouraged by his mother to draw, paint and to participate in other art-related activities. In 1977, when he was 17, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz started spray-painting graffiti art on buildings in lower Manhattanmarker, adding the infamous signature of "SAMO" (i.e., "same old shit") see: SAMO© Graffiti entry. The graphics were pithy messages such as "Plush safe he think.. SAMO" and "SAMO as an escape clause". In December 1978, the Village Voice published an article about the writings. The SAMO project ended with the epitaph "SAMO IS DEAD" written on the walls of SoHomarker buildings.

Basquiat attended Edward R. Murrow High School and City as a School in New York. In 1978, Basquiat dropped out of high school and left home, a year before graduating. He moved into the city and lived with friends, surviving by selling T-shirts and postcards on the street, and working in the Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway. By 1979, however, Basquiat had gained a certain celebrity status amidst the thriving art scene of Manhattanmarker's East Villagemarker through his regular appearances on Glenn O'Brien's live public-access cable show, TV Party. In the late 1970s, Basquiat formed a band called Gray (the name being a reference to the book Gray's Anatomy), with Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Nick Taylor & Wayne Clifford. Gray played at clubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGBmarker, Hurrahs, and the Mudd Clubmarker. Basquiat worked in a film Downtown 81 (a.k.a New York Beat) which featured some of Gray's rare recordings on its soundtrack. He also appeared in Blondie's video "Rapture" as a replacement for DJ Grandmaster Flash when he was a no-show.

Basquiat first started to gain recognition as an artist in June 1980, when he participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition, sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated and Fashion Moda. In 1981, poet, art critic and cultural provocateur Rene Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum magazine, helping to launch Basquiat's career to an international stage. During the next few years, he continued exhibiting his works around New York as well as internationally (alongside other street artists) now in the galleries such as Now Gallery, later promoted by Bruno Bischofberger and other gallery owners and dealers. He later showed at the galleries of Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone.

By 1982, Basquiat was showing regularly, and alongside Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, became part of what was called the Neo-expressionist movement. He started dating an aspiring and then-unknown performer named Madonna in the fall of 1982. That same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated extensively in 1984-6, forging a close, if strained, friendship. He was also briefly involved with artist David Bowes.

By 1984, many of Basquiat's friends were concerned about his excessive drug use and increasingly erratic behavior, including signs of paranoia. Basquiat had developed a very serious cocaine and heroin habit by this point, which started from his early years living among the junkies and street artists in New York's underground. On February 10, 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist". As Basquiat's international success heightened, his works were shown in solo exhibitions across Europe and the USA.

Andy Warhol's death in 1987 was very distressing for Basquiat, and it is speculated by Phoebe Hoban, in her 1998 biography on the artist, that Warhol's death was a turning point for Basquiat, and that afterwards his drug addiction and depression began to spiral.

Basquiat died accidentally of mixed-drug toxicity (he had been combining cocaine and heroin, often using cocaine to stay up all night painting and then using heroin in the morning to fall asleep) at his 57 Great Jones Street loft/studio in 1988, several days before what would have been Basquiat's second trip to the Côte d'Ivoiremarker. He was just 27 years old.

Artistic activities

Boy and Dog In A Johnnypump, 1982 (Cropped)
Basquiat's painting during the 1980s is properly seen in the context of the painterly neo-expressionist movement popular in New York and Europe at the time. But his earliest work (before he had the money for canvas and paint), his continued use of words in the paintings, and his common themes of racism and identity also align him with other trends of the period. Basquiat was always in possession of a great expressive line, but the quality and consistency of his individual paintings vary widely.

Before his career as a painter started, he produced punk-inspired postcards for sale on the street, and become known for the political–poetical graffiti under the name of SAMO. On one occasion Basquiat painted his girlfriend's dress, with the words, a "Little Shit Brown".

Basquiat's career as an exhibiting artist is known for his three broad, though overlapping styles. In the earliest period, from 1980 to late 1982, Basquiat used painterly gestures on canvas, often depicting skeletal figures and mask-like faces that expressed his obsession with mortality. Other frequently depicted imagery such as automobiles, buildings, police, children's sidewalk games, and graffiti came from his experience painting on the city streets. Many critics say Basquiat created most of his best work around 1982. The untitled head ("untitled (skull)," 1981) illustrated above is a typical example.

