The Life and Times of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Words by Celiya Köster

On the 12th, August 1988, Jean Michel Basquiat was found unconscious in his Manhattan loft, after overdosing on heroin. In this post, we look back at his artistic beginnings and his role as a Black artist in the white fine art worlds.

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In 1985, Jean-Michel Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, under the headline ‘New Art, New Money: The Marketing of An American Artist.’ This is seen by many as the climax of his fame, sparking a public interest in the complex and talented artist that is still prevalent today. A cultural icon and esteemed painter Basquiat had come a long way by 1985, he left home at just 17 to Manhattan starting as a coach-surfing, graffiti artist. His artistic journey begun within duo SAMO, which stands for ‘Same Old Shit’. SAMO tagged the metropolitan streets of New York City with ironic and political phrases. His distinctive painting style, influenced by his graffiti background, was one of the first bridges from street art into the world of fine art. Today, Basquiat has seemingly achieved more fame and wealth than any other Black painter in art history, his work recently selling for a record £85m at an auction in New York. The painting named ‘Untitled’ was the first piece created after 1980 to sell at a price over £70 million.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Haitian native father and Puerto Rican mother, his father an accountant, would bring home piles of paper for the children to scribble on. It is important to note that Basquiat was precocious and articulate. He was known for having the television on while playing music and surrounding himself with open books when creating his paintings. He drew information from outside sources, like Warhol he used remix culture, taking information from history books, academia, television shows and aesthetics from pop-culture to explore a range of social issues and thoughts. Remixing forces engagement as it uses social conations and places them in unfamiliar places to emote reactions from viewers. Basquiat himself was very interested in personhood, identity, culture, ancestry and anatomy, these themes appearing heavily in his work. He seemed very aware of the dualities and tensions that surrounded him as a young Black man in 80s white American art world.

In the 70’s all things Hip-Hop was on the rise in New York, graffiti artists were very much a part of this. However, discrimination was spreading, especially within the police force, the blossoming revolution of Hip-Hop culture was met with animosity and aversion by authorities. For instance, until 1972, graffiti was not considered an act punishable by law, then in 1983, Basquiat’s friend, Michel Stewart, a graffiti artist, was stopped by the police one night and was so brutally mistreated he had to be rushed to hospital, where he was announced dead shortly after. The treatment of Black men and women by the NYPD is still the cause of much trauma and protest in New York City, allowing his art to be appreciated again by a whole new generation dealing with similar issues. Basquiat knew that despite his fame and success in the art world that this could have easily been him. After the news, Basquiat went to Keith Haring’s studio and scrawled his reaction directly onto the wall, it was later named by Keith Haring - ‘Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)’.

Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

It is often noted that Basquiat’s work didn’t fit comfortably into the categories that were created for American art in the early 80’s, I would say Basquiat’s place of status as a Black man in the 80’s was also an uncomfortable fit for many. There has been much debate since the artist’s death about whether his wild behaviour, outlandish style and graffiti inspired art is a representation of a performance of ‘blackness.’ Did Basquiat play into and in some ways milk the 1980’s arty liberals craving for a more diverse and exotic flavouring to their white cube art world? 80’s New York was a different world to the New York of today, even though today it isn’t great. Basquiat was more casually humiliated and patronised as a Black artist in the 80’s. Art critic Steven Kaplan for example mocked him as the “piccaninny of SoHo”. The fine art world is one of the most inaccessible areas of the creative industries, it has been resistant to recognising and authorising minority artists throughout its history, often seeing Black bodies as the raw materials and inspiration to visual art but not as the producers of it. Basquiat knew this, he often tried to honour Black historical and cultural icons in his work, he drew on stereotypical images of Black culture in order to comment on and locate others casual racism.

Jean-Michel ran away many times as a teenager, his father recalls picking him up from the park, not much older than 15 and his son saying, “Papa, I will be very famous one day,” and he certainly was. But importantly, he was more than that, he was revolutionary, his soft masculinity, graffiti inspired fine art, and original public persona all helped young Black men understand the limitless options available for them to achieve and express their individuality for generations to come.