Jean-Michel Basquiat – A Brief Biography (1960-1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist who was part of the Neo-expressionism movement during the 1980s.
Basquiat first became known as part of SAMO, a graffiti duo consisting of Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz. The duo wrote enigmatic epigrams in Manhattan’s Lower East Side where punk, rap, and street art combined to form early hip-hop music culture.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on 22nd December 1960 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York City, to Gerard and Matilde Basquiat. He was the second of four children, having two younger sisters and one elder brother who died shortly before his birth.
From an early age, Basquiat’s mother tried to instill in him a love for art by frequently taking him to local art museums and then later enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
He was considered a precocious child, having developed certain inclinations such as reading, writing, and artistic activities at an earlier age than is usual or expected. By the age of 4, he had begun reading, writing, and drawing cartoons.
Basquiat’s mother encouraged his artistic talents and even enrolled him at Saint Ann’s School in 1967, which was an arts-oriented private school. Here he was allowed to freely express his creativity and even wrote a children’s book which was illustrated by his friend Marc Prozzo.
When Jean-Michel Basquiat was 7 years old, he was hit by a car while playing in the street, which resulted in a broken arm and many internal injuries that required a splenectomy.
The same year, Basquiat’s parents separated and he and his sisters were raised by their father. When he was 10 years old, his mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and ended up spending the rest of her life in and out of institutions.
In 1974, when Basquiat was 13, the family moved to Miramar in Puerto Rico. Two years later, they moved back to Brooklyn and Basquiat began attending Edward R. Murrow High School.
His problems, the separation of his parents, and his mother’s mental instability which he struggled to deal with, all made him a rebellious teen. He began smoking pot on a regular basis and even ran away from home at the age of 15 after his father caught him smoking pot in his room.
Basquiat left home and wandered on the streets, sleeping on park benches and taking acid. His father managed to find him one day with a shaved head and he called the police to bring Basquiat back home.
For the 10th grade, Basquiat enrolled at City-As-School, which was an alternative high school with several artistic students who found conventional schooling difficult. Here again, he got a chance to explore his creativity and he began to write and illustrate for the school newspaper on a regular basis. It was during this period that Basquiat and Al Diaz came up with the pseudonym SAMO.
In early 1978, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz began spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan under the pseudonym SAMO©.
They wrote satirical and poetic advertising slogans such as SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD, LIFE IS CONFUSING AT THIS POINT, STOP THE TRAIN OF THOUGHT, SAMO© FOR THOSE OF US WHO MERELY TOLERATE CIVILIZATION, etc.
The same year, Basquiat was expelled from school for throwing a pie at the principal. He decided to drop out of school altogether after the incident, prompting his father to kick him out of the house.
He then began working for the Unique Clothing Warehouse during the day while continuing to paint graffiti at night.
In December 1978, the news and culture paper The Village Voice published an article about SAMO graffiti.
While Basquiat painted graffiti around the School of Visual Arts in New York, he met and befriended other artists such as Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, who were students of the school.
Forming a Band
In early 1979, Jean-Michel Basquiat formed a noise rock band called Gray, along with filmmaker and artist Michael Holman. The band performed a noise-oriented style of experimental rock influenced by industrial music, minimalism, and artists who used extreme levels of distortion through the use of electric guitars, etc.
Neither of them was a trained musician and instead, they deconstructed sounds and melodies. The band included four other members and they played at nightclubs such as the Mudd Club, CBGB, and Max’s Kansas City.
Living in East Village
In the late 1970s, Jean-Michel Basquiat lived in the East Village with a friend named Alexis Adler, who was a biology graduate.
While living with her, Basquiat continued with his creative explorations by painting over the walls, floor, doors, furniture, etc. He also copied diagrams of chemical compounds that he found in Adler’s science textbooks.
During this period, he began making and selling postcards with a friend named Jennifer stein. It was while selling these postcards in SoHo that he one day met his idol, Andy Warhol, at a restaurant and sold him a postcard titled Stupid Games, Bad Ideas. The two would go on to become close friends later on.
Basquiat was involved in a number of different creative activities during this period. He showed some of his SAMO montages using color Xerox copies of his works at performance artist Arleen Schloss‘ open space.
Schloss also permitted him to use her space to create his MAN MADE clothing, which was painted upcycled garments. Later costume designer Patricia Field even carried his clothing in her upscale boutique in the East Village and even displayed some of his sculptures in her store’s window.
In early 1980, Basquiat and Al Diaz had a falling out, thereby bringing an end to SAMO. After the duo broke up, Basquiat wrote SAMO© IS DEAD on the walls of SoHo buildings.
In June 1980, Jean-Michel Basquiat took part in the Times Square Show, which was a collaborative, self-curated, and self-generated art exhibition sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated and Fashion Moda.
Basquiat’s works at the exhibition attracted the attention of several art critics, curators, and collectors, such as Jeffrey Deitch, who even mentioned him in an article regarding the exhibition in the art magazine Art in America.
In February 1981, Basquiat took part in the New York/New Wave exhibition, which was curated by filmmaker and art curator Diego Cortez.
After these exhibitions, he began gaining some recognition and attention as an artist. He was no longer just a street artist painting graffiti at night. His paintings were now being exhibited in galleries and exhibitions on a regular basis.
In 1981, Basquiat sold his first painting Cadillac Moon to Debbie Harry, who was the lead singer of the punk rock band Blondie. The same year, after Italian artist Sandro Chia recommended Basquiat’s work to Italian dealer Emilio Mazzoli, Mazzoli ended up purchasing 10 paintings for Basquiat to hold a show at Mazzoli’s art gallery in Modena. Basquiat was only 20 years old. An article called The Radiant Child was also published in Artforum magazine by art critic Rene Ricard. It was the first extensive article on Basquiat.
