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Jean-Michel Basquiat - Biography

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on the 22nd of December in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York and died on the 12th of August in 1988 of a drug overdose in his Manhattan studio. His death, like a rock star, helped to make Jean-Michel Basquiat a legend, but only because he had already reached unquestionable fame through his work as a graffiti artist and an innovative painter. In addition to his tragic death, he is most known for his loose and unencumbered painterly graphic style so often associated with street art that started to gain such notoriety in the 1980s. As well, his subject matter provocatively positioned and layered imagery, iconography and text that addressed issues of race, culture and heritage.

Born to a Haitian father, Gerard Basquiat, and a Puerto Rican mother, Matilde Andrades, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s heritage would prove to be a pivotal influence in his work as an artist. He was the oldest of three children; his siblings were both girls, Lisane and Jeanine, four and seven years younger than he, respectively. He was considered an extremely bright and gifted young boy; he learned how to read and write by the age of four (in general), and was reading, writing and speaking English, French and Spanish by the age of eleven. His artistic ability was recognized at quite a young age by his mother and his teachers and was greatly encouraged. His mother would take him into Manhattan to see art and enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and thus he was exposed to various artistic disciplines and practices very early on.

When he was just eight years old he was hit by a car, which proved to be quite traumatic as he endured many internal injuries and had to stay in the hospital for a full month. His mother brought him the infamous drawing book, Grey’s Anatomy, which kept him thoroughly occupied during his recovery. Sadly, not too long after his recovery his parents separated and his mother would be in and out of mental institutions. Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with his sisters, were raised by their father. They remained in Brooklyn until 1974/75 when the family moved to Puerto Rico for a short time. At this time, Jean-Michel Basquiat made his first attempt at running away, but was rather immediately picked up by the police and returned home.

He attended the progressive City as School program that centered very much on culture. He was intrigued by comics and cartoon drawing as well as graffiti and along with a few school friends, Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson, first developed the character cum tag SAMO while still in high school. He never graduated, as the story goes, Jean-Michel Basquiat was pushing the envelope at school and during a school event he apparently threw a pie in the face of the principle and ran out. He soon then ran away from home again, this time remaining on the streets or “couch-surfing” at friends for a couple years. During these next couple years Jean-Michel Basquiat and friends would take SAMO public, tagging throughout the city images and poetic texts that were more often sarcastic and humorous - and political.

There are varying stories about the development of SAMO; apparently, the acronym originally became a stand-in for the turn of phrase “same old shit”, which is how they referred to the marijuana they smoked. SAMO became a character in a comic book that Jean-Michel Basquiat created in which SAMO sold a false religion. SAMO also showed up in one of their theatre classes called the Family Life. Soon photocopies were being made and passed around to “sell” the false religion. SAMO also started showing up as graffiti on subway walls and buildings in SoHo and the East Village, particularly around the School of Visual Arts. The tag now included the infamous and ironic copyright symbol “©” and was clearly targeting the art audience in more ways than one.


SAMO as an alternative 2 playing art with the radical chic sect on Daddy’s$funds

Yet, it was not only in response to the art world, but the world at large (and many will say that it was Al Diaz who was more interested in the latter and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the former). SAMO© played with and provoked issues of consumerism and pop culture, advertising, marketing, memory, history, etc. as in one of their tags that came across as a survey playing with their own notoriety:





[ ] SAMO©

SAMO© had become infamous to the area by now and was written up in the SoHo News and the Village Voice. Soon to be famous students, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, became fans and began to take their art to the streets. Ironically, it is perhaps this exchange that helped to facilitate Jean-Michel Basquiat’s transition from the walls of the street to the canvas and the white walls of the gallery. It is said that Al Diaz was more committed to graffiti and anonymity while Jean-Michel Basquiat was more committed to “art” and publicity. During this period of transition of SAMO©, around 1980, Jean-Michel Basquiat started tagging more on his own and started drawing and painting on paper and canvas. Soon it would be seen throughout the streets of New York that SAMO© was dead; Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz apparently had a falling out and the former started tagging over SAMO© tags, “SAMO© IS DEAD” yet began to incorporate it in his more ‘proper’ art work with one of his first solo shows even publicized as being authored by SAMO©.

