Basquiat, Jean-Michel 1960–1988
Jean-Michel Basquiat 1960–1988
No single artist represented the contemporary art scene of the 1980s more than Jean-Michel Basquiat. He rose from an anonymous, homeless graffiti artist spraying cryptic social messages on building walls around New York City’s SoHo and East Village in the late 1970s to become, within five years, one of the first African American artists to receive international recognition, with sales of his works grossing millions of dollars. Basquiat’s was a life of improbable contradictions and myths. His frenetic and prodigious artistic output—he produced thousands of paintings and drawings over a seven-year span—was often arrested by periods of heroin-induced stupor. During his career, he threw lavish parties, treated crowds to dinners at expensive restaurants, and painted in suits by Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani. When he died from a cocaine-heroin overdose, he was alone and facedown on his bedroom floor on a hot August afternoon in 1988. He was 27.
Assessment of Basquiat’s art is diverse and often as tumultuous as the works he created. His admirers claim he was a genius, an untutored primitive whose drug addition provided internal connections among various mental states necessary to his creations. Other views spiral downward from there; while some believe he was a gifted black artist overwhelmed by the pressures of a greedy white art establishment, others feel he was a talented artist who knew and desired too well the price of fame. Finally, his detractors assert that he represented everything that was wrong with the art explosion of the 1980s: a little raw, malnourished talent that was exploited, hyped, and ultimately heated beyond any recognizable value. “His work,” Roberta Smith nonetheless wrote in the New York Times, “is one of the singular achievements of the ’80s.”
Much of the growing legend surrounding Basquiat was self-generated. That he was raised on the streets of the ghetto, ignorant of art and its history, is false; his was an ordinary middle-class upbringing. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 22, 1960. His father was an accountant and would bring home scrap paper for his four-year-old son to paint and draw on. Since that age, Basquiat wanted to do nothing else. “He was like no other kid,” the elder Basquiat explained to Phoebe Hoban in New York. “He was always so bright, absolutely an unbelievable mind, a genius… He wanted to paint and draw all night.” The young Basquiat’s artistic inclinations were further spurred on by his mother, who took him to various museums around Brooklyn and Manhattan, his growing artistic sensibilities informed by the
Born December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, NY; died of a cocaine-heroin overdose August 12, 1988, in New York City; son of Gerard (an accountant) and Matilde Basquiat. Education: Attended City as School, Brooklyn, NY.
Began painting SAMO graffiti messages on walls around SoHo, 1977; sold painted sweatshirts and postcards and performed in the experimental band Gray, New York, 1977–80; paintings exhibited in first group show, “New York/New Wave,” New York, 1981; first one-man show, Modena, Italy, 1981; first one-man show in the U.S., Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, 1982; became youngest artist ever included in prestigious international survey of contemporary art, “Documenta,” Kassel, Germany, 1982; paintings included in Museum of Modern Art’s re-opening exhibition, “International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” New York, 1984; Basquiat-Warhol collaborative show, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1985; first museum retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992. Paintings and drawings exhibited in 37 galleries (group and one-man shows) throughout the U.S. (including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis, Norfolk, and Boca Raton) and worldwide (including Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich, Bologna, Montreal, and Seoul), 1981–88.
Another early influence was not a painter but a book— Gray’s Anatomy. When he was six, Basquiat was hit by a car; his spleen had to be removed. While recovering, he was given a copy of the medical textbook by his mother. The diagrams, labels, and skeletal structures—the integration of pictures and words—that would come to characterize his art found their genesis here.
Although his surroundings were ordinary, Basquiat was not. “A kid that bright thinks for some reason he is above the school system and teachers and rebels against it,” his father told Hoban. Basquiat attended both private and public schools but could not be disciplined. He had already formed his own vision. At 15, he ran away from home, shaved his head, and retreated to Washington Square Park. When his father found him a few days later, as the elder Basquiat related to Hoban, he said, “Papa, I will be very, famous one day.”
