December 22, 1960|
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Died||August 12, 1988
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an American artist, musician, and producer. He first achieved notoriety as part of SAMO, an informal graffiti group who wrote enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 1970s where the hip hop, post-punk and street art movements had coalesced. By the 1980s he was exhibiting his neo-expressionist and primitivist paintings in galleries and museums internationally. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his art in 1992.
Basquiat's art focused on "suggestive 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, and figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique.
Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings as a "springboard to deeper truths about the individual", as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism, while his poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, born in Brooklyn, New York, was the second of four children of Matilda Andrades (July 28, 1934 – November 17, 2008) and Gerard Basquiat (1930 – July 7, 2013). He had two younger sisters: Lisane, born in 1964, and Jeanine, born in 1967.
His father, Gerard Basquiat, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother, Matilde Basquiat, who was of Puerto Rican descent, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Matilde instilled a love for art in her young son by taking him to art museums in Manhattan 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 age four and was a gifted artist. His teachers, such as artist Jose Machado, noticed his artistic abilities, and his mother encouraged her son's artistic talent. By the age of 11, Basquiat could fluently speak, read and write French, Spanish and English.
In September 1968, when Basquiat was about 8, he was hit by a car while playing in the street. His arm was broken and he suffered several internal injuries, and he eventually underwent a splenectomy. While he was recuperating from his injuries, his mother brought him the Gray's Anatomy book to keep him occupied. This book would prove to be influential in his future artistic outlook. His parents separated that year and he and his sisters were raised by their father. The family resided in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, for five years, then moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1974. After two years, they returned to New York City.
When he was 13, his mother was committed to a mental institution and thereafter spent time in and out of institutions. At 15, Basquiat ran away from home. He slept on park benches in Tompkins Square Park, and was arrested and returned to the care of his father within a week.
Basquiat dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School in the tenth grade and then attended City-As-School, an alternative high school in Manhattan home to many artistic students that have been failed by conventional schooling. His father banished him from the household for dropping out of high school and Basquiat stayed with friends in Brooklyn. He supported himself by selling T-shirts and homemade post cards.
|“||SAMO (for "same old shit") 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 predominately white art world.||”|
— Franklin Sirmans, In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip Hop Culture
In 1976, Basquiat and friend Al Diaz began spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan, working under the pseudonym SAMO. The designs featured inscribed messages such as "Plush safe he think.. SAMO" and "SAMO as an escape clause". In 1978, Basquiat worked for the Unique Clothing Warehouse, in their art department, at 718 Broadway in NoHo and at night he became "SAMO" painting his original graffiti art on neighborhood buildings. Unique's founder Harvey Russack discovered Basquiat painting a building one night, they became friends, and he offered him a day job. On December 11, 1978, The Village Voice published an article about the graffiti. When Basquiat and Diaz ended their friendship, The SAMO project ended with the epitaph "SAMO IS DEAD," inscribed on the walls of SoHo buildings in 1979.
In 1979, Basquiat appeared on the live public-access television cable TV show TV Party hosted by Glenn O'Brien, and the two started a friendship. Basquiat made regular appearances on the show over the next few years. That same year, Basquiat formed the noise rock band Test Pattern – which was later renamed Gray – which played at Arleen Schloss's open space, "Wednesdays at A's", where in October 1979 Basquiat showed, among others, his SAMO color Xerox work.
Gray also consisted of Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford and Vincent Gallo, and the band performed at nightclubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrah and the Mudd Club. In 1980, Basquiat starred in O'Brien's independent film Downtown 81, originally titled New York Beat. That same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol at a restaurant. Basquiat presented to Warhol samples of his work, and Warhol was stunned by Basquiat's genius and allure. The two artists later collaborated. Downtown 81 featured some of Gray's recordings on its soundtrack. Basquiat also appeared in the Blondie music video "Rapture" as a nightclub disc jockey.
The early 1980s were Basquiat's breakthrough as a solo artist. In June 1980, Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and Fashion Moda. In September of the same year, Basquiat joined the Annina Nosei gallery and worked in a basement below the gallery toward his first one-man show, which took place in March 1981 with great success. In December 1981, René Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum magazine, which brought Basquiat to the attention of the art world.
