|Born||December 22, 1960|
New York City, U.S.
|Died||August 12, 1988 (aged 27)|
New York City, U.S.
|Cause of death||Heroin overdose|
|Resting place||Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York|
|Known for||Painting, drawing|
Basquiat first achieved fame as part of the graffiti duo SAMO, alongside Al Diaz, writing enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of Manhattan's Lower East Side during the late 1970s, where rap, punk, and street art coalesced into early hip-hop music culture. By the early 1980s, his paintings were being exhibited in galleries and museums internationally. At 21, Basquiat became the youngest artist to ever take part in documenta in Kassel. At 22, he was the youngest to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his art work in 1992.
Basquiat's art focused on dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. He used social commentary in his paintings as a tool for introspection and for identifying with his experiences in the Black community of his time, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism. His visual poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.
Since Basquiat's death at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose in 1988, his work has steadily increased in value. At a Sotheby's auction in May 2017, Untitled, a 1982 painting by Basquiat depicting a black skull with red and yellow rivulets, sold for $110.5 million, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever purchased. It also set a new record high for an American artist at auction.
Early life: 1960–1977
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as the second of four children to Matilde Basquiat (née Andrades, 1934–2008) and Gérard Basquiat (1930–2013). He had an older brother, Max, who died shortly before his birth, and two younger sisters: Lisane (b. 1964) and Jeanine (b. 1967). His father was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and his mother was born in Brooklyn to parents of Puerto Rican descent. He was raised Catholic.
Matilde instilled a love for art in her young son by taking him to local art museums and enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Basquiat was a precocious child who learned how to read and write by the age of four. His mother encouraged her son's artistic talent and he often tried to draw his favorite cartoons. In 1967, Basquiat started attending Saint Ann's School, an arts-oriented private school. There he met his friend Marc Prozzo and together they created a children's book, written by Basquiat at the age of seven and illustrated by Prozzo.
At the age of seven in 1968, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street. His arm was broken and he suffered several internal injuries, which required a splenectomy. While he was hospitalized, his mother brought him a copy of Gray's Anatomy to keep him occupied. After his parents separated that year, Basquiat and his sisters were raised by their father. His mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital when he was ten and thereafter spent her life in and out of institutions. By the age of eleven, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish and English, and an avid reader of all three languages.
Basquiat's family resided in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill and then in 1974, they moved to Miramar, Puerto Rico. When they returned to Brooklyn in 1976, Basquiat attended Edward R. Murrow High School. Basquiat struggled to deal with his mother's instability and rebelled as a teenager. He ran away from home at 15 after his father caught him smoking pot in his room. He slept on park benches at Washington Square Park and took acid. Eventually, his father spotted him with a shaved head and called the police to bring him home.
In the 10th grade, he enrolled at City-As-School, an alternative high school in Manhattan, home to many artistic students who failed at conventional schooling. Basquiat would skip school with his friends, but he still received encouragement from his teachers, and he began to write and illustrate for the school newspaper. He developed the character SAMO to endorse a faux religion. The saying "SAMO" had started as a private joke between Basquiat and his schoolmate Al Diaz, as an abbreviation for the phrase "Same old shit." They drew a series of cartoons for their school paper before and after using SAMO©.
Street art: 1978–1980
SAMO (for "same old") marked the witty sayings of a precocious and worldly teenage mind that, even at that early juncture, saw the world in shades of gray, fearlessly juxtaposing corporate commodity structures with the social milieu he wished to enter: the predominantly white art world.
—Franklin Sirmans, In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip Hop Culture
In May 1978, Basquiat and Diaz began spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan. Working under the pseudonym SAMO, they inscribed poetic and satirical advertising slogans such as "SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD." In June 1978, Basquiat was expelled from City-As-School for pieing the principal. At the age of seventeen, his father kicked him out of the house after he decided to drop out of school. He worked for the Unique Clothing Warehouse in NoHo while continuing to write graffiti at night. On December 11, 1978, The Village Voice published an article about the SAMO graffiti.
In 1979, Basquiat appeared on the live public-access television show TV Party hosted by Glenn O'Brien. Basquiat and O'Brien formed a friendship and he made regular appearances on the show over the next few years. Eventually, Basquiat began spending time writing graffiti around the School of Visual Arts, where he befriended students John Sex, Kenny Scharf, and Keith Haring. He also briefly had a relationship with German countertenor Klaus Nomi from the downtown club scene.
In April 1979, Basquiat met Michael Holman at the Canal Zone Party and they founded the noise rock band Test Pattern, which was later renamed Gray. Other members of Gray included Shannon Dawson, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford, and Vincent Gallo. The band performed at nightclubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrah, and the Mudd Club.
Around this time, Basquiat lived in the East Village with his friend Alexis Adler, a Barnard biology graduate. He often copied diagrams of chemical compounds borrowed from Adler's science textbooks. She documented Basquiat's creative explorations as he transformed the floors, walls, doors and furniture into his artworks. He also made postcards with his friend Jennifer Stein. While selling postcards in SoHo, Basquiat spotted Andy Warhol at W.P.A. restaurant with art critic Henry Geldzahler. He sold Warhol a postcard titled Stupid Games, Bad Ideas.