While at the progressive City as School in Brooklyn, Basquiat’s last attempt at structured schooling, he entertained thoughts of becoming a cartoonist and illustrated the school paper. “His drawings, executed in a bright Peter Max style,” Andrew Decker observed in ARTnews, “sympathetically depicted the homeless and sarcastically mocked bourgeois values.” They were portentous.
Just before he left school and his home at 17, Basquiat and fellow classmate A1 Diaz began spray painting graffiti on walls and bridges around lower Manhattan. Unlike ordinary graffiti, either brightly colored murals or vacuous expletives, theirs was a mixture of strange symbols and social commentary, often poetic. Signed with the name “SAMO,” representing both a corporate logo and the phrase “same old shit,” the messages “were far more cerebral and literate than the merely vibrant work of some of the pure graffitists,” Decker noted. Phrases like SAMO AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD and PAY FOR SOUP, BUILD A FORT, SET IT ON FIRE soon captured attention.
What Basquiat desired, however, was a certain type of attention from a certain type of people. SAMO messages soon appeared on walls near important art galleries and nightclubs. Although anonymous, the young artist sought recognition. Sleeping in Washington Square Park or on the floors of friends’ apartments, Basquiat made money by selling handmade postcards and hand-painted sweatshirts on street corners. He also helped form a “noise” band called Gray, in which he played guitar with a file. “I was inspired by [modern American composer] John Cage at the time—music that really wasn’t music,” he explained to Cathleen McGuigan in the New York Times Magazine. “We were trying to be incomplete, abrasive, oddly beautiful.”
What was even more purely abrasive and oddly beautiful were the images and words Basquiat was putting on anything he could find: refrigerators, table tops, lab coats, foam rubber, typewriters. He sold several of his postcards to the Museum of Modern Art, and his other works were displayed in clubs where his band played and at other popular late-night spots where influential people in the art community gathered. His work was getting noticed; he made sure of that. “He knew the most people on the scene,” Gray bandmember Michael Holman recalled to Hoban. “He knew what was going on.”
Sometime around 1980, the phrase “SAMO IS DEAD” began to appear around SoHo. Basquiat killed off his alter ego after a disagreement with Diaz. But it had served its evolutionary purpose. He turned increasingly to his art, encouraged by individuals such as curator, critic, and artist Diego Cortez, whom Basquiat had met in 1979. “He looked like a combination of a fashion model and a nineteen-year-old Bowery bum,” Cortez related to Hoban, describing his first meeting with Basquiat. “I was convinced from the first that he was very talented.”
Although a section of a SAMO wall had been displayed at the “Times Square Show” in 1980, garnering Basquiat critical notice, it was Cortez’s alternative presentation “New York/New Wave” in January of 1981 that was Basquiat’s launching pad. His exhibited works— “generally spare, childlike scrawls in crayon or paint on unprimed canvas,” as Decker described—came to the attention of three important dealers: Bruno Bischofberger, a Swiss dealer who would represent Basquiat in Europe beginning in 1982; Emilio Mazzolli, a dealer from Modena, Italy, who would give Basquiat his first one-man show in Europe in the spring of 1981; and Annina Nosei, a SoHo dealer who would take Basquiat on as a gallery artist later that year.
Cloistered in the basement of Nosei’s gallery, Basquiat turned out a vast amount of work. Nosei would often bring collectors to see his projects while he painted; she frequently sold them before he thought they were finished. But in this “hothouse” Basquiat’s work evolved and flourished. His drawings and symbols, annotated with lists of words, were more detailed and colorful than his previous offerings. In a review of his one-man show at Nosei’s gallery in 1982, Lisa Liebman wrote in Art in America, “What has propelled him so quickly is the unmistakable eloquence of his touch,” adding that his “mock-ominous figures—apemen, skulls, predatory animals, stick-figures—look incorporeal because of the fleetness of their execution, and in their cryptic half-presence they seem to take on shaman-like characteristics.”