In March 1982 he worked in Modena, Italy and from November, Basquiat worked from the ground-floor display and studio space Larry Gagosian had built below his Venice, California home and commenced a series of paintings for a 1983 show, his second at Gagosian Gallery, then in West Hollywood. He brought along his girlfriend, then unknown aspiring singer Madonna. During this time he took considerable interest in the work that Robert Rauschenberg was producing at Gemini G.E.L. in West Hollywood, visiting him on several occasions and finding inspiration in the accomplishments of the painter. In 1982, Basquiat also worked briefly with musician and artist David Bowie.
In 1983, Basquiat produced a 12" rap single featuring hip-hop artists Rammellzee and K-Rob. Billed as Rammellzee vs. K-Rob, the single contained two versions of the same track: "Beat Bop" on side one with vocals and "Beat Bop" on side two as an instrumental. The single was pressed in limited quantities on the one-off Tartown Record Company label. The single's cover featured Basquiat's artwork, making the pressing highly desirable among both record and art collectors.
At the suggestion of Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol and Basquiat worked on a series of collaborative paintings between 1983 and 1985. In the case of Olympic Rings (1985), Warhol made several variations of the Olympic five-ring symbol, rendered in the original primary colors. Basquiat responded to the abstract, stylized logos with his oppositional graffiti style.
"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
Fred Hoffman hypothesizes that underlying Basquiat’s sense of himself 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." Additionally, continuing his activities as a graffiti artist, Basquiat often incorporated words into his paintings. Before his career as a painter began, he produced punk-inspired postcards for sale on the street, and became known for the political–poetical graffiti under the name of SAMO. On one occasion Basquiat painted his girlfriend's dress with the words "Little Shit Brown". He would often draw on random objects and surfaces, including other people's property. 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, diagrams and more.
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 1984–85 were also the main period of the Basquiat–Warhol collaborations, even if, in general, they weren't very well received by the critics.
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 at age seven. It remained influential in his depictions of internal human anatomy, and in its mixture of image and text. Other major sources were Henry Dreyfuss' Symbol Sourcebook, Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, and Brentjes' African Rock Art.
Basquiat doodled often and some of his later pieces exhibited this; they were often colored pencil on paper with a loose, spontaneous, and dirty style much like his paintings. His work across all mediums displays a childlike fascination with the process of creating.
|“||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.||”|
— Lydia Lee
According to Andrea Frohne, Basquiat's 1983 painting Untitled (History of the Black People) "reclaims Egyptians as African and subverts the concept of ancient Egypt as the cradle of Western Civilization". At the center of the painting, Basquiat depicts an Egyptian boat being guided down the Nile River by Osiris, the Egyptian god of the earth and vegetation.
On the right panel of the painting appear the words “Esclave, Slave, Esclave”. Two letters of the word "Nile" are crossed out and Frohne suggests that, "The letters that are wiped out and scribbled over perhaps reflect the acts of historians who have conveniently forgotten that Egyptians were black and blacks were enslaved." On the left panel of the painting Basquiat has illustrated two Nubian-style masks. The Nubians historically were darker in skin color, and were considered to be slaves by the Egyptian people.
Throughout the rest of the painting, images of the Atlantic slave trade are juxtaposed with images of the Egyptian slave trade centuries before. The sickle in the center panel is a direct reference to the slave trade in the United States, and slave labor under the plantation system. The word "salt" that appears on the right panel of the work refers to the Atlantic Slave Trade, as salt was another important commodity traded at that time.
Another of Basquiat's pieces, Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), is intended to illustrate how African-Americans have been controlled by a predominantly Caucasian society. Basquiat sought to portray how complicit African-Americans have become with the "institutionalized forms of whiteness and corrupt white regimes of power" years after the Jim Crow era had ended. Basquiat found the concept of a "Negro policeman" utterly ironic. It would seem that this policeman should sympathize with his black friends, family, and ancestors, yet instead he was there to enforce the rules designed by "white society." The Negro policeman had "black skin but wore a white mask". In the painting, Basquiat depicted the policeman as large in order to suggest an "excessive and totalizing power", but made the policeman's body fragmented and broken.
The hat that frames the head of the Negro policeman resembles a cage, and represents how constrained the independent perceptions of African-Americans were at the time, and how constrained the policeman’s own perceptions were within white society. Basquiat drew upon his Haitian heritage by painting a hat that resembles the top hat associated with the Guédé family of Loa, who embody the powers of death in vodou.
