Jean-Michel Basquiat lived a dramatic, chaotic, and brilliant life
He was convinced from a very young age that he would be famous, that he would be someone special, but at the same time, he self-sabotaged himself through reckless behavior and drug abuse.
"Jean-Michel lived like a flame. He burned really bright. Then the fire went out. But the embers are still hot" (Fred Braithwaite).
From street graffiti artist to a self-taught, modern expressionist, Jean-Michel Basquiat lived a dramatic, chaotic, and brilliant life as his paintings. He was a modern polymath. His passion was painting, but he was also a musician and an actor.
He was convinced from a very young age that he would be famous, that he would be someone special, but at the same time, he self-sabotaged himself through reckless behavior and drug abuse. He was an anomaly and a contradiction, as was his work. His painting has been described as beautiful yet chaotic, charming yet mischievous. The same could be said for him as a person.
"He lived like a flame."
Jean Michel Basquiat was brought up in Brooklyn in a multi-cultural, middle-class family. With a Haitian father and a mother of Puerto Rican descent, he spoke Spanish, French, and English. He had a rich cultural background, and his family distilled in him a deep appreciation for history, music, and the arts.
His parents greatly influenced Basquiat, and their heritages are often portrayed in his artwork, with Black, Hispanic, and Aztec-inspired imagery. His father instilled in him a love of music and jazz in particular. His mother encouraged his interest in art and often took him to museums and galleries. He once said that "the art came from her." After an accident that left Jean-Michel bedridden for a month, his mother gifted him the book Gray's Anatomy. The book intrigued him, and you can see the book's influence on him in the anatomical figures in his later work.
Jean-Michel's parents separated when he was only 11 years old, and his mother was institutionalized with mental illness. His father was said to be strict, and Jean Michel moved schools often. They even moved to Puerto Rico and back again. Perhaps this unstable upbringing impacted his future choices. He became an angry and rebellious teenager, and he left home several times. At 15, he spent a couple of weeks sleeping in Washington Square Park.
New York in the late 1970s was a rough place for a teenager, but it also offered a kind of freedom to explore music, art, and creativity. In 1976, Jean-Michel enrolled in a progressive high school, City-As-School in Manhattan's West Side. It's there that he met his friend and earliest artistic collaborator, Al Diaz. Al Diaz was already an established graffiti artist, and together they created the character of SAMO. SAMO was a fictional character who sold fake religion. Perhaps this was the beginnings of the political and satirical aspect of Basquiat's work. SAMO© (the Copywrite symbol probably being ironic, as they often criticized the consumerist, corporate world) stands for 'Same old shit,' and it soon started appearing all over lower Manhattan as a graffiti tag. The pair spray painted witty poems and philosophical aphorisms, and SAMO© began to gain recognition.
Jean Michel's father finally kicked him out when he dropped out of school just one year before graduation. As a dare, he threw a bucket of shaving cream over his headmaster's head during his friends' graduation ceremony. After that, he decided there was no point going back. He would couch surf and often sleep on friends' floors. For cash, he started selling hand-painted T-shirts and postcards. He began painting doors, old tires, walls, floors, and even his fridge with no money for canvas. When