In October 1979, at Arleen Schloss's open space called A's, Basquiat showed his SAMO montages using color Xerox copies of his works. Schloss allowed Basquiat to use the space to create his "MAN MADE" clothing, which were painted upcycled garments. In November 1979, costume designer Patricia Field carried his clothing line in her upscale boutique on 8th Street in the East Village. Field also displayed his sculptures in the store window.
After Basquiat and Diaz had a falling out, Basquiat inscribed "SAMO IS DEAD" on the walls of SoHo buildings in 1980. In June 1980, Basquiat appeared in High Times magazine, his first national publication as part of an article titled "Graffiti '80: The State of the Outlaw Art" by Glenn O'Brien. Later that year, Basquiat began filming O'Brien's independent film Downtown 81 (2000), originally titled New York Beat. The film featured some of Gray's recordings on its soundtrack.
Gallery artist: 1980–1985
In June 1980, Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and Fashion Moda. He was noticed by various critics and curators, including Jeffrey Deitch, who mentioned Basquiat in an article titled "Report from Times Square" in the September 1980 issue of Art in America. In February 1981, Basquiat participated in the New York/New Wave exhibition, curated by Diego Cortez at New York's MoMA PS1. Italian artist Sandro Chia recommended Basquiat's work to the Italian dealer Emilio Mazzoli, who promptly bought 10 paintings for Basquiat to have a show at his gallery in Modena, Italy in May 1981. In December 1981, art critic Rene Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum magazine, the first extensive article on Basquiat. During this period, Basquiat painted many pieces on objects he found in the streets, such as discarded doors.
Basquiat sold his first painting, Cadillac Moon (1981), to Debbie Harry, lead singer of the punk rock band Blondie, for $200 after they had filmed Downtown 81 together. Basquiat also appeared as a disc jockey in the 1981 Blondie music video "Rapture"; a role originally intended for Grandmaster Flash. At the time, Basquiat was living with his girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, who financially supported him as a waitress.
In September 1981, art dealer Annina Nosei invited Basquiat to join her gallery at the suggestion of Sandro Chia. Soon after, he participated in her group show Public Address. She provided him with materials and a space to work in the basement of her gallery. In 1982, Nosei arranged for Basquiat to move into a loft which also served as a studio at 101 Crosby Street in SoHo. Basquiat had his first American one-man show at the Annina Nosei Gallery in March 1982. He also painted in Modena for his second Italian exhibition in March 1982.
By the summer of 1982, Basquiat had left the Annina Nosei Gallery and Bruno Bischofberger became his worldwide art dealer. In June 1982, at 21 years old, Basquiat became the youngest artist to ever take part in documenta in Kassel, Germany, where his works were exhibited alongside Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol. Bischofberger gave Basquiat a one-man show in his Zurich gallery in September 1982. He arranged for Basquiat to meet Warhol for lunch on October 4, 1982. Warhol recalled that Basquiat "went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together." The painting, Dos Cabezas (1982), ignited a friendship between them. Basquiat was photographed by James Van Der Zee for an interview with Henry Geldzahler published in the January 1983 issue of Warhol's Interview magazine.
In November 1982, Basquiat's solo exhibition opened at the Fun Gallery in the East Village. Among the artworks exhibited were A Panel of Experts (1982) and Equals Pi (1982). In December 1982, Basquiat began working from the ground-floor display and studio space art dealer Larry Gagosian had built below his Venice, California home. There, he commenced a series of paintings for a March 1983 show; his second at the Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, then-unknown singer Madonna. Gagosian recalled: "Everything was going along fine. Jean-Michel was making paintings, I was selling them, and we were having a lot of fun. But then one day Jean-Michel said, 'My girlfriend is coming to stay with me.' ... So I said, 'Well, what's she like?' And he said, 'Her name is Madonna and she's going to be huge.' I'll never forget that he said that."
Basquiat took considerable interest in the work that artist Robert Rauschenberg was producing at Gemini G.E.L. in West Hollywood. He visited him on several occasions and found inspiration in his accomplishments. While in Los Angeles, Basquiat painted Hollywood Africans (1983), which portrays himself with graffiti artists Toxic and Rammellzee. Basquiat often painted portraits of other graffiti artists—and sometimes collaborators—in works such as Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King (1982), Toxic (1984), and ERO (1984). In 1983, Basquiat produced the hip-hop record "Beat Bop" featuring Rammellzee and rapper K-Rob. It was pressed in limited quantities on his Tartown Inc. imprint. Basquiat created the cover art for the single, making it highly desirable among both record and art collectors.
