Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother. At an early age, he showed a precocious talent for drawing, and his mother enrolled him as a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum when he was six. Basquiat first gained notoriety as a teenage graffiti poet and musician. By 1981, at the age of twenty, he had turned from spraying graffiti on the walls of buildings in Lower Manhattan to selling paintings in SoHo galleries, rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished artists of his generation. Astute collectors began buying his art, and his gallery shows sold out. Critics noted the originality of his work, its emotional depth, unique iconography, and formal strengths in color, composition, and drawing. By 1985, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as the epitome of the hot, young artist in a booming market. Tragically, Basquiat began using heroin and died of a drug overdose when he was just twenty-seven years old.
From Street to Studio
Basquiat once told an interviewer, “Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star.” As a teenager, he plunged into the emerging eighties art scene. He met artists and celebrities at the Mudd Club; appeared on Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, a television show about the downtown scene; and starred in a low-budget film, Downtown 81 (New York Beat), based on his own life. All the time, he was also making art: hitting downtown Manhattan buildings with spray-painted aphorisms, selling hand-painted T-shirts and collages on the streets, and making drawings. His big break came in 1980, when critics singled out his work at the Times Square Show, an exhibition showcasing young New York artists. He finally got a studio in 1981, when his first New York dealer, Annina Nosei, invited him to paint in the basement of her gallery.
Until then, he had little money to buy supplies, so he painted on window frames, cabinet doors, even football helmets—whatever he could find. After Basquiat began to make money, the quality of his art materials improved. Even so, throughout his career he often chose to paint on rough, handmade supports and intentionally pursued the awkward look of outsider art
Becoming a Professional Artist
By 1982, at the remarkably young age of twenty-one, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a successful professional artist, living from the sale of his work. In what might be compared to a musician’s winning multiple Grammy awards in a single year, he mounted six acclaimed solo shows in 1982, in New York, Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome, and Rotterdam. That same year, he became the youngest artist ever to be included in Documenta, a major international contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Germany. And when Basquiat exhibited at the Fun Gallery, in the East Village, critics praised his exceptional talent and originality.
Along with his meteoric commercial success, 1982 was also Basquiat’s most prolific year as an artist: at least two hundred of his paintings bear that date, including many of his finest. The early 1980s witnessed a revival of
Expressionist figure painting in art, and Basquiat’s works from 1981 had already established him as a key player in that movement. A new breed of artists had emerged, one that was impatient with the austere rigors of so-called high modernism and eager to reform art by making recognizable images about contemporary life in the Expressionist style of early modernism from decades before. Their success with collectors grown flush from the booming economy encouraged more artists and broader experimentation. Basquiat’s ambitious works of 1982, with their evocative use of text, collage, and an ever-widening range of references, demonstrate his growing intellectual ambition while recalling the exhilarating spirit of the time.
Basquiat’s paintings from these years often revolve around single, heroic, black, male figures. In these images, the head is a central focus, topped by crowns and halos. Here, Basquiat explores the intellect, creativity, and emotional complexity of his human hero.
Crowns, Halos, and Heroes
The crown was Basquiat’s signature motif. In some paintings, the crowns top nameless, generic figures. But more often, Basquiat crowned his heroes. These included renowned jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and celebrated athletes, among them Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), and Hank Aaron. Like the royal titles that famous African American musicians have sometimes adopted as nicknames—such as Duke Ellington or Count Basie—Basquiat used crowns, as well as halos, to ennoble his icons.
In his unusual “portraits” of his heroes, Basquiat made almost no effort to paint his subjects with recognizable facial features. Often he merely named the person on the canvas or in the painting’s title. Perhaps he sought to invest his art with a votive presence, without relying on a direct visual likeness. The crown and the halo—the abstract symbols of honor—are all that are really necessary. Basquiat’s use of the halo, however, cannot help but remind us that in the modern world, art is no longer primarily dedicated to the service of religious worship.
Basquiat started his career as a graffiti writer, signing his work SAMO© (for “same old, same old” or “same old shit”). But while his contemporaries sprayed colorful pictorial symbols and tags all over New York, the teenaged Basquiat addressed the public in enigmatic sentences sprayed in a plain script, such as “SAMO© AS AN END TO MINDWASH RELIGION, NOWHERE POLITICS, AND BOGUS PHILOSOPHY” and “PLUSH SAFE HE THINK / SAMO©.” As a professional visual artist, Basquiat made language an increasingly important feature of his work. In some cases, words fill the entire canvas, leaving no room for images.