Basquiat rose to prominence. After two years his works were selling for $2,000 to $10,000, and by the time the artist was 24, his efforts earned $10,000 to $25,000 from private collectors and graced museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art. In February of 1985 he made the cover of the New York Times Magazine. But the intensity of his artistic success was matched by that of his economic excess. Basquiat’s lifestyle became extravagant. He spent thousands of dollars on designer suits, only to ruin them by painting in them. He staged elaborate parties and dinners. He gave away paintings and money to friends and to people he didn’t even know. “He always clung to the notion of making a name for himself,” William Wilson wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “He started out wanting to be a cartoonist and wound up wanting to be a Star. Fatal desire.”
“Since I was 17,” Basquiat explained to New York Times Magazine contributor McGuigan, “I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix…. I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous.” These romantic notions were often unrestrained and contradictory. In 1978 he told a Village Voice reporter, as related by New York’s Hoban, that New York was “crawling with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have; status symbols…. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritually.”
But within a few years Basquiat would himself spend tens of thousands of dollars on televisions, stereo equipment, recording systems, and suits. He would fill his refrigerator with expensive French pastries, only to let them spoil. He would spend $150 a day on health food.
And he was spending $2,000 a week on cocaine and heroin. “He had a real romantic myth of heroin and of being a junkie,” Lee Jaffe, a musician and friend of Basquiat, told Hoban. “He saw himself as painting’s Charlie Parker.” Indeed, some critics detected similarities between the ill-fated jazz saxophone great and the young painter. “Jazz was more than pleasant, syncopated patterns to Basquiat… it was an analogue of life,” Kay Larson proposed in New York. “His style is one fierce don’t-look-back pulsation of words, diagrams, screeching colors, and over-the-edge bravado, much like that of his hero Charlie Parker.”
One who helped rein in Basquiat’s excesses was Andy Warhol. Since his days of selling postcards on street corners, Basquiat had idolized and sought out the 1960s pop-art icon. The close relationship the two men developed beginning in 1983 was symbiotic; from Basquiat, Warhol drew energy and a link to the contemporary art scene. In return, Warhol gave his colleague business advice and a healthy-living spirit. He encouraged Basquiat to exercise and helped wean him from his heavy drug use. The two artists began to work together; but after a 1985 collaborative show that was critically panned and from which only one piece was sold, Basquiat cooled relations with Warhol. Many critics felt Basquiat’s work suffered from Warhol’s slick Factory influence. And the art community, which only a few years earlier had reveled in Basquiat’s neo-expressionism, began to change its mind. At that time, Basquiat’s “wasn’t a raw, screeching line,” dealer Guillaume Gallozzi told Decker. “If you came really close to it, you could see where it quivered. He was vamping himself, turning out works á la maniere de Jean-Michel Basquiat.” He did not exhibit in New York again until 1987.
“It was, in every sense, a triumphant return,” Decker noted. “The works—which returned with a vengeance to the densely written style, most influenced by graffiti, that Basquiat had been using less and less—had a heavily layered, hieroglyphic feeling to them, and there was modest use of color.” But the resurgence would not last. Warhol’s death in February of 1987 unleashed any remaining tethers on Basquiat’s emotional lid. He became reclusive. He produced many works, but his heroin intake increased. He rebounded slightly in 1988 with three shows, two of them abroad. Reviews were mixed. That summer Basquiat traveled to Hawaii for a retreat. He returned to New York in August, planning on seeking a cure for his heroin addiction—but not before one final “binge.”
In retrospect, some felt “he was too concerned about prices and money,” Mary Boone, one of Basquiat’s many dealers, explained to Hoban. “He was too conscious of his place in the world and who he had dinner with and everything that implies. He was too externalized; he didn’t have a strong enough internal life.” Art critic Robert Hughes, writing in Time, agreed: “Basquiat had talent—more than some of the younger painters who were his contemporaries, though this may not be saying much. The trouble was that it did not develop; it was frozen by celebrity, like a deer in a jacklight beam.”
Others contend, however, that Basquiat—in spite of the hype and the pressures of the 1980s art world—was a force of and for his time. Like any artist of depth, he saw and responded with both anger and vitality. And in his career there was an “often astounding sense of growth and maturation,” Smith concluded in the New York Times, “a freewheeling physical inventiveness,… and an agile curious mind. Basquiat’s rich tapestry of subject matter ranges through the history and culture of the world, of America and of black America, tying things together in fresh ways.”