In March 1983, at 22 years old, Basquiat became the youngest artist to participate in the Whitney Biennial exhibition of contemporary art. Paige Powell, an editor for Interview magazine, organized a show of Basquiat's work at her apartment in April 1983. Around this time, Basquiat began a relationship with Powell, who was instrumental in fostering his friendship with Warhol. In August 1983, Basquiat moved into a loft owned by Warhol at 57 Great Jones Street in NoHo, which also served as a studio.
In the summer of 1983, Basquiat invited Lee Jaffe, a former musician in Bob Marley's band, to join him on a trip throughout Asia and Europe. Upon his return to New York, he was deeply affected by the death of Michael Stewart, an aspiring black artist in the downtown club scene who was killed by transit police in September 1983. He painted Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983) in response to the incident. Basquiat also participated in a Christmas benefit with various New York artists for the family of Michael Stewart in 1983. In May 1984, Basquiat had his first show at the Mary Boone Gallery in SoHo.
A large number of photographs depict a collaboration between Warhol and Basquiat in 1984 and 1985. When they collaborated, Warhol would start with something very concrete or a recognizable image and then Basquiat would deface it in his animated style. They made an homage to the 1984 Summer Olympics with Olympics (1984). Other collaborations include Taxi, 45th/Broadway (1984–85) and Zenith (1985). Their joint exhibition, Paintings, at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery caused a rift in their friendship after it was panned by critics and Basquiat was called Warhol's mascot.
Basquiat often painted in expensive Armani suits and would appear in public in the same paint-splattered clothes. Basquiat was a regular at Area nightclub, where he sometimes worked the turntables as a DJ for fun. He also painted murals for the Palladium nightclub in New York City. His swift rise to fame was covered in the media. Basquiat appeared on the cover of the February 10, 1985 issue of The New York Times Magazine in a feature titled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist". His work appeared in GQ and Esquire, and he was interviewed for MTV's "Art Break" segment.
In the mid-1980s, Basquiat was earning $1.4 million a year and he was receiving lump sums of $40,000 from art dealers. Despite Basquiat's success, his emotional instability continued to haunt him. "The more money Basquiat made, the more paranoid and deeply involved with drugs he became," wrote journalist Michael Shnayerson. Basquiat's cocaine use became so excessive that he blew a hole in his nasal septum. A friend claimed that Basquiat confessed he was on heroin in late 1980. Many of his peers speculated that his drug use was a means of coping with the demands of his newfound fame, the exploitative nature of the art industry, and the pressures of being a black man in the white-dominated art world.
Final years and death: 1986–1988
For what would be his last exhibition on the West Coast, Basquiat returned to Los Angeles for his show at the Gagosian Gallery in January 1986. In February 1986, Basquiat traveled to Atlanta, Georgia for an exhibition of his drawings at Fay Gold Gallery. That month, he participated in Limelight's Art Against Apartheid benefit. In the summer, he had a solo exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg. In the fall, he walked the runway for Rei Kawakubo at the Comme des Garçons Homme Plus show in Paris. In October 1986, Basquiat flew to Ivory Coast for an exhibition of his work organized by Bruno Bischofberger at the French Cultural Institute in Abidjan. He was accompanied by his girlfriend Jennifer Goode, who worked at his frequent hangout, Area nightclub. In November 1986, at 25 years old, Basquiat became the youngest artist given an exhibition at Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover.
During their relationship, Goode began snorting heroin with Basquiat since drugs were at her disposal. In late 1986, she successfully got herself and Basquiat into a methadone program in Manhattan, but he quit after three weeks. According to Goode, he didn't start injecting heroin until after she ended their relationship. In the last 18 months of his life, Basquiat became something of a recluse. His continued drug use is thought to have been a way of coping after the death of his friend Andy Warhol in February 1987.
In 1987, Basquiat had exhibitions at Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris, the Akira Ikeda Gallery in Tokyo, and the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York. He designed a Ferris wheel for André Heller's Luna Luna, an ephemeral amusement park in Hamburg from June to August 1987 with rides designed by renowned contemporary artists.
In January 1988, Basquiat traveled to Paris for his exhibition at the Yvon Lambert Gallery and to Düsseldorf for an exhibition at the Hans Mayer Gallery. While in Paris, he befriended Ivorian artist Ouattara Watts. They made plans to travel together to Watts' birthplace, Korhogo, that summer. Following an exhibition at the Vrej Baghoomian Gallery in New York in April 1988, Basquiat traveled to Maui in June 1988. When he returned, Keith Haring reported meeting with Basquiat, who was glad to tell him that he had finally kicked his drug dependency. Glenn O'Brien also recalled Basquiat calling him and telling him he was "feeling really good."
Despite attempts at sobriety, Basquiat died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose at his home on Great Jones Street in Manhattan on August 12, 1988. He had been found unresponsive in his bedroom by his girlfriend Kelle Inman and was taken to Cabrini Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Basquiat is buried at Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. A private funeral was held at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on August 17, 1988. The funeral was attended by immediate family and close friends, including Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente, Glenn O'Brien, and Basquiat's former girlfriend Paige Powell. Art dealer Jeffrey Deitch delivered a eulogy.