During this period, Basquiat was invited by art dealer Annina Nosei to join her gallery, thereby becoming his first-ever art dealer. She even provided him with materials and a space to work in the basement of her gallery.
In March 1982, Basquiat had his first solo exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery. The same month, his second Italian exhibition was organized in Modena, but it was eventually canceled because he felt exploited after being asked to make 8 paintings in one week for the exhibitions.
A few months later, Basquiat left Annina’s gallery after Swiss art dealer and collector Bruno Bischofberger became his worldwide art dealer.
In June 1982, Basquiat, aged 21, became the youngest artist ever to take part in the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, which took place every five years. At the exhibition, his works were displayed alongside artists such as Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer, Cy Twombly, Joseph Beuys, and Gerhard Richter.
Friendship with Andy Warhol
In September 1982, Bischofberger arranged a solo exhibition for Jean-Michel Basquiat at his Zurich gallery and formally introduced him to Warhol the following month.
Basquiat and Warhol quickly developed a mutual respect for each other. Barely a couple of hours after their meeting ended, Basquiat painted a double self-portrait of them together, Dos Cabezas, which was still wet when Warhol received it. This gesture began a close friendship and collaboration between the two artists.
Rising Success as an Artist
In November 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat had a solo exhibition at the Fun Gallery in the East Village, where his works Equals Pi and A Panel of Experts were also displayed.
In December of that year, Basquiat began working at the studio of art dealer Larry Gagosian, where he was often joined by his girlfriend, then-unknown singer Madonna. It was a productive period in his career, wherein he painted a series of works for an exhibition to be held in March 1983 at the Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood.
Basquiat’s star continued to rise in the art world, and he became one of the youngest artists to achieve such acclaim and success in the art world at such an early age. In March 1983, Basquiat, aged 22, became one of the youngest artists to take part in the Whitney Biennial exhibition of contemporary art.
The same year, Basquiat joined art dealer Marry Boone‘s SoHo gallery, where he would have his first show in May 1984.
Collaboration with Warhol
Between 1984 and 1985, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol began a series of collaborations on a large number of photographs.
While they collaborated, Warhol would usually start with something concrete or some recognizable image, and then Basquiat would go ahead and deface it in his characteristic animated style.
Some of the paintings as a result of their collaboration are Olympics, Taxi, 45th/Broadway, and Zenith. The two would also go on to have a joint exhibition at Tony Shafrazi‘s gallery, which ended up causing a rift in their friendship after the exhibition was panned by the critics and Basquiat was called Warhol’s mascot.
Fame, Money, and Drug Addiction
By the mid-1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat, just in his mid-20s, was a famous and established artist. His sudden rise to fame was covered extensively by the media and he even appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1985. His works appeared in Esquire and GQ, and he was regularly interviewed by television networks.
Apart from fame, Basquiat’s success as an artist saw a lot of money coming in for him as well. He was earning around $1.4 million a year and receiving a lump sum amount of around $40,000 from various art dealers.
But his sudden and overwhelming success came with some serious consequences. The more money he earned through his art, the more paranoid and deeply involved with drugs he became. He turned into a heroin and cocaine addict and his emotional instability became worse.
Basquiat found it difficult to cope with the demands of his newfound fame and he became fed up with the pressures of being a black man in a white-dominated art world and with the exploitative nature of the art industry.
From the mid-1980s onward, Jean-Michel Basquiat continued to have exhibitions all over the world. Exhibitions of his work were held in Salzburg, Abidjan, Paris, Tokyo, New York, Dusseldorf, and Hannover (where he became the youngest artist to have an exhibition at the art institution Kestner-Gesellschaft).
Although his success continued, Basquiat became more of a recluse in his last months. He tried to kick off his drug addictions but did not succeed much at it.
On 12th August 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat, aged 27, died of a heroin overdose at his home in Manhattan.
His then-girlfriend had found him unresponsive in his bedroom. He was rushed to the Cabrini Medical Centre where he was declared dead on arrival.
On August 17th, a private funeral, attended by family and close friends, was held at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel. He was interred at Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
A public memorial was held 3 months later at St. Peter’s Church with over 300 guests in attendance.
Jean-Michel Basquiat is now widely regarded as one of the most influential and well-known artists of the 20th century.
Few other artists have had as much impact and have created as many artworks as Basquiat did in just 10 years. Being a highly prolific artist throughout his short career, Basquiat created a whole lifetime’s worth of work in 10 years that have influenced and inspired subsequent generations in various ways.
In the course of his short career, Basquiat produced around 600 paintings, 1500 drawings, and several sculptures and mixed media works. His artworks helped shape the popular culture of the time, particularly hip-hop. Just like hip-hop, his art takes apart and reassembles the work that came before it, and it dealt with social, political, and other issues.
Basquiat’s art was nothing short of great visual social commentary that connected with the common man as well as critics. He used social commentary in his artworks to attack the established power structures and systems of racism and as a means for introspection and identifying with his experiences in the Black community.
He combined painting, drawing, and poetry in his artworks, playing with image and text, figuration and abstraction, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. He employed such visual poetics to show his support for the class struggle and to condemn colonialism.
Basquiat’s work often focused on opposites such as segregation and integration, outer and inner experience, and poverty and wealth.
This is why Basquiat enjoyed such great popularity among the people as well as critical acclaim from critics, dealers, curators, and collectors.
Since his death, the value of his artworks has increased tremendously. His 1982 painting, Untitled, was sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million, thereby becoming one of the most expensive paintings to have ever been sold.
It is said that when Basquiat was young, he dreamed of becoming one of the most famous artists in the world. One can hardly deny the fact that his dream has indeed come true.