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Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an American artist.[1] His career in art began as a graffiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s, and in the 1980s produced Neo-expressionist painting. Basquiat died of a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27.[2]

Early life

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, the first of three children to Matilde Andrades (July 28, 1934 – November 17, 2008)[3] and Gerard Basquiat (born 1930).[4] He had two younger sisters: Lisane, born in 1964, and Jeanine, born in 1967.[3]

His father, Gerard Basquiat, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother, Matilde Basquiat, was of Puerto Rican descent, born in Brooklyn, New York.[4][5] Basquiat was a precocious child who learned how to read and write by age four and was a gifted artist.[6] His teachers noticed his artistic abilities, and his mother encouraged her son's artistic talent. By the age of eleven, Basquiat could fluently speak, read, and write French, Spanish and English,[4].[6]

In September 1968, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street. His arm was broken and he suffered several internal injuries, and eventually underwent a splenectomy. [7] His parents separated that same year and he and his sisters were raised by their father.[4][8] 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.[9]

At 15, Basquiat ran away from home.[4][10] He slept on park benches in Washington Square Park, and was arrested and returned to the care of his father within a week.[4][11]

Basquiat dropped out of City As School in the tenth grade. His father banished him from the household and Basquiat stayed with friends in Brooklyn. He supported himself by selling T-shirts and homemade post cards. He also worked at the Unique Clothing Warehouse in West Broadway, Manhattan.[4]
[edit] Career

In 1976, Basquiat and friends Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson 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." On December 11, 1978, the Village Voice published an article about the graffiti.[12] The SAMO project ended with the epitaph "SAMO IS DEAD," inscribed on the walls of SoHo buildings in 1979.[13]

In 1979, Basquiat appeared on the live public-access cable 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 Gray with Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Nick Taylor and Wayne Clifford. Gray performed at nightclubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrah, and the Mudd Club. In 1980, Basquiat starred in the O'Brien's independent film Downtown 81, originally titled New York Beat. That same year, O'Brien introduced Basquiat to Andy Warhol, with whom he later collaborated. The film featured some of Gray's recordings on its soundtrack.[14] He also appeared in the Blondie music video "Rapture" as a nightclub disc jockey.

In June 1980, Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and Fashion Moda. In 1981, Rene Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum magazine,[15] which brought Basquiat to the attention of the art world.

In late 1981, he joined the Annina Nosei gallery in SoHo, Manhattan. By 1982, Basquiat was showing regularly alongside Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, involved with the Neo-expressionist movement. He was represented in Los Angeles, California by the Larry Gagosian gallery, and throughout Europe by Bruno Bischofberger. He briefly dated then-aspiring performer Madonna in late 1982. That same year, Basquiat also worked briefly with musician and artist David Bowie. Basquiat painted in Armani suits, and often appeared in public in the same paint-splattered $1,000 suits.[16][page needed][17]

By 1986, Basquiat had left the Annina Nosei gallery, and was showing in the famous Mary Boone gallery in SoHo. On February 10, 1986, he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist".[18] He was a successful artist in this period, however 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.[13] Despite an attempt at sobriety during a trip to Maui, Hawaii, Basquiat died on August 12, 1988, of a heroin overdose at his art studio in Great Jones Street in New York City's NoHo neighborhood. He was 27.[13][19]

Untitled acrylic, oilstick, and spray paint on canvas, 1981

Several major museum retrospective exhibitions of Basquiat's works have been held since his death.

The first was the "Jean-Michel Basquiat" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 1992 to February 1993. It subsequently traveled to museums in Texas, Iowa, and Alabama from 1993 to 1994. The catalog for this exhibition,[20] 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 influential showing was the "Basquiat" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum March–June 2005 (which subsequently traveled to Los Angeles and Houston from 2005 to 2006).[21]

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. On May 14, 2002, Basquiat's Profit I (a large piece measuring 86.5"/220 cm by 157.5"/400 cm), owned by drummer Lars Ulrich of the heavy metal band Metallica, was set for auction again at Christie's. It sold for US$5,509,500.[22] The proceedings of the auction are documented in the film Some Kind of Monster.

On November 12, 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.[23] The record price for a Basquiat painting was made on May 15, 2007, when an untitled Basquiat work from 1981 sold at Sotheby's in New York for US$14.6 million.[24]

In 1996, seven years after his death, a biopic titled Basquiat was released, directed by Julian Schnabel, with actor Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat. David Bowie played the part of Andy Warhol.

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.[25]

In 2005, poet M.K. Asante, Jr. published the poem "SAMO," dedicated to Basquiat, in his book Beautiful. And Ugly Too.

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.[26]

The title of the 2010 song "Out Getting Ribs", written by Zoo Kid, is a reference to a Basquiat piece titled the same.

Artistic activities

"untitled (skull)," 1984

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 become 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.

The untitled head ,"untitled (skull)," 1984, is an example of his early 1980s work.

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.

A major reference source used by Basquiat throughout his career was the book Gray's Anatomy, which his mother gave to him while 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.

