A closer look at Jean-Michel Basquiat

Closeup of brush and palette

Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the most prominent figures of the Neo-Expressionist Movement in his day. He basked in celebrity and enjoyed a reputation for being a wild, eccentric artist.

The making of an artist

Born on December 22, 1960, to a multi-cultural household in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat grew up speaking French and Spanish in addition to English. His father, Gérard, was a native of Port au Prince, Haiti. His mother, Matilde, was a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent.

At six-years-old, Basquiat became a junior member at the Brooklyn Museum, one of the largest and oldest museums in the United States. He was hit by a car two years later, resulting in a broken arm and internal injuries. While recovering, Basquiat read Gray’s Anatomy, a medical textbook that featured drawings of the human anatomy.

The accident and the book would eventually prove significant to the artist’s life. In 2018, the Brooklyn Museum hosted One Basquiat, an exhibit featuring “Untitled” (1982), a skull painting that sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million at Sotheby’s. Basquiat would also name his industrial art noise band, “Gray” after the famed medical textbook.

After experiencing a wayward teen’s life, Basquiat dropped out of school at 17. This resulted in his father kicking him out of their house. He then supported himself by selling postcards and sweatshirts covered with his drawings and crashing on friends’ couches. He learned to live on cheap wine and Cheetos.

An illustrious career

Basquiat began attracting public attention with SAMO, short for “same old shit” – a graffiti tag he created with his high school friend, Al Diaz. The tag, often accompanied by the copyright symbol, appeared alongside his graffiti on several buildings in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan from 1977 to 1980.

The artist would tell British-American writer and art critic Anthony Haden-Guest years later that SAMO was meant to be “…a logo, like Pepsi”.

The collaboration between Basquiat and Diaz ended in 1980, with the appearance of tags stating. “SAMO is dead.”

That same year, his work went on exhibit for the first time in the landmark multi-artist exhibition, Times Square Show. The said exhibition was organized by the artist-run group, Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and alternative gallery space, Fashion Moda.

Other artists featured in the show were Jane Dickson, John Ahearn Mike Glier, Mimi Gross, and David Hammons.

In 1982, Basquiat became the youngest artist to participate in Documenta, a contemporary art exhibit held every five years in Kassel, Germany. He was 25. Over 60 of his artworks were shown at the prestigious event.

That same year, he joined the Annina Nosei Gallery, where he held his first one-man show in the United States. He left the gallery in 1984 for Mary Boone Gallery, a leader in the 1980s New York art market.

Show business also came calling. He became a regular on TV Party, a public-access television show produced by art writer and editor, Glenn O’Brien, Basquiat’s memorable first appearance was in 1979.

He would star in “Downtown ’81”, a film loosely based on the events of his life. Written and produced by O’Brien and Patrick Montgomery, the film premiered in the Cannes Film Festival in 2000 to largely positive reviews.

He also went on to produce a hip-hop single titled “Beat Bop” in 1983 with Rammellzee and K-Rob, with Basquiat designing the cover art.

His flirtations with music didn’t stop there. He would make an appearance in the music video for “Rapture”, the chart topping hit by pop rock band Blondie. The band’s front woman, Debbie Harry, and then-boyfriend, Chris Stein, purchased Basquiat’s first painting for $200.

He was further thrust into the spotlight when he dated Madonna at the height of his mainstream popularity.

More than the controversial tie-ups and showbiz interludes, Basquiat was primarily an artist. He was considered as one of the most influential figures of Neo-Expressionism, joining the ranks of important artists like Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Kenny Scarf.

A royal crown, a recurring motif in Basquiat’s early works, both acknowledged and challenged Western art history. Basquiat would use the three-peaked crown to exalt black men – including athletes, musicians, and poets – in his artworks.

In 1996, Schnabel paid tribute to his fellow New-Expressionist by directing a biopic depicting Basquiat’s turbulent life. Jeffrey Wright played Basquiat, while David Bowie played Andy Warhol.

An untimely death

Basquiat died of an overdose in his studio at Great Jones Street on August 12, 1988. He was 27. He was buried in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Gallerist and curator Jeffrey Deitch delivered a moving eulogy at the funeral.

His legacy lives on in contemporary art and pop culture. His artworks have been collected by hip-hop artists like Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Swizz Beatz.