A public memorial was held at Saint Peter's Church on November 3, 1988. Among the speakers was Ingrid Sischy, who as the editor of Artforum got to know Basquiat well and commissioned a number of articles that introduced his work to the wider world. Basquiat's former girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk recited sections of A. R. Penck's "Poem for Basquiat" and his friend Fab 5 Freddy read a poem by Langston Hughes. The 300 guests included musicians John Lurie and Arto Lindsay, Keith Haring, poet David Shapiro, Glenn O'Brien, and members of Basquiat's former band Gray.
In memory of the late artist, Keith Haring created the painting A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the obituary he wrote for Vogue, Haring stated: "He truly created a lifetime of works in ten years. Greedily, we wonder what else he might have created, what masterpieces we have been cheated out of by his death, but the fact is that he has created enough work to intrigue generations to come. Only now will people begin to understand the magnitude of his contribution".
Basquiat's canon revolves around single heroic figures: athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself. In these images the head is often a central focus, topped by crowns, hats, and halos. In this way the intellect is emphasized, lifted up to notice, privileged over the body and the physicality of these figures (i.e. black men) commonly represent in the world.
—Kellie Jones, Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix
Art critic Franklin Sirmans analyzed that Basquiat appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. His social commentary were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle. Art historian Fred Hoffman hypothesizes that the underlying of Basquiat's self-identification as an artist was his "innate capacity to function as something like an oracle, distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and, in turn, projecting them outward through his creative acts."
Basquiat's art focused on recurrent "suggestive dichotomies", such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience.
Before his career as a painter began, Basquiat produced punk-inspired postcards for sale on the street, and became known for his political–poetical graffiti under the name of SAMO. He would often draw on random objects and surfaces, including other people's clothing. The conjunction of various media is an integral element of Basquiat's art. His paintings are typically covered with text and codes of all kinds: words, letters, numerals, pictograms, logos, map symbols, and diagrams. Some of the reference sources he used were the books Gray's Anatomy, Henry Dreyfuss' Symbol Sourcebook, Leonardo da Vinci published by Reynal & Company, and Burchard Brentjes' African Rock Art.
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 imagery. The years 1984 to 1985 were also the period of the Basquiat–Warhol collaborations.
In his short but prolific career, Basquiat produced around 1500 drawings, as well as around 600 paintings and many sculpture and mixed media works. Basquiat drew constantly, and often used objects around him as surfaces when paper was not immediately at hand. Since childhood, Basquiat produced cartoon-inspired drawings when encouraged by his mother's interest in art, and drawing became a part of his expression as an artist. Basquiat's drawings were produced in many different media, most commonly ink, pencil, felt-tip or marker, and oil-stick. Basquiat sometimes used Xerox copies of fragments of his drawings to paste on to the canvas of larger paintings.
The first public showing of Basquiat's paintings and drawings was in 1981 at the MoMA PS1 New York/New Wave exhibition. The article in Artforum magazine entitled "Radiant Child" was written by Rene Ricard after seeing the show brought Basquiat to the attention of the art world. Basquiat immortalized Ricard in two drawings, Untitled (Axe/Rene) (1984) and René Ricard (1984).
A poet as well as an artist, words featured heavily in his drawings and paintings, with direct references to racism, slavery, the people and street scene of 1980s New York, black historical figures, famous musicians and athletes, as his notebooks and many important drawings demonstrate. Often Basquiat's drawings were untitled, and as such to differentiate works a word written within the drawing is commonly in parentheses after Untitled. After Basquiat died, his estate was controlled by his father Gérard Basquiat, who also oversaw the committee which authenticated artworks, and operated from 1994 to 2012 to review over 2000 works, the majority of which were drawings.
Heroes and saints
A prominent theme in Basquiat's work is the portrayal of historically prominent black figures, who were identified as heroes and saints. His early works often featured the iconographic depiction of crowns and halos to distinguish heroes and saints in his specially chosen pantheon. "Jean-Michel's crown has three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion. Jean measured his skill against all he deemed strong, without prejudice as to their taste or age," said his friend and artist Francesco Clemente. Reviewing Basquiat's show at the Bilbao Guggenheim, Art Daily noted that "Basquiat's crown is a changeable symbol: at times a halo and at others a crown of thorns, emphasizing the martyrdom that often goes hand in hand with sainthood. For Basquiat, these heroes and saints are warriors, occasionally rendered triumphant with arms raised in victory."
Basquiat was particularly a fan of bebop and cited saxophonist Charlie Parker as a hero. He frequently referenced Parker and other jazz musicians in paintings such as Charles the First (1982) and Horn Players (1983), and King Zulu (1986). "Basquiat looked to jazz music for inspiration and for instruction, much in the same way that he looked to the modern masters of painting," said art historian Jordana Moore Saggese.
