Jean-Michel Basquiat

Biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Emerging from the downtown graffiti art scene in post-punk New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat became one of the most feted artists of his generation. Born into a middle class family in Brooklyn in 1960, he was the son of immigrant parents from the Caribbean. A precocious and curious child, he soaked up information and influences easily, largely fed by his mother who would often take him to museums as a boy. Leaving school at 17 with dreams of becoming a writer, Basquiat began, with an old school friend, to write elusive and mysterious slogans around New York. Using the tag SAMO© which stands for “same old shit”, the slogans began gaining serious interest around the New York art world.

 

Instead of painting on fridges, chairs and other bits of detritus he found on the street, Basquiat was soon urged to paint on canvas. He had the unique ability to take everything from his mind and memory banks, channel it through his body and put right there on the work in front of him. Somehow he managed to take all the energies from the street and translate them into high art. Although he was the first Black artist to make a high-level breakthrough, he only ever saw himself as “an artist”, not a black artist.

 

In 1981 Basquiat starred in the film Downtown 81 which was not released until 1998. He sold his first painting to Deborah Harry, from the group Blondie, for $200. By now news was spreading rapidly about his talent. When his first solo show opened at Annina Nosei Gallery in New York in 1982, every painting sold out in the opening night. In one evening he went from being a penniless street artist to having hundreds of thousands of dollars. In that same year he had gained international recognition by being the youngest ever artist to participate in Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany.

 

Just like in his canvases, Jean-Michel Basquiat could be both childlike and scary, he would be shy then impatient and difficult—but his temperamental personality was enormously attractive to art collectors. After making friends with Andy Warhol who took the young protégé under his wing, they began working together collaboratively. But the success soon took its toll on Basquiat and by the mid-80s he was supporting a heavy heroin addiction. After Andy Warhol’s death in 1987, he became increasingly isolated and died of a heroin overdose in his art studio in 1988.

 

In 2017 a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting Untitled, 1982, sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $110.5 million—the highest ever paid for a work by an American artist. Later that same year “Basquiat: Boom for Real” opened at the Barbican, the first large-scale exhibition of the artist in the United Kingdom. He is in the collections of most major museums around the world, including the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2010 to mark what would be Jean-Michel Basquiat’s fiftieth birthday, Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland put on a show featuring over 100 works. 

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