A middle period from late 1982 to 1985 featured multi-panel paintings and individual canvases with exposed stretcher bars, the surface dense with writing, collage and seemingly unrelated imagery. These works reveal a strong interest in Basquiat's black identity and his identification with historical and contemporary black figures and events. Some of these works achieve a great physicality, and his early interest in Rauschenberg again becomes apparent; "Grillo" (1984) is a good example. 1984-85 was also the main period of the flatter Basquiat–Warhol collaborations. The collaborative paintings received a poor critical reception but are iconographically complex and the process of painting together influenced each other's later work.

The final period, from about 1986 to Basquiat's death in 1988, displays a new type of figurative depiction, often on a plain painted background. It may be influenced both by Warhol and by Basquiat's increasing drug use; "Riding with Death" (1988) is a good example of this style. Some symbols and content from new sources appear in this period, but he also re-used many phrases and motifs from his earlier work, in a starker setting.

A major reference source used by Basquiat throughout his career was the book Gray's Anatomy, which he was given in hospital as a child. It remained influential in his depictions of internal human anatomy, and in its mixture of image and text. Other major sources were Dreyfuss' Symbol Sourcebook, Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks, and Brentjes African Rock Art. Equally important as input into his paintings was Jazz music of the 1940s, history and travel books, and TV cartoons and anything else that happened to be on TV while he was painting. The best discussions of his multiple sources are Richard Marshall "Repelling Ghosts" in his larger work, and Marc Mayer "Basquiat in History" in his, but the definitive study remains to be done.


Untitled acrylic, oilstick and spray paint on canvas painting by Basquiat, 1981
Several major museum retrospective exhibitions of Basquiat's works have been held since his death, in the US and internationally. The first was the "Jean-Michel Basquiat" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 1992 to February 1993 (this subsequently traveled to museums in Houston, Iowa, and Alabama through 1993 - 1994). The catalog for this exhibition, edited by Richard Marshall and including several essays of differing styles, was a groundbreaking piece of scholarship into his work, and still a major source. Another major and influential exhibition (and catalog) was the "Basquiat" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum March-June 2005 (which subsequently traveled to Los Angeles and Houston in 2005-2006).

Until 2002, the highest money paid for an original work of Basquiat's was US$3,302,500, set on 12 November 1998 at Christie's. On 14 May 2002, Basquiat's Profit I (a large piece measuring 86.5"/220 cm by 157.5"/400 cm), owned by drummer Lars Ulrich of the heavy metal band Metallica, was put up for auction, again at Christie's. It sold for US$5,509,500. The proceedings of the auction are documented in the film Some Kind of Monster. In another Christie's auction, on November 12, 2008, Ulrich sold a 1982 Basquiat piece, Untitled (Boxer), for US$13,522,500 to an anonymous telephone bidder. The record price for a Basquiat painting was made on 15 May 2007, when an untitled Basquiat work from 1981 had sold at Sotheby's in New York for US$14.6 million.

In 1996, seven years after his death, a film biography titled Basquiat was released, directed by Julian Schnabel, with actor Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat. In 1991 Poet Kevin Young produced a book, To Repel Ghosts, of 117 poems relating to Basquiat’s life, individual paintings, and social themes found in Basquiat’s work. He also published a popular “remix” of the book in 2005. In 2005, poet M.K. Asante, Jr. published the poem "SAMO," dedicated to Basquiat, in his book Beautiful. And Ugly Too.

Basquiat's lasting creative influence is immediately recognizable in the work of subsequent artists such as Gordon Bennett, Jabari Anderson, Nathaniel Donnette, Mark Gonzales, Wardell Milan, Ronny Quevedo, Michel Majerus & William Cordova.

Further reading

  • Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat: In World Only. Cheim & Read, 2005.
  • Deitch J, Cortez D, and O’Brien, Glen. Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981: the Studio of the Street, Charta, 2007.
  • Marenzi, Luca. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Charta, 1999.
  • Fretz, Eric. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography. Greenwood Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0313380563(forthcoming)
  • Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (2nd ed.), Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Abrams / Whitney Museum of American Art. Hardcover 1992, paperback 1995. (Catalog for 1992 Whitney retrospective, out of print).
  • Mayer, Marc, Hoffman Fred, et al. Basquiat, Merrell Publishers / Brooklyn Museum, 2005.
  • Tate, Greg. Flyboy in the Buttermilk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. ISBN 978-0671729653
  • Thompson, Margot. American Graffiti, Parkstone Press, 2009 ISBN 9781844845613 (forthcoming)


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