Anatomy and heads
A major reference source used by Basquiat throughout his career was the book Gray's Anatomy, which his mother had given him while he was in the hospital aged seven. It remained influential in his depictions of the human anatomy, and in its mixture of image and text as seen in Flesh and Spirit (1982–83). Art historian Olivier Berggruen situates in Basquiat's anatomical screen prints Anatomy (1982) an assertion of vulnerability, one which "creates an aesthetic of the body as damaged, scarred, fragmented, incomplete, or torn apart, once the organic whole has disappeared. Paradoxically, it is the very act of creating these representations that conjures a positive corporeal valence between the artist and his sense of self or identity."
Heads and skulls are seen as significant focal points of many of Basquiat's most seminal works. Heads in works like Untitled (Two Heads on Gold) (1982) and Philistines (1982) are reminiscent of African masks, which suggests a cultural reclamation. The skulls allude to Haitian Vodou, which is filled with skull symbolism. The paintings Red Skull (1982) and Untitled (1982) can be seen as primary examples. In reference to the potent image depicted in Untitled (Skull) (1981), art historian Fred Hoffman writes that Basquiat was likely, "caught off guard, possibly even frightened, by the power and energy emanating from this unexpected image." Further investigation by Hoffman in his book The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat reveals a deeper interest in the artist's fascination with heads that proves an evolution in the artist's oeuvre from one of raw power to one of more refined cognizance.
Basquiat's diverse cultural heritage was one of his many sources of inspiration. He often incorporated Spanish words into his artworks like Untitled (Pollo Frito) (1982) and Sabado por la Noche (1984). Basquiat's La Hara (1981), a menacing portrait of a white police officer, combines the Nuyorican slang term for police (la jara) and the Irish surname O'Hara. The black-hatted figure that appears in his paintings The Guilt of Gold Teeth (1982) and Despues De Un Pun (1987) is believed to represent Baron Samedi, the chief of the Guédé family of spirits in Haitian Vodou.
Basquiat has various works deriving from African-American history, namely Slave Auction (1982), Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1983), Untitled (History of the Black People) (1983), and Jim Crow (1986). Another painting, Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), illustrates how African-Americans have been controlled by a predominantly Caucasian society. Basquiat sought to portray that African-Americans have become complicit with the "institutionalized forms of whiteness and corrupt white regimes of power" years after the Jim Crow era had ended. This concept has been reiterated in additional Basquiat works, including Created Equal (1984).
In the essay "Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix," Kellie Jones posits that Basquiat's "mischievous, complex, and neologistic side, with regard to the fashioning of modernity and the influence and effluence of black culture" are often elided by critics and viewers, and thus "lost in translation."
Like a DJ, Basquiat adeptly reworked Neo-expressionism's clichéd language of gesture, freedom, and angst and redirected Pop art's strategy of appropriation to produce a body of work that at times celebrated black culture and history but also revealed its complexity and contradictions.
Shortly after his death, The New York Times indicated that Basquiat was "the most famous of only a small number of young black artists who have achieved national recognition." Art critic Bonnie Rosenberg stated that Basquiat experienced a good taste of fame in his last years when he was a "critically embraced and popularly celebrated artistic phenomenon." Rosenberg remarked that some people focused on the "superficial exoticism of his work" missing the fact that it "held important connections to expressive precursors."
Traditionally, the interpretation of Basquiat's works at the visual level comes from the subdued emotional tone of what they represent compared to what is actually depicted. For example, the figures in his paintings, as stated by writer Stephen Metcalf, "are shown frontally, with little or no depth of field, and nerves and organs are exposed, as in an anatomy textbook. Are these creatures dead and being clinically dissected, one wonders, or alive and in immense pain?" Writer Olivia Laing noted that "words jumped out at him, from the back of cereal boxes or subway ads, and he stayed alert to their subversive properties, their double and hidden meaning."
A second recurrent reference to Basquiat's aesthetics comes from the artist's intention to share, in the words of gallerist Niru Ratnam, a "highly individualistic, expressive view of the world". Art historian Luis Alberto Mejia Clavijo believes Basquiat's work inspires people to "paint like a child, don't paint what is in the surface but what you are re-creating inside.
Art critics have also compared Basquiat's work to the emergence of hip-hop during the same era. "Basquiat's art—like the best hip-hop—takes apart and reassembles the work that came before it," said art critic Franklin Sirmans in a 2005 essay, In the Cipher: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Culture."
Art critic Rene Ricard wrote in the 1981 article "The Radiant Child":
I'm always amazed at how people come up with things. Like Jean-Michel. How did he come up with the words he puts all over everything, his way of making a point without overstating the case, using one or two words he reveals a political acuity, gets the viewer going in the direction he wants, the illusion of the bombed-over wall. One or two words containing a full body. One or two words on a Jean-Michel contain the entire history of graffiti. What he incorporates into his pictures, whether found or made, is specific and selective. He has a perfect idea of what he's getting across, using everything that collates to his vision.