Basquiat Drawings, edited by John Cheim, Bulfinch/Little, Brown, 1990.
Irony of a Negro Policeman, 1981.
Charles the First, 1982.
St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes, 1982.
Tar and Feathers, 1982.
Hollywood Africans, 1983.
Brown Spots, 1984.
Gold Griot, 1984.
Eroica II, 1988.
Riding With Death, 1988.
Marshall, Richard, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Whitney Museum of American Art/Abrams, 1992.
Art in America, October 1982, p. 130.
ARTnews, January 1989, pp. 96–101.
Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1988, sec. CAL, pp. 5, 79.
New Republic, November 21, 1988, pp. 34–36.
Newsweek, November 9, 1992, p. 67.
New York, September 26, 1988, p. 36; November 9, 1992, pp. 74–75.
New Yorker, November 9, 1992, pp. 137–39.
New York Times, November 9, 1990, sec. C, p. 26; July 22, 1991, sec. C, pp. 13–14; October 23, 1992, sec. C, pp. 1, 20.
New York Times Book Review, February 9, 1992, p. 18; February 7, 1993, p. 22.
New York Times Magazine, February 10, 1985, p. 20.
Time, November 16, 1992, pp. 88–90.
Vanity Fair, November 1992, p. 124.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a January 24, 1993, broadcast of CBS Sunday Morning.
December 22, 1960
August 12, 1988
Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the most prominent artists to gain worldwide recognition in the 1980s. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Haitian and Puerto Rican–American parentage. His parents were separated in 1968, and Basquiat and his two sisters grew up with their father in Brooklyn, except for a period from 1974 to 1976, when the family lived in Puerto Rico. At the age of seven, Basquiat was hit by a car and badly hurt. He spent a month in the hospital, where his spleen was removed. While he was recuperating, his mother gave him Gray's Anatomy, a reference work that led to a lifelong interest in images of human anatomy.
Basquiat dropped out of high school and left home at the age of seventeen, determined to become a star in the downtown art and club scene of the late 1970s, where his aphoristic graffiti writings and drawings signed "SAMO-(c)" soon earned wide underground recognition. In 1980 his art was exhibited, for the first time and to critical acclaim, in the Times Square Show in New York City. Other group shows followed, and in 1981 he had his first solo exhibition in Modena, Italy.
In New York, Basquiat began showing at the Annina Nosei Gallery in SoHo, using the gallery basement as his studio. His first one-person show at Annina Nosei took place in 1982, and soon his work was being exhibited at prominent galleries worldwide. In 1982, Basquiat was the youngest artist to participate in Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany, and one of the youngest ever to be included the following year in the Whitney Biennial. A close friendship with Andy Warhol was a significant force in his life until Warhol's death in 1987.
Within the space of a few years, Basquiat rose from an anonymous street graffitist to become a world-famous artist, a feat that—as much as his art itself—came to define his popular image and epitomize the fast-paced art world of the 1980s. As a young black male, however, he was viewed with suspicion by people blind to the significance of his work. In addition, a growing drug problem exacerbated his difficult relations with art dealers, family, and the people closest to him. Basquiat died of a heroine overdose in August 1988 at the age of twenty-seven.
Since his death, the importance of Basquiat's work has come to be still more widely recognized. In only eight years his work evolved from a direct, highly energized, expressionistic vocabulary to a complex synthesis of African-American and European cultural traditions, incorporating elements of black history, music, and popular culture in an advanced visual language of painting, collage, photomechanical reproduction, and sculpture. In his hands, a sometimes raucous world of boxing, jazz, TV, and political reality was expressed in the language of Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet, and Leonardo da Vinci. His syncopated and haunting juxtaposition of words and images created a kind of visual poetry that is one of his most distinctive contributions to twentieth-century painting.
The first full museum retrospective of Basquiat's work, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, opened in New York City in 1992. In 1998 (a year after the release of Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, a respectful film biography) one of his paintings was sold for a price in excess of three million dollars.
Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. New York: Viking, 1998.
Marshall, Richard, et al. Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York: Abrams, 1992.
nathan kernan (1996)