While some of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early work shared similarities with SAMO©, and some were even signed SAMO© (sometimes then crossed out as in Cadillac Moon), his work changed quite a bit. He retained some qualities of his “graffiti style” but developed a more heavy-handed and ‘painterly’ style. The young emerging artist continued to play with popular culture and iconography (in that “pop” sense), and as his career as a painter developed he began to investigate collage and montage styles, imagery from heritage and tradition as well as themes and subjects that addressed his heritage and a new tradition.

During this development from street artist to gallery artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat experienced a kind of popularity and fame that was peculiar to such young artists in the visual arts. To be sure, it certainly wasn’t unwarranted in that the precocious young artist had quite deliberately targeted it. He met the ‘on the scene’ New Yorker, Glenn O’Brien, who became a pivotal figure for Jean-Michel Basquiat in the downtown scene. The artist appeared on his show, TV Party, in 1979 and would repeatedly make appearances over the next few years. He also starred in Glenn O’Brien’s independent film New York Beat, later re-titled, Downtown 81 (2001), as an unlucky painter hanging out in the downtown music scene.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was becoming one of “the” downtown artists of many capacities. He, along with Shannon Dawson, started an art noise band called Gray, which also included Wayne Clifford, Michael Holman and Nick Taylor. They formed in 1979 and started performing in all of the important downtown clubs such as CBGBs, the Mudd Club, Max’s Kansas City and Hurrah. Jean-Michel Basquiat participated in the infamous the Times Square Show in 1980 produced by COLAB (Collaborative Projects Incorporated) and Fashion Moda in which critics singled out his work. He was then included in the pointed exhibition, New York/New Wave at the contemporary art venue in Queens, P.S. 1 (now a subsidiary of MOMA).

Annina Nosei took a great interest in the ingénue and invited him into her gallery in the heart of SoHo, the then center of the contemporary art world, giving him a studio in its basement. He first exhibited figurative works in a group show held at the gallery in 1981, Public Address, and had his first solo exhibition at the gallery the following year, which received rave reviews. A few months later, Jean-Michel Basquiat showed his work at the East Village alternative space known as the “Fun Gallery,” which was considered a great show yet a great affront to his new dealer and the established, and growing, art market. But such behavior didn’t matter as much as it did matter; Jean-Michel Basquiat was already a star and “The Radiant Child,” was published a month later in the December 1982 issue of Artforum magazine by Rene Ricard.

Jean-Michel Basquiat went to Los Angeles to prepare for a show at the premiere Gagosian gallery and while there worked with Rammellzee producing the album, Beat Bop. He is included in the 1983 Whitney Biennial and moves into the Great Jones Street studio loft that he rents from Andy Warhol. The following year he showed a varied group of small works at the Mary Boone Gallery, which were received with mixed reviews. He then begins a series of collaborations with Andy Warhol and the two become close friends producing work for Bruno Bischofberger in Europe and an exhibition in New York at the Tony Sharfrazi gallery that was panned by the critics.

The collaborations that he produced with Andy Warhol were not as successful as the development of their friendship and the subsequent development of his own work. The two would share canvases or surfaces and work collaboratively and/or create diptychs, each culling from popular culture in their own way. Warhol’s approach was more detached and clinical approach, reproducing images photo-mechanically onto the canvas while Jean-Michel Basquiat would rework his influences through his “hand” adding marks and gestures. The collage style though worked for both of them. Jean-Michel Basquiat generally worked in such a manner, sometimes even employing photocopies of his own work into larger paintings in which he would paint over and re-arrange. The idea of collage also applies in a conceptual sense in that ideas, images and text are “collaged” together in shifting compositions that transgress the formality of earlier modernism and contemporary advertising, Warhol’s greater influence of course.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s own work was flourishing by the early 80s; in 1982 alone it is recorded that he produced over two hundred works. As his style significantly developed it still retained an “edge”, so-to-speak, and a purposeful relation to an outsider art aesthetic. Aspects of his graffiti art, along with the postcards and t-shirts he had made to earn extra money in the early days, are all still present in his “formal” paintings as is the text, though clearly the paintings are more intellectual. These paintings are often like montages of various elements—stylistically traces of street art days as well as incorporations of academic drawing styles are mixed with a more painterly approach and controlled energy. While Neo-expressionism was a booming movement in painting, and perhaps its fluidity and expressivity were influential, the style does not apply to the painter and nor did he approve of it. He in fact thought the neo-expressionist artists were amateurs and their work terrible. Jean-Michel Basquiat was of course full of contradictions seeking a sense of unknowing freedom in his stylistic approach yet from a very knowing sense of art, history and culture, all of which can be found layered, montaged, crossed-out, re-worked, boxed-in and brightly colored in his paintings.