Curator Marc Mayer wrote in the 2005 essay "Basquiat in History":
Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador. We can read his pictures without strenuous effort—the words, the images, the colors and the construction—but we cannot quite fathom the point they belabor. Keeping us in this state of half-knowing, of mystery-within-familiarity, had been the core technique of his brand of communication since his adolescent days as the graffiti poet SAMO. To enjoy them, we are not meant to analyze the pictures too carefully. Quantifying the encyclopedic breadth of his research certainly results in an interesting inventory, but the sum cannot adequately explain his pictures, which requires an effort outside the purview of iconography ... he painted a calculated incoherence, calibrating the mystery of what such apparently meaning-laden pictures might ultimately mean.
In a 1997 review for The Daily Telegraph, art critic Hilton Kramer begins his first paragraph by stating that Basquiat had no idea what the word "quality" meant. The criticisms which follow relentlessly labels Basquiat as a "talentless hustler" and "street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant", arguing that art dealers of the time were "as ignorant about art as Basquiat himself." In saying that Basquiat's work never rose above "that lowly artistic station" of graffiti "even when his paintings were fetching enormous prices," Kramer argued that graffiti art "acquired a cult status in certain New York art circles." Kramer further opined that "As a result of the campaign waged by these art-world entrepreneurs on Basquiat's behalf—and their own, of course—there was never any doubt that the museums, the collectors and the media would fall into line" when talking about the marketing of Basquiat's name.
Basquiat's first public exhibition was at The Times Square Show in New York in June 1980. In May 1981, he had his first solo exhibition at Galleria d'Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena. In late 1981, Basquiat joined the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York, where he had his first American one-man show from March 6 to April 1, 1982. In 1982, he also had shows at the Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, and the Fun Gallery in the East Village. Major exhibitions of Basquiat's work have included Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings 1981–1984 at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in 1984, which traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam in 1985. In 1985, the University Art Museum, Berkeley hosted Basquiat's first solo American museum exhibition. His work was showcased at Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover in 1987 and 1989.
The first retrospective to be held of his work was Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York from October 1992 to February 1993; sponsored by AT&T, MTV, and Madonna. It subsequently traveled to the Menil Collection in Texas; the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa; and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama, from 1993 to 1994. The catalog for this exhibition was edited by Richard Marshall and included several essays of different perspectives.
In March 2005, the retrospective Basquiat was mounted by the Brooklyn Museum in New York. It traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. From October 2006 to January 2007, the first Basquiat exhibition in Puerto Rico took place at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR); produced by ArtPremium, Corinne Timsit and Eric Bonici.
Basquiat remains an important source of inspiration for a younger generation of contemporary artists all over the world such as Rita Ackermann and Kader Attia, as shown, for example, at the exhibition Street and Studio: From Basquiat to Séripop co-curated by Cathérine Hug and Thomas Mießgang and previously exhibited at Kunsthalle Wien, Austria, in 2010. Basquiat and the Bayou, a 2014 show presented by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, focused on the artist's works with themes of the American South. The Brooklyn Museum exhibited Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks in 2015. In 2017, Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979–1980 exhibited as Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which displayed works created during the year Basquiat lived with his friend Alexis Adler. Later that year, the Barbican Centre in London exhibited Basquiat: Boom for Real.
In 2019, the Brant Foundation in New York, hosted an extensive exhibition of Basquiat's works with free admission. All 50,000 tickets were claimed for before the exhibition opened, so additional tickets were released. In June 2019, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presented Basquiat's "Defacement": The Untold Story. Later that year, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne opened the exhibition Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines. The Lotte Museum of Art hosted the first major exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat in Seoul from October 2020 to February 2021. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exhibited Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation from October 2020 to July 2021.
The Basquiat family announced an exhibition of 200 personal and rare works called Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure© coupled with an accompanying Rizzoli coffee table book, opening on April 9, 2022 in New York City.
Basquiat sold his first painting to singer Debbie Harry for $200 in 1981. Advised by Italian artist Sandro Chia, gallerist Emilio Mazzoli purchased ten of Basquiat's works for $10,000 and held an exhibition at his gallery in Modena in May 1981. Spurred by the Neo-expressionist art boom, his work was in great demand by 1982, which is considered his most valuable year. A majority of his highest-selling paintings at auction date to 1982. Recalling that year, Basquiat said, "I had some money; I made the best paintings ever." In 1984, it was reported that in two years his work appreciated in value by 500%. In the mid-1980s, Basquiat was earning $1.4 million a year as an artist. By 1985, his paintings were selling for $10,000 to $25,000 each. Basquiat's rise to fame in the international art market landed him on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1985, which was unprecedented for a young African-American artist.
Since Basquiat's death in 1988, the market for his work has developed steadily—in line with overall art market trends—with a dramatic peak in 2007 when, at the height of the art market boom, the global auction volume for his work was over $115 million. Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of Christie's, is quoted describing Basquiat's market as "two-tiered ... The most coveted material is rare, generally dating from the best period, 1981–83." Until 2002, the highest amount paid for an original work of Basquiat's was $3.3 million for Self-Portrait (1982), sold at Christie's in 1998. In 2002, Basquiat's Profit I (1982) was sold at Christie's by drummer Lars Ulrich of the heavy metal band Metallica for $5.5 million. The proceedings of the auction were documented in the 2004 film Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.
