Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88)
The New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was a significant figure in the transition of graffiti art from a clandestine street activity to mainstream postmodernist art. Despite his premature death from a heroin overdose at the age of 27, the reputation of his raw style of neo-expressionism - with its references to jazz and African art - remains high, and he is regarded by 'cool' art critics as one of the important postmodernist artists of urban America. Prices for his canvases have risen accordingly. Although his position in 20th century American art seems relatively secure, whether it will remain so is an open question. Basquiat was a contemporary of the formally trained New York spray-painter Keith Haring (1958-90), who died from AIDS two years later and the collage artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-92), who also died from AIDS in the 1990s.
BEST STREET PAINTING
Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat was the eldest of three children. His mother Matilde Andrades was of Puerto Rican descent, while his father Gerard Basquiat was Haitian. A fast learner, he soon demonstrated a natural gift for both art and languages, which were encouraged by his mother as well as his school teachers. At the age of 7, Basquiat suffered serious injuries after being hit by a passing car, and had a splenectomy. It was during this time that his parents separated. Jean-Michel and and his siblings were cared for by their father. At the age of 15, Basquiat ran away from home, sleeping rough in Washington Square Park for several days, before being arrested and returned to his father. Not long afterwards he quit school and also left home for good, earning money by selling T-shirts and other items.
By 1976, Basquiat along with his friends Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson began spray painting cryptic sayings on buildings and subway trains around lower Manhattan, signing them with the name SAMO© (Same Old Shit). This mural painting proved to be a highly effective publicity tactic. In December 1978, the Village Voice published an article about the graffiti. Then in 1979 some examples of his painting, which were displayed in an 'alternative' Lower East Side gallery, were noticed by Henry Geldzahler (1935-94). The latter, a well-connected early observer of the contemporary art scene who had become curator of 20th Century Arts at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, was Commissioner of Cultural Affairs in the city. In the same year, Basquiat began making regular appearances on the live cable TV show TV Party hosted by Glenn O'Brien. He also co-founded the rock band Gray, which played in several notable nightspots. After being 'discovered' by Geldzahler and O'Brien, Basquiat starred in O'Brien's film Downtown 81, originally entitled New York Beat, and was introduced to Andy Warhol. He also participated in The Times Square Show, a group exhibition organized by Collaborative Projects Incorporated and Fashion Moda. In 1981 his painting was warmly reviewed in the influential magazine Art in America. In addition, he was the subject of Rene Ricard's profile The Radiant Child in Artforum magazine. Both these articles generated an enormous amount of additional publicity.
By now, living in this intense atmosphere, Basquiat had developed his energetic and highly marketable brand of painting. Shocking, ugly, expressive, controversial, but nonetheless hugely 'visual', it was a melange of tribal art, ancient Egyptian motifs, street symbols, pictograms, logos, collage, text, 'found materials' and other junk art, as well as references derived from Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks and the Henry Dreyfuss Symbol Sourcebook. The overall message was suitably anti-bourgeois, anti-racist, anti-police, African-American and illustrated with iconographic imagery of black consciousness and the ghetto. As he became a celebrity and the pressure mounted on him to produce, he would fuel up with cocaine and marijuana, paint up to 18 hours in a row and then rely on heroin to get to sleep.
Like his friend Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat made his network of art-world connections through the downtown clubs like CBGB's, the Mudd Club, and Hurrah, where he performed with his own "noise band" in 1979 and 1980. Haring and Basquiat also both burst on to the art scene with instantaneous celebrity in 1980 (they were twenty-two and twenty respectively) and then were gone as suddenly as they had appeared: Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of thirty-one and Basquiat of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of twenty-seven. Finally, Basquiat also had a formative connection to graffiti writing, but for him it had the particular value of providing a coterie of other black artists. He was especially close to Rammellzee, Fab 5 Freddy, and Toxic.
Basquiat, however, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. His father was an accountant of Haitian descent and his mother a black Puerto Rican with an artistic sensibility but a fragile character that led to her institutionalization while he was still a child. Basquiat was bilingual in Spanish and English and an avid reader from childhood, although he dropped out of high school and largely educated himself. At seventeen he left home and lived from 1977 to 1979 on the streets (sometimes literally, sometimes in abandoned buildings or staying with friends).
During this period of homelessness Basquiat collaborated with a schoolfriend named Al Diaz on a sequence of "SAMO" texts (originating from a combination of "Sambo" and "same old shit"), which they inscribed up and down the D-train and on walls around SoHo and the East Village. Unlike other graffiti, the "SAMO" texts were puzzling aphorisms like "SAMO as an end of mindwash, religion, nowhere politics, and bogus philosophy" or "Plush safe he think; SAMO." By 1980 Basquiat had taken over the SAMO writings, and through them gained some degree of personal notoriety in the downtown art world. He also established a fixed address and showed his art for the first time (in the counterculture "Times Square Show" of 1980).
In February 1981 Basquiat installed a wall of paintings and drawings in the important "New York/New Wave" exhibition at PS. 1, a highly visible alternative space on the Long Island side of the 59th Street Bridge. This exhibition included some of the graffiti writers, as well as Warhol, Haring, and his friend Kenny Scharf. Basquiat's contribution attracted the notice of the SoHo dealer Annina Nosei, who gave him the basement of her gallery as a studio and began to represent him in September of that year. He also won the allegiance of Bruno Bischofberger, an important Swiss dealer, who represented him in Europe.