The text in his work—the words, the letters, the text boxes—very much function as compositional elements in his paintings. Of course there is the connection to the graphical qualities of his earlier experiments in comics and graffiti, yet in his paintings the textual is more ‘formal’ and as the artist said himself, were used like “brushstrokes”. Jean-Michel Basquiat was particularly apt at creating a textual and pictorial equilibrium yielding an energetic dynamism. While the text in his work often references specific themes, the words are also often the result of a more ‘stream-of-consciousness’ approach in which free associations can be made among the various texts as well as the pictorial elements. Of course, as already alluded to, Jean-Michel Basquiat was not completely arbitrary in his choices and, especially as he matured, sought to address and play with more particular subjects.

Some of his very particular subjects were figural—conceptually, figuratively, and textually. More often than not ‘the figural’ in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings is a singular, heroic, male, black persona that varies in terms of the figure’s specificity. These figures are most often represented with a simple, outlined drawing of a head. In the cases where the gesture or lines of a body are rendered, the head is clearly the primary focal point of representation as registered by its scale and/or its level of detail.

Another heroic figure or head that often appear in his paintings is the “griot”. Inspired by West African culture as well as its transposition in the Caribbean, the griot figure is like the town archivist. The griot is the keeper of stories and tales and keeps them alive through sharing a community’s history and culture by storytelling and song. In some ways, Jean-Michel Basquiat plays with this role himself as a painter (and musician) and by representing the figure in varying thematic canvases as a fierce energetic figure often painted with elliptical eyes and bizarre facial expressions.

Another reappearing motif with some of his figure-types is the crown—both generic and specific—that appears on the heads of his heroes as well as included singularly as a motif. To be sure, those heroes that are named are just that, named. Jean-Michel Basquiat was not interested in rendering “likeness” rather he was interested in representing attributes that descry a particular subject, or theme. Thus, one pieces together the various motifs, symbols, and words to create a portrait. Ironically, such a method of description isn’t too far from art historical portraiture that, in addition to likeness, would incorporate objects and symbols that aided in determining who in fact adorned the canvas.

The many heroes that adorned Jean-Michel Basquiat’s surfaces were important black figures in history and culture from Muhammad Ali to Charlie Parker. Musicians figured most in his work. The artist would play off some of the musicians invented names like, Count Basie or Duke Ellington, in relation to the history of portraiture. He would essentially “crown” his contemporary, and again black, heroes. In some cases he would also paint halos over the heads further elevating their status as heroes, icons and cultural figures in and as the history of images.

In his “later” work (later in quotes as his career was incredibly short) Jean-Michel Basquiat became more economical in his gestures and marks yet more severe in his hand and subjects of address. Many art historians have attributed thus to the after-effects of his unprecedented rise to stardom, his increasing drug addiction (heroin) and the mourning over the death of Andy Warhol. His last exhibition was produced over months of the artist working mostly in isolation and retreat. He had tried to get past his drug addiction twice, yet it is not clear how often or how long he remained, if he remained, ‘clean’. The exhibition, his first solo show in two years in New York, was held at a new gallery, Baghoomian, due to his falling out with Mary Boone. The show was critically lauded and considered a major shift and “comeback” for Jean-Michel Basquiat, yet just two months after the exhibition closed the artist was dead from a drug over-dose.

His death shocked the art world and caused further critical engagement with his work and his persona. The Whitney Museum of American Art produced the first retrospective of his work four years later, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art produced a further retrospective in 2005. There have been countless articles, stories and critical debate circling the artist and his oeuvre, all of which cause controversy and contradiction. Julian Schnabel directed the film Basquiat released in 1996, which yielded much criticism for mythologizing the artist. More recent biographies have come out that claim to be closer to the “true spirit” of the artist, such as the Radiant Child by Tamra Davis. Yet, perhaps that “spirit” is to be left up to his actual paintings, which whether one critically lauds them or pans them, one cannot deny their intrinsic energy and “spirit”.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American Artist (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988).