In June 2002, New York con-artist Alfredo Martinez was charged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with attempting to deceive two art dealers by selling them $185,000 worth of fake Basquiat drawings. The charges against Martinez, which landed him in Manhattan's Metropolitan Correction Center for 21 months, involved a scheme to sell drawings he copied from authentic artworks, accompanied by forged certificates of authenticity. Martinez claimed he got away with selling fake Basquiat drawings for 18 years.
In 2007, Basquiat's painting Hannibal (1982) was seized by federal authorities as part of an embezzlement scheme by convicted Brazilian money launderer and former banker Edemar Cid Ferreira. Ferreira had purchased the painting with illegally acquired funds while he controlled Banco Santos in Brazil. It was shipped to a Manhattan warehouse, via the Netherlands, with a false shipping invoice stating it was worth $100. The painting was later sold at Sotheby's for $13.1 million.
Between 2007 and 2012, the price of Basquiat's work continued to steadily increase up to $16.3 million. The sale of Untitled (1981) for $20.1 million in 2012 elevated his market to a new stratosphere. Soon other works in his oeuvre outpaced that record. Another work, Untitled (1981), depicting a fisherman, sold for $26.4 million in November 2012. In May 2013, Dustheads (1982) sold for $48.8 million at Christie's. In May 2016, Untitled (1982), depicting a devil, sold at Christie's for $57.3 million to Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa. In May 2017, Maezawa also purchased Basquiat's Untitled (1982), a powerful depiction of a black skull with red and yellow rivulets, at auction for a record-setting $110.5 million. It is the most ever paid for an American artwork, and the sixth most expensive artwork sold at an auction, surpassing Andy Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which sold for $105 million in 2013.
In May 2018, Flexible (1984) sold for $45.3 million, becoming Basquiat's first post-1983 painting to surpass the $20 million mark. In June 2020, Untitled (Head) (1982), sold for $15.2 million; a record for a Sotheby's online sale and a record for a Basquiat work on paper. In July 2020, Loïc Gouzer's Fair Warning app announced that an untitled drawing on paper sold for $10.8 million, which is a record high for an in-app purchase. Earlier that year, American businessman Ken Griffin purchased Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982) for upwards of $100 million from art collector Peter Brant. In March 2021, Basquiat's Warrior (1982) sold for $41.8 million at Christie's in Hong Kong, which is the most expensive Western work of art sold at auction in Asia. In May 2021, Basquiat's In This Case (1983), sold for $93.1 million at Christie's in New York.
The authentication committee of the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat was formed by the Robert Miller Gallery, the gallery that was assigned to handle Basquiat's estate after his death, in part to wage battle against the growing number of fakes and forgeries in the Basquiat market. The cost of the committee's opinion was $100. The committee was headed by Basquiat's father Gérard Basquiat. Members varied depending on who was available at the time when a piece was being authenticated, but they have included the curators and gallerists Diego Cortez, Jeffrey Deitch, Annina Nosei, John Cheim, Richard Marshall, Fred Hoffman, and publisher Larry Warsh.
In 2008, the authentication committee was sued by collector Gerard De Geer, who claimed the committee breached its contract by refusing to offer an opinion on the authenticity of the painting Fuego Flores (1983). After the lawsuit was dismissed, the committee ruled the work genuine. In January 2012, the committee announced that after eighteen years it would dissolve in September of that year and no longer consider applications.
Basquiat had many romantic relationships with women, and according to several friends, he also had sexual relationships with men. Biographer Phoebe Hoban stated that his first sexual experiences were homosexual while he was a minor in Puerto Rico; he had been orally raped by a barber dressed in drag, then he got involved with a deejay. Art critic Rene Ricard, who helped launch Basquiat's career, said that Basquiat was into everything and had "turned tricks" on the Condado when he lived in Puerto Rico. As a teenager, Basquiat told a friend that he worked as a prostitute on 42nd Street when he ran away from home. According to Basquiat's former SAMO graffiti partner Al Diaz, he "enjoyed sex more with men."
Basquiat's former girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk described his sexual interest as "not monochromatic. It did not rely on visual stimulation, such as a pretty girl. It was a very rich multichromatic sexuality. He was attracted to people for all different reasons. They could be boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly ... He was attracted to intelligence more than anything and to pain. He was very attracted to people who silently bore some sort of inner pain as he did, and he loved people who were one of a kind, people who had a unique vision of things." Mallouk also emphasized that "he loved women. He loved sex. He always had a lot of women."
In 2015, Basquiat was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair's Art and Artists Special Edition. In 2016, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation placed a plaque commemorating Basquiat's life outside his former residence at 57 Great Jones Street in Manhattan.
