Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960, Brooklyn - August 12, 1988, New York, New York) was an American artist. He gained popularity, first as a graffiti artist in New York City, and then as a successful 1980s-era Neo-expressionist artist. Basquiat's paintings continue to influence modern day artists and command high prices.

Basquiat's mother, Matilde, was Puerto Rican and his father, Gerard Jean-Baptiste, is of Haitian origin and a former Haitian Minister of the Interior. Because of his parents' nationalities, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish, and English and often read Symbolist poetry, mythology, history and medical texts, particularly Gray's Anatomy in those languages. 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 slum buildings in lower Manhattan, adding the infamous signature of "SAMO" or "SAMO shit" (i.e., "same ol' shit"). The graphics were pithy messages such as "Plush safe he think; SAMO" and "SAMO is 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 SoHo buildings.


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 gained a certain celebrity status amidst the thriving art scene of Manhattan's East Village, for 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, with the then-unknown musician and actor Vincent Gallo. Gray played at clubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrahs, and the Mudd Club. Basquiat worked with Gallo again in a film Downtown 81 (a.k.a New York Beat Movie) 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's Career

Basquiat's career was incubated by the short-lived graffiti movement, which started on the streets and subway cars in the early 1970s, peaked, fell out of view, began all over again in the 1980s, peaked again, and finally receded, leaving Basquiat and the amusingly facile Keith Haring as its only memorable exponents. Unlike Haring, however, Basquiat never tagged the subways. The son of middle-class Brooklyn parents, he had a precocious success with his paintings from the start. The key was not that they were "primitive," but that they were so arty. Stylistically, they were pastiches of older artists he admired: Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet. Having no art training, he never tried to deal with the real world through drawing; he could only scribble and jot, rehearsing his own stereotypes, his pictorial nouns for "face" or "body" over and over again. Consequently, though Basquiat's images look quite vivid and sharp at first sight, and though from time to time he could bring off an intriguing passage of spiky marks or a brisk clash of blaring color, the work quickly settles into the visual monotony of arid overstyling. Its relentless fortissimo is wearisome. Critics made much of Basquiat's use of sources: vagrant code-symbols, quotes from Leonardo or Gray's Anatomy, African bushman art or Egyptian murals. But these were so scattered, so lacking in plastic force or conceptual interest, that they seem mere browsing - homeless representation.

The only thing the market liked better than a hot young artist was a dead hot young artist, and it got one in Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose working life of about nine years was truncated by a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven. His career, both actual and posthumous, appealed to a cluster of toxic vulgarities. First, the racist idea of the black as naif or rhythmic innocent, and of the black artist as "instinctual," someone outside "mainstream" culture and therefore not to be rated in its terms: a wild pet for the recently cultivated collector. Second, a fetish about the freshness of youth, blooming among the discos of the East Side scene. Third, guilt and political correctness, which made curators and collectors nervous about judging the work of any black artist who could be presented as a "victim." Fourth, art-investment mania. And last, the audience's goggling appetite for self-destructive talent: Pollock, Montgomery Clift. All this gunk rolled into a sticky ball around Basquiat's tiny talent and produced a reputation.

Basquiat's Contribution

"The claims made for Basquiat were absurd and already seem like period pieces. 'Since slavery and oppression under white supremacy are visible subtexts in Basquiat's work,' intoned one essayist in the catalog to his posthumous retrospective at the Whitney Museum, 'he is as close to Goya as American painting has ever produced.'Another extolled his'punishing regime of self-abuse' as part of'the disciplines imposed by the principle of inverse asceticism to which he was so resolutely committed.' Inverse asceticism, apparently, is PC-speak for addiction. There was much more in, so to speak, this vein. But the effort to promote Basquiat into an all-purpose inflatable martyr-figure, the Little Black Rimbaud of American painting, remains unconvincing." - From "American Visions", by Robert Hughes Text taken from Artchive