However, Kellie Jones, in her essay Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix, 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."
Basquiat’s first public exhibition was in the group effort The Times Square Show (with David Hammons, Jenny Holzer, Lee Quiñones, Kenny Scharf and Kiki Smith among others), held in a vacant building at 41st Street and Seventh Avenue, New York. In late 1981, Basquiat joined the Annina Nosei gallery in SoHo; his first one-person exhibition was in 1982 at that gallery. By then, he was showing regularly alongside other Neo-expressionist artists including Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi. He was represented in Los Angeles by the Gagosian gallery and throughout Europe by Bruno Bischofberger.
Major exhibitions of Basquiat's work have included Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings 1981–1984 at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (1984), which traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, in 1985); the Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover (1987, 1989). The first retrospective to be held of the artists work was the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 1992 to February 1993. It subsequently traveled to the Menil Collection, Houston; the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama, from 1993 to 1994. The catalog for this exhibition, edited by Richard Marshall and including several essays of differing styles, was a groundbreaking piece of scholarship into Basquiat's work and still a major source. Another exhibition, Basquiat, was mounted by the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2005, and traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. From October 2006 to January 2007, the first exhibition in Puerto Rico of Basquiat took place at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR), produced by ARTPREMIUM, Corinne Timsit and Eric Bonici. Brooklyn Museum is showing the Exhibitions: Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks April-August, 2015. 
By 1986, Basquiat had left the Annina Nosei gallery, and was showing at the Mary Boone gallery in SoHo. On February 10, 1985, he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature titled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist". He was a successful artist in this period, but his growing heroin addiction began to interfere with his personal relationships.
When Andy Warhol died on February 22, 1987, Basquiat became increasingly isolated, and his heroin addiction and depression grew more severe. Despite an attempt at sobriety during a trip to Maui, Hawaii, he died on August 12, 1988, of a heroin overdose at his art studio on Great Jones Street in Manhattan's NoHo neighborhood. He was 27.
Basquiat was interred in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, where Jeffrey Deitch made a speech at the graveside. Among those speaking at Basquiat’s memorial held at Saint Peter's Church on November 3, 1988, were Ingrid Sischy who, as the editor of Artforum in the 1980s, got to know the artist well and commissioned a number of articles that introduced his work to the wider world.; Suzanne Mallouk recited sections of A. R. Penck's Poem for Basquiat and Fab 5 Freddy read a poem by Langston Hughes. The 300 guests included the musicians John Lurie and Arto Lindsay; the artist Keith Haring; the poet David Shapiro; Glenn O'Brien, a writer; Fred Brathwaite, an actor and artist, and members of the band Gray, which Basquiat led in the late 1970s. In memory of the late artist, Keith Haring created Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1988).
"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 1991, poet Kevin Young produced 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 2005, poet M. K. Asante published the poem "SAMO," dedicated to Basquiat, in his book Beautiful. And Ugly Too.
Basquiat starred in Downtown 81, a vérité movie written by Glenn O'Brien and shot by Edo Bertoglio in 1981, but not released until 1998. In 1996, seven years after the artist's death, a biographical film titled Basquiat was released, directed by Julian Schnabel, with actor Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat. David Bowie played the part of 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.
In 2006, Equality Forum featured Jean-Michel Basquiat during LGBT history month.
A 2009 documentary film, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, directed by Tamra Davis, was first screened as part of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was shown on the PBS series Independent Lens in 2011.
Basquiat is referenced in Jay Z and Frank Ocean's song "Oceans": "I hope my black skin don't dirt this white tuxedo before the Basquiat show" in the 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Both Jay-Z and Kanye West made reference to Basquiat on their 2011 collaborative album Watch the Throne. In "Illest Motherfucker Alive", Jay Z raps "Basquiats, Warhols serving as my muses." Jay Z also mentions him on his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail when he says "Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner go 'head, lean on that shit Blue, you own it." In his verse on Lil Wayne's song "John", Rick Ross raps "Red on the wall, Basquiat when I paint". In the song "Ten Thousand Hours" Macklemore raps "I observed Escher, I love Basquiat" and on his song "Victory Lap" raps "unorthodox, like Basquiat with a pencil". In his song "Die Like a Rockstar", about overdosing, Danny Brown raps "Basquiat freestyle" to hype himself up.