From this point onward Basquiat's career followed a meteoric trajectory, driven by his relentless productivity. Annina Nosei gave him a one-person show in March 1982 that drew considerable attention, but by fall he had split with Nosei and organized a show at the Fun Gallery. It wasn't until March 1984 that he signed on with another New York dealer, Mary Boone, and although that relationship deteriorated too in 1986 it firmly established his market. Meanwhile, Basquiat had formed a close friendship with Andy Warhol and had become an art celebrity in his own right. In the spring 1984 sale at Christie's (one of the two major art auction houses in New York) a Basquiat painting sold for $19,000 - an extraordinary price for a twenty-three-year-old artist - and in February 1985 his photograph appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.
Basquiat was a brilliant success almost from the start but torn up by self-doubts to the end. In his painting like "Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump" (1982), one immediately feels the exalted exhaustion of a Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg. The beauty of the colour and the sublimely expressive brushwork overwhelm the viewer and, at the same instant, one experiences the terrifying vertigo of what the seventeenth-century philosopher Pascal referred to as "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces"; Basquiat's paintings portray a breathtaking existential absence. As a black artist in a white world he was out there alone to an even greater degree than other major artists.
In this painting the black boy stands, palms out, in a gesture of supplication and spiritual disguise with a red-haloed familiar at his side. He has an ingratiating smile, but the face is a vacant mask with the inner person of the artist hidden from view. Meanwhile, the boy's dreadlocks flash brilliant red, as though lit from within; the bones glisten against the black, animating the skeleton like a spirit brought back to life. Basquiat has raised every colour and brushstroke to its maximum intensity, as in the rhythmic structure of jazz, giving the work what the art historian Robert Farris Thompson has called an "Afro-Atlantic vividness."
The black gestural line in the left forearm of the figure in "Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump" is "written," as in a graffitero's script, and "NEEET" is inscribed as though on a wall to the left. Yet the broad gestures of red, yellow, and green reveal Basquiat's association with the New York School, in particular his indebtedness to Franz Kline, as well as the early work of Jackson Pollock, and the figures of Willem de Kooning of the sixties. "Charles the First", also of 1982, shows another characteristic side of Basquiat's style. The composition has a notational quality like graffiti but it also resembles the paintings of Cy Twombly, which Basquiat had scrutinized in the museums and in books.
"Charles the First" is a coronation of the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker and belongs to a recurring set of homages to black heroes with whom Basquiat identified especially: the baseball player Hank Aaron; the boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), and Jack Johnson; the jazz musicians Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong; and the writer Langston Hughes.
In an off-white square to the right Basquiat wrote "Cherokee," the title of one of Parker's most famous tunes, right up there with the word "Opera," suggesting a parallel in artistic stature between "Cherokee" and this most aristocratic of musical genres. Below this he placed a crown, which is both a symbol of Parker's artistic royalty and Basquiat's own tag. (In another painting of this year, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict", Basquiat wrote below his self-portrait: "Hic est rex," Latin for "This is the king.") On the top of the left-hand panel of Charles the First the artist placed a crown labelled "Thor," suggesting a parallel with the mythological king of the Norse gods. The four feathers in the painting allude to Parker's nickname "Bird," and the black hand suggests the powerful bodily presence of both horn player and painter. Basquiat has also included the words "Marvel Comics" in two places, drawn the emblem of Superman, and written "X-Man" (another superhero who appeared in Marvel Comics) above it. So here the fantasy world of the comics merges with history in supplying a spiritual genealogy for the artist.
In late 1981, Basquiat agreed terms with the Annina Nosei gallery in SoHo, Manhattan, and was soon exhibiting his paintings on a regular basis alongside top contemporary artists like Francesco Clemente (b.1952), Julian Schnabel (b.1951), Enzo Cucchi (b.1949) and David Salle (b.1952). In Los Angeles, California, he was represented by the Larry Gagosian gallery, and in Europe by Bruno Bischofberger. He had a brief relationship with the young pop star Madonna and collaborated with both Andy Warhol and David Bowie. Photographs of the time show him working in $1,000 Armani suits, often splattered with paint.
Around the beginning of 1986, Basquiat switched to the Mary Boone gallery in SoHo. In February of the same year, he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in an article called "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist". Unfortunately, as his reputation rose, so did his consumption of narcotics. By the time Andy Warhol died in February 1987, Basquiat had become increasingly paranoid and unkempt, and his heroin addiction was running out of control. Despite attempts at rehab, he died of an overdose on August 12, 1988, at his art studio in Great Jones Street.
The first significant exhibition devoted to Basquiat's life and works took place from October 1992 to February 1993 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It then travelled to museums in Texas, Iowa, and Alabama (1993-1994). The exhibition catalog was a work of great scholarship and remains an important reference of Basquiat's art. Another major exhibition of Basquiat's work appeared MarchJune 2005 at the Brooklyn Museum. This too travelled subsequently to Los Angeles and Houston. Works by Basquiat can be seen in several of the best art museums across America, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
November 1998, Christie's sells
a Basquiat for $3,302,500.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF VISUAL ARTISTS