Jean-Michel was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 22, 1960. With a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat’s diverse cultural heritage was one of his many sources of inspiration.
A self-taught artist, Jean-Michel began drawing at an early age on sheets of paper his father, an accountant, brought home from the office. As he delved deeper into his creative side, his mother strongly encouraged him to pursue his artistic talents.
His father was Haitian – quite a strict figure – and his mother, whose parents were Puerto Rican, was born in Brooklyn. His parents split up when he was seven and he and his sisters lived with his father, including a move, for a while, to Puerto Rico. His mother, to whom he was close, was committed to a mental hospital when he was 11. Jean was rebellious, angry, and moved from school to school. His education ended in New York when, for a dare, he emptied a box of shaving cream over the principal’s head during a graduation ceremony. By 15, he was leaving home on and off. He once slept in Washington Square Park for a week.
New York City in the late 1970s was utterly unlike it is now: un-glitzy, rough, with many buildings burnt out and abandoned. “The city was crumbling,” says Alexis Adler, “but it was a very free time. We were able to do whatever we wanted because nobody cared.” Rents were cheap (or people squatted) and downtown New York was a grubby, exhilarating mecca for the artistic dispossessed. The punk scene, centred on the venue CBGB, was giving way to something more experimental, involving art, film and what would become hip-hop. Everyone went out every night, everyone was creative, everyone was going to make it big.
“We were all these young kids in New York to carry out our Warhol fantasy,” says Michael Holman, “but instead of being a ringleader as Warhol was, we were in the band ourselves, making art ourselves, we were acting in films, making films, we were all one-man shows, with a lot of collaborations. That was the norm, to be a polymath. Whether you were a painter, an actor, a poet… you also had to be in a band, in order to really be cool.”
Jean-Michel first attracted attention for his graffiti in New York City in the late 1970s, under the name “SAMO.” Working with a close friend, he tagged subway trains and Manhattan buildings with cryptic aphorisms.
Jean left home permanently at 16 and slept on the sofas and floors of friends’ places, including UK artist Stan Peskett’s Canal Street loft. There he made friends with graffiti artists including Fred Brathwaite (better known as Fab 5 Freddy) and Lee Quiñones of graffiti group the Fabulous 5, and made postcards and collages. (Once Jean spotted Andy Warhol in a restaurant, popped in and sold him a couple of those postcards.) Brathwaite and Holman put on a party at the loft on 29 April 1979, as a way of bringing uptown hip-hop to the downtown art crowd. Before the party started, Holman remembers, this kid turned up, and said he wanted to be in the show. Holman didn’t know him, but “people with that kind of energy, you never stand in their way, you just say, Yes, go!” They set up a large piece of photo paper and Basquiat started spraying it with a can of red paint. He wrote: “Which of the following is omniprznt [sic]? a) Lee Harvey Oswald b) Coca Cola logo c) General Melonry or d) SAMO.” “And we all went, Oh my God, this is SAMO!” says Holman. Later at the party, Basquiat asked Holman, who had been in the art-rock band the Tubes, if he too wanted to be in a band. Gray was formed there and then.
Jean was in a band with Holman and others including Vincent Gallo; they were called Gray. They formed in 1979, but before that, he made his presence felt through his graffiti. Working with his school friend Al Diaz, from 1978 he was spraying the buildings of downtown NYC with their shared SAMO tag. SAMO©, originally a cartoon character Jean had drawn for a school magazine, was derived from the phrase “same old shit”. It was meant, in part, to be a satire on corporations and the tag was straightforward, not decorative. Instead of pictures, SAMO© asked odd questions, or made enigmatic, poetic declarations: “SAMO© AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT-GENIOUS [sic]” or “PAY FOR SOUP, BUILD A FORT, SET THAT ON FIRE”. The SAMO© tag was everywhere. Before anyone knew Jean-Michel Basquiat, they knew SAMO©.
In 1977 he quit high school a year before he was slated to graduate. To make ends meet, he sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets of his native New York.
In his earlier works, Jean-Michel was known for using a crown motif, which was his way of celebrating Black people as majestic royalty or deeming them as saints.
Describing the crown itself in further detail, artist Francesco Clemente posited: “Jean-Michel’s crown has three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion. Jean measured his skill against all he deemed strong, without prejudice as to their taste or age.”
Three years of struggle gave way to fame in 1980 when Basquiat’s work was featured in a group show. His work and style received critical acclaim for the fusion of words, symbols, stick figures, and animals. Soon, his paintings came to be adored by an art-loving public that had no problem paying as much as $50,000 for a Basquiat original.
His rise coincided with the emergence of a new art movement, Neo-Expressionism, ushering in a wave of new, young and experimental artists that included Julian Schnabel and Susan Rothenberg.
Racism also had an everyday impact: he would leave successful opening parties and find it impossible to get a cab. Herb Schorr would give him lifts to make his life easier (they would joke that he should wear a peaked cap and be Basquiat’s driver). George Condo, an artist on the rise at the same time, recalls going to a restaurant with him in LA and not being allowed in. “I said: ‘Do you know who this is? This is Jean-Michel Basquiat, the most important painter of our time.’ The guy said, ‘He’s not coming in. We don’t allow his kind in here.’” Brook Bartlett remembers a trip to Europe in 1982 during which a rich Zurich socialite intimated that she, an 18-year-old white woman, would be a civilising influence on Basquiat, who was four years older and already established. No wonder race became more prominent in his work: in his second LA Gagosian show, in 1983, Basquiat showed paintings such as Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson), Hollywood Africans, Horn Players and Eyes and Eggs, featuring black musicians, actors and sportsmen.
Drugs, too, were around more and more. “Everyone in the East Village and in the arts world in the 80s did drugs. Wall Street did drugs, everyone did drugs,” says ex-grirlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk. But after Mallouk and Basquiat split up in 1983, Basquiat got increasingly into heroin. “He was sniffing it, smoking it and injecting it,” says Mallouk. “There were some models that he was hanging out with that were doing it and that’s how he got into it.” He became unreliable, travelling to Japan on a whim, instead of going to Italy, where he had a show. But then, his focus was constantly diverted. Everyone wanted him. He was moving into a different world: his old friends still saw him, but intermittently.
During 1984 and 1985, Basquiat’s star shot higher and higher. There was a lot of travel, a lot of attention. He was featured on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine in a suit with his feet bare. The Warhol estate rented him an even bigger place, a loft on Great Jones Street large enough for him to use as a studio as well as a flat, and in 1985 Basquiat and Warhol had a show of paintings that they’d produced jointly. Though the poster for the show has subsequently been constantly reworked and sampled (even Iggy Azalea used it on the cover of her 2011 mixtape Ignorant), at the time, the show was not a success. One critic called Basquiat Warhol’s “mascot”. Tamra Davis says this was hard for Basquiat.
“He really thought he was finally going to be appreciated,” she says. “And instead they tore the show apart and said these horrible things about him and Andy and their relationship. He got really sad, and from then on it was hard to see a comeback. Anybody that you talked to that saw him around that time, he got more and more paranoid, his dread went deeper and deeper.”
As his popularity soared, so did Basquiat’s personal problems. By the mid-1980s, friends became increasingly concerned by his excessive drug use. He became paranoid and isolated himself from the world around him for long stretches. Desperate to kick a heroin addiction, he left New York for Hawaii in 1988, returning a few months later sober.
In New York on August 12, 1988, he did drugs during the day, and was dragged out to a Bryan Ferry aftershow party at bank-turned-club MK by his girlfriend, Kelly Inman, and another friend. He left quickly, with his pal Kevin Bray. They went back to the Great Jones loft, but Basquiat was nodding. Bray wrote him a note. “I DON’T WANT TO SIT HERE AND WATCH YOU DIE,” it said. Bray read it out to Basquiat, and left.
The next day, Inman went to the apartment at 5.30pm. Jean-Michel Basquiat was dead.
It was a sad end to a rocket-flight life. And the subsequent fight between Basquiat’s estate and various dealers over pieces of his work was not pretty. Collectors sued for paintings bought but never received. Dealers claimed they owned works; the estate said they’d stolen them. There were too many Basquiat pieces knocking around on the market (500-600 canvasses, according to one expert): the estate would only confirm the provenance of a few.
After his death, the artist was back in the spotlight in May 2017 when a Japanese billionaire bought “Untitled,” a 1982 painting of a skull, for $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction. The sale set a record for the highest price for a work by an American artist and for an artwork created after 1980. It was also the highest price for a painting by Basquiat and by a Black artist.
Basquiat and Warhol
In the mid-1980s, Basquiat collaborated with famed pop artist Warhol, which resulted in a show of their work that featured a series of corporate logos and cartoon characters.
On his own, Basquiat continued to exhibit around the country and the world. In 1986, he traveled to Africa for a show in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. That same year, the 25-year-old exhibited nearly 60 paintings at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, Germany — becoming the youngest artist to ever showcase his work there.
Since he died, Basquiat has had a mixed reputation. There was a time in the 1990s when he was dismissed as a lightweight. Museums rejected him as a jumped-up wall-sprayer. But over the past few years, his star has been on the rise and even those who are snooty about his art can’t argue with his cultural influence. A few years ago a Christie’s spokesperson described him, pointedly, as “the most collected artist of sportsmen, actors, musicians and entrepreneurs”. As one of the few black American painters to break through into international consciousness, he is referenced a lot in hip-hop: Kanye West, Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Nas and others cite Basquiat in their lyrics; Jay-Z, in Most Kingz, uses the “most kings get their head cut off” phrase from Basquiat’s painting Charles the First. Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz own his works, as do Johnny Depp, John McEnroe and Leonardo DiCaprio. Debbie Harry was the first person ever to pay for a Basquiat piece; Madonna owns his art and they dated for a couple of months in the mid-80s.
Although Basquiat was immensely prolific during his short life, institutions were slow to recognise his talent. “The time between his first solo show and his death was six years,” Eleanor Nairne says. “Institutions do not move that quickly. During his lifetime he only had two shows in a public space [as opposed to a commercial gallery]. There’s not a single work in a public collection in the UK.” There are not many in the US, either: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has a couple, but when the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was offered his work when he was alive, it said no, and it still doesn’t own any of his paintings (it has some on loan). The head curator, Ann Temkin, later admitted that Basquiat’s work was too advanced for her when she was offered it. “I didn’t recognise it as great, it didn’t look like anything I knew.”
Sources: BIOGRAPHY.COM; THEGUARDIAN