ASAP Rocky mentions Basquiat in his song "Phoenix", rapping "Painting vivid pictures/call me Basquiat, Picasso". Rapper Robb Bank$ has a song titled "Look Like Basquiat." Korean rapper Jazzy Ivy released the single/album "Jean & Andy" inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. "Rich Niggaz" on J. Cole's second album Born Sinner he raps, "It's like Sony signed Basquiat". Referencing his parent label, Sony, he compares Basquiat to himself in the change in their works after signing to a major label. On his song "Untitled", Killer Mike compares himself to Basquiat and 2Pac, saying "This is Basquiat with a passion like Pac." On the track Moments by Kidz in the Hall from their Semester Abroad mixtape Naledge says "look inside myself I think I see a masterpiece, a little Basquiat mix a little Master P."
Korean rapper T.O.P references Basquiat in his 2013 single "DOOM DADA", when he says "MIC-reul jwin shindeullin, rap Basquiat" which translates to "A god-given rap Basquiat with a mic." On his mixtape Black Hystori Project, Cyhi the Prynce features a song called "Basquiat". Nicki Minaj mentioned Basquiat on her single "Lookin Ass", featured on the Young Money collaborative album Rise Of An Empire. In Riff Raff's "Gucci Jacuzzi," Lil' Flip says "You know I'm makin' guap, and my painting in my kitchen was made by Basquiat." Madonna references Basquiat in the song "Graffiti Heart" from the super deluxe edition of her album Rebel Heart. The band Fall Out Boy used the Basquiat crown as a part of their logo in 2013. It is still being used. Robb Bank$ compares himself thoroughly to Basquiat in his song "Look like Basquiat". Basquiat was referenced in the Gym Class Heroes' song, "To Bob Ross with Love."
Notable private collectors of Basquiat's work include Mera and Donald Rubell, Lars Ulrich, Steven A. Cohen, Laurence Graff, John McEnroe, Madonna, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Swizz Beatz, and Jay-Z.
Basquiat sold his first painting in 1981, and by 1982, spurred by the Neo-Expressionist art boom, his work was in great demand. In 1985, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in connection with an article on the newly exuberant international art market; this was unprecedented for an African-American artist, and for one so young. Since Basquiat's death in 1988, his market 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 $115m. 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."
In 2001 New York artist and 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 drawings by Basquiat. The charges against Martinez, which landed him in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correction Center on June 19, 2002, involved an alleged scheme to sell fake Basquiat drawings, accompanied by forged certificates of authenticity.
Until 2002, the highest money paid for an original work of Basquiat's was US$3,302,500, set on November 12, 1998 at Christie's. In 2002, Basquiat's Profit I (1982), a large piece measuring 86.5"/220 cm by 157.5"/400 cm, was set for auction again at Christie's by drummer Lars Ulrich of the heavy metal band Metallica. It sold for US$5,509,500. The proceedings of the auction are documented in the film Some Kind of Monster.
In 2008, at another auction at Christie's, Ulrich sold a 1982 Basquiat piece, Untitled (Boxer), for US $13,522,500 to an anonymous telephone bidder. Another record price for a Basquiat painting was made on in 2007, when an untitled Basquiat work from 1981 sold at Sotheby's in New York for US$14.6 million. In 2012, for the second year running, Basquiat was the most coveted contemporary (i.e. born after 1945) artist at auction, with €80m in overall sales. That year, his Untitled (1981), a painting of a haloed, black-headed man with a bright red skeletal body, depicted amid the artist's signature scrawls, was sold by Robert Lehrman for $16.3 million, well above its $12 million high estimate. A similar untitled piece, also undertaken in 1981 and formerly owned by the Israel Museum, sold for £12.92 million at Christie's London, setting a world auction record for Basquiat's work.
The Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat was formed by the gallery that was assigned to handle the artist's estate. Between 1994 and 2012, it reviewed over 2,000 works of art; the cost of the committee's opinion was $100. The committee was headed by Gerard Basquiat. Members and advisers varied depending on who was available when a piece is being authenticated, but they have included the curators and gallerists Diego Cortez, Jeffrey Deitch, John Cheim, Richard Marshall, Fred Hoffman and Annina Nosei (the artist's first art dealer).
In 2008 the authentification 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 early 2012, the committee announced that it would dissolve in September of that year and no longer consider applications.