Before the exhibition Basquiat: Boom for Real at London's Barbican Centre in 2017, graffiti artist Banksy created two artworks inspired by Basquiat on the walls of the Barbican. The first artwork depicts Basquiat's painting Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982) being searched by two police officers. The second artwork depicts a carousel with the carriages replaced with crowns, Basquiat's signature motif.
In 2018, a public square in the 13th arrondissement of Paris was named Place Jean-Michel Basquiat in his memory. For the 2020–21 NBA season, the Brooklyn Nets honored Basquiat with a basketball jersey and a court design inspired by his art. In 2021, the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation funded a Basquiat educational arts program developed in partnership between the Brooklyn Nets, the New York City Department of Education and the Fund for Public Schools.
In 2007, Basquiat was listed among GQ's 50 Most Stylish Men of the Past 50 Years. Basquiat often painted in expensive Armani suits and he did a photo shoot for Issey Miyake. Comme des Garçons was one of his favorite brands; he was a model for the Comme des Garçons Homme Plus Spring/Summer 1987 show. To commemorate Basquiat's runway appearance, Comme des Garçons featured his prints in the brand's Fall/Winter 2018 collection. In 2015, Basquiat was featured on the cover of T: The New York Times Style Magazine Men's Style issue.
Valentino's Fall/Winter 2006 collection paid homage to Basquiat. Sean John created a capsule collection for the 30th anniversary of Basquiat's death in 2018. Apparel and accessories companies that have featured Basquiat's work include Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters, Supreme, Herschel Supply Co., Alice + Olivia, Olympia Le-Tan, DAEM, Coach New York, and Saint Laurent. Footwear companies such as Dr. Martens, Reebok, and Vivobarefoot have also collaborated with Basquiat's estate.
Basquiat starred in Downtown 81, a vérité movie written by Glenn O'Brien and shot by Edo Bertoglio in 1981, but not released until 2000. In 1996, a biographical film titled Basquiat was released, directed by Julian Schnabel. Actor Jeffrey Wright starred as Basquiat and David Bowie played Andy Warhol. Schnabel was interviewed during the film's script development as a personal acquaintance of Basquiat. Schnabel then purchased the rights to the project, believing that he could make a better film.
The 2009 documentary film Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, directed by Tamra Davis, premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was shown on the PBS series Independent Lens in 2011. Davis discussed her friendship with Basquiat in a Sotheby's video, "Basquiat: Through the Eyes of a Friend". In 2017, Sara Driver directed the documentary film Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. In 2018, PBS aired a 90-minute documentary about Basquiat as part of the American Masters series, entitled Basquiat: Rage to Riches.
In 1991, poet Kevin Young published a book, To Repel Ghosts, a compendium of 117 poems relating to Basquiat's life, individual paintings, and social themes found in the artist's work. He published a "remix" of the book in 2005. In 1993, a children's book was released titled Life Doesn't Frighten Me, which combines a poem written by Maya Angelou with art made by Basquiat.
In 1998, journalist Phoebe Hoban published the unauthorized biography Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. In 2000, author Jennifer Clement wrote the memoir Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, based on the narratives told to her by Basquiat's former girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk.
In 2005, poet M. K. Asante published the poem "SAMO", dedicated to Basquiat, in his book Beautiful. And Ugly Too. The children's book Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe, was released in 2016. The picture book won the Caldecott Medal in 2017. In 2019, illustrator Paolo Parisi wrote the graphic novel Basquiat: A Graphic Novel, following Basquiat's journey from street-art legend SAMO to international art-scene darling, up until his death.
Shortly after Basquiat's death, guitarist Vernon Reid of the funk metal band Living Colour wrote a song called "Desperate People", released on their album Vivid. The song primarily addresses the drug scene of New York at that time. Reid was inspired to write the song after receiving a phone call from Greg Tate informing him of Basquiat's death.
In August 2014, Revelation 13:18 released the single "Old School" featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with the self-titled album Revelation 13:18 x Basquiat. The release date of "Old School" coincided with the anniversary of Basquiat's death. In 2020, New York rock band the Strokes used Basquiat's painting Bird on Money (1981) as the cover art for their album The New Abnormal.
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- Basquiat, Jean-Michel; Buchhart, Dieter; Keller, Sam; O'Brien, Glenn (2010) Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hatje Cantz. ISBN 978-3-7757-2593-4
- Basquiat, Jean-Michel; O'Brien, Glenn; Cortez, Diego (2007). Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981: the Studio of the Street, Charta. ISBN 978-88-8158-625-7
- Basquiat, Jean Michel; Hoffman, Fred; Mayer, Marc (2005). Basquiat. Merrell Publishers. ISBN 1-85894-287-X
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- Hoffman, Fred (2014). Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection. Acquavella. ISBN 978-0-8478-4447-0
- Marenzi, Luca (1999) Jean-Michel Basquiat. Charta. ISBN 978-88-8158-239-6
- Saggese, Jordana Moore (2014). Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520276246
- Saggese, Jordana Moore (2021). The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader: Writings, Interviews, and Critical Responses. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-30516-8.
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