Basquiat used words to elaborate his themes, adding layers of verbal complication to his pictorial ideas. Sometimes, following a Surrealist or stream-of-consciousness technique, he built up running lists or diagrams of related thoughts. Often, he repeated the same words over and over again, achieving an almost hypnotic effect.
Basquiat’s words also serve a more strictly compositional function, playing a key role in the graphic construction of a painting. He was not the only artist using words in paintings during the 1980s, but he was perhaps the most successful at integrating text and picture into a dynamic whole. In Basquiat’s works, there is an especially harmonious affinity among written, drawn, and painted marks that have all clearly been made by the same hand.
Basquiat and Modernism
Despite a brief career of less than a decade, Basquiat is a crucial figure in the story of modern art. He was perhaps the last major painter of the twentieth century to pursue a key aspect of the visual language invented by some of the century’s first great artists, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, the German Expressionists, and others. These modern painters had turned to nontraditional sources—African art, as well as the art of children, the insane, and the untrained—for new ideas that would make their own work more direct, powerful, and expressive.
Working eighty years later, and inspired by his own heritage, Basquiat not only contributed to this modern tradition but also transcended it. That is, he understood not only the African-influenced work of his predecessors from the beginning of the century, but also the state of contemporary art as his own generation had found it: austere, cerebral, exclusive, and detached from everyday life. Like many artists of the so-called postmodernist years, he was to a certain extent a revivalist in his effort to make art more immediately relevant to a larger public. But Basquiat was unique among his fellow artists of the 1980s for avoiding nostalgia, imitation, and irony in his attempt to provide a once revolutionary but now outmoded modernist pictorial language with a brilliant final voice.
Photocopy and Collage
Basquiat began many paintings by pasting his own drawings—or photocopies of them—onto the canvas. Some of the drawings are spare, economical meditations, distilling an idea into the meanderings of line. Others are dense with deposits of marks and words. The collage ground they created gave Basquiat a surface to which he responded with painted imagery. The collage technique produced dense and complex surfaces in his paintings.
They recall the artist’s urban milieu—outdoor walls layered with posters, paint, dirt, and graffiti that he encountered every day in New York City. They are also reminiscent of Cubist collage, though rather than integrate visual materials from the outside world, such as signs and newspapers, as Picasso and Braque generally did, Basquiat used copies of his own works as collage elements, reaffirming the authority of his own controlling hand in his closed universe of marks.
Works from 1983
Basquiat reached full maturity as an artist in about 1983, when he was twenty-two years old. Encouraged by success and optimistic about his life, he made paintings that year that are among the strongest and most complex of any in the twentieth century. This was also the year he was included in the Whitney Biennial, a prestigious exhibition of contemporary art. His girlfriend at the time, Paige Powell, introduced him to her boss, Andy Warhol, who soon became Basquiat’s closest friend.
It was also in 1983 that a young, black graffiti artist named Michael Stewart died in suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Having once practiced graffiti himself, Basquiat realized that he could have suffered the same fate. Like many New Yorkers, he was deeply affected by the incident. Subsequently, his work began to explore themes drawn from the African Diaspora more fully, specifically the African experience in America.
An interviewer asked Basquiat in 1983 if there was anger in his work. “It’s about 80% anger,” he replied. The interviewer continued, “But there’s also humor.” To which Basquiat answered, “People laugh when you fall on your ass. What’s humor?”
Music was intensely important to Basquiat. As a teenager, he co-founded an art band called Gray that mixed ska and punk with “noise muzik.” He also performed in Deborah Harry’s video for the song “Rapture,” and produced his own record, “Beat Bop,” now recognized as an early hip-hop classic. He was close friends with the hip-hop impresario and first MTV veejay Fab 5 Freddy, and he briefly dated Madonna.
When Basquiat turned his energies to painting full time, music became a subject in his art. Jazz musicians and singers—among them Miles Davis, Max Roach, Billie Holiday, and Fats Waller—figured prominently in his paintings from 1983 to 1985. He especially loved bebop, a style that originated in the 1940s and emphasized free, rhythmic improvisation. One of its leading innovators, Charlie Parker, was Basquiat’s most cherished cultural icon.
With its combination of music, dynamic wordplay, performance, and graffiti writing, Basquiat’s art embodied the hip-hop movement during its infancy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of those who knew him have spoken of Basquiat’s ability to soak up information, and in true hip-hop fashion, he incorporated what he needed: his pop poetry evokes the emcee. The lists of words—cut, pasted, recycled, and repeated—function like beats, controlling the composition. And Basquiat approached the process of making art like a deejay: culling text, symbols, imagery, and styles from disparate sources and mixing them into something completely original.