Representing his heritage in his art

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".[27] At the center of the painting, Basquiat depicts an Egyptian boat being guided down the Nile River by Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead.[28] 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."[28] 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.[29] Throughout the rest of the painting, images of the Atlantic slave trade are juxtaposed with images of the Egyptian slave trade centuries before.[29] 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 to be traded at that time.[29]

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.[29] 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.[30] The hat that frames the head of the Negro policeman resembles a cage, and represents how constrained the independent perceptions of African-American’s 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 Haitian trickster lwa, leader of the Gede family of lwas and guardian of death and the dead in vodou.[30]

Further reading

* Buchhart Dieter,O'Brien Glenn,Prat Jean-Louis,Reichling Susanne, "JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT",Hatje Cantz,2010. ISBN 9783775725934
* Fretz, Eric. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography. Greenwood Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-313-38056-3
* McCluskey, Danny. "Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art Capitalism Mascot or Radiant Child? Cameron, 2009.
* Deitch J, Cortez D, and O’Brien, Glen. Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981: the Studio of the Street, Charta, 2007. ISBN 9788881586257
* Mayer, Marc, Hoffman Fred, et al. Basquiat, Merrell Publishers / Brooklyn Museum, 2005.
* Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat: In World Only. Cheim & Read, 2005.
* Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (2nd ed.), Penguin Books, 2004.
* Marenzi, Luca. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Charta, 1999. ISBN 9788881582396
* Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Abrams / Whitney Museum of American Art. Hardcover 1992, paperback 1995. (Catalog for 1992 Whitney retrospective, out of print).
* Tate, Greg. Flyboy in the Buttermilk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. ISBN 978-0-671-72965-3


1. ^ Graham Thompson, American Culture in the 1980s, Edinburgh University Press, 2007, p67. ISBN 0-7486-1910-0
2. ^ Encyclopedia of the African diaspora: origins, experiences, and ..., Volume 1 By Carole Boyce Davies. ABC-CLIO. p. 150.
3. ^ a b Matilde Basquiat
4. ^ a b c d e f g Hyped to Death by The New York Times (August 9, 1998)
5. ^ Kwame, Anthony Appiah; Gates, Henry Louis (2005). Africana: Arts and Letters : An A-to-Z Reference of Writers, Musicians, and Artists of the African American Experience. Running Press. p. 69. ISBN 0-762-42042-1.
6. ^ a b Basquiat at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. ARTINFO. November 20, 2006. Retrieved 2008-04-21
7. ^ Basquiat by Leonhard Emmerling, p. 11
8. ^ Basquiat's Estate Sells at Sotheby's by Lindsay Pollock (March 31, 2010)
9. ^ What Price Glory? by Marilyn Bethany, p. 39
10. ^ Bethany, p. 37
11. ^ Bethany, p. 39
12. ^ Faflick, Philip. “The SAMO Graffiti… Boosh-Wah or CIA?” Village Voice, December 11, 1978: p. 41.
13. ^ a b c Fretz, Eric. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography. Greenwood Press, 2010. pages 46-47.
14. ^ Andy Kellman. Downtown 81 Original Soundtrack. Retrieved January 16, 2008
15. ^ Rene Ricard. "The Radiant Child", Artforum, Volume XX No. 4, December 1981. p. 35-43
16. ^ Phoebe Hoban (2004). Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. Penguin USA. ISBN 0143035126.
17. ^ Randy P. Conner, David Hatfield Sparks, Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions, Haworth Press, 2004, p. 299. ISBN 1-56023-351-6
18. ^ Cathleen McGuigan, “New Art, New Money” New York Times Magazine, February, 2005.
19. ^ Brothers, Thomas (2001). Artists, Writers, and Musicians: an Encyclopedia of People Who Changed the World. 4. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 16. ISBN 1-573-56154-1.
20. ^ Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Abrams / Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992 (out of print).
21. ^ Mayer, Marc, Hoffman Fred, et al. Basquiat, Merrell Publishers / Brooklyn Museum, 2005.
22. ^ Horsley, Carter. "Art/Auctions: Post-War & Contemporary Art evening auction, May 14, 2002 at Christie's". Retrieved 2008-01-17.
23. ^ Judd Tully (November 12, 2008). No Bailout at Christie’s. ARTINFO. Retrieved 2008-12-17
24. ^ "Huge bids smash modern art record". BBC. 2007-05-16. Retrieved 2007-05-16.
25. ^ Kevin Young, To Repel Ghosts (1st edition), Zoland Books, 2001.
26. ^ Davis, Tamra. "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child" (in English) (One of the "Film Topics" sub-sections on the Independent Lens website and the documentary of the same name they describe). Independent Lens. PBS. Retrieved 30 March 2011. "Tamra Davis explains why she locked her footage of her friend Basquiat in a drawer for two decades, and what it took to be sure a film about him took the full measure of the man."
27. ^ Frohne, Andrea. The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities. 1st. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999. 448-449. Print.
28. ^ a b Frohne, Andrea. The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities. 1st. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999. p448. Print.
29. ^ a b c d Frohne, Andrea. The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities. 1st. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999. 439-449. Print.
30. ^ a b Braziel, Jana Evans. Artists, Performers, and Black Masculinity in the Haitian Diaspora. 1st. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008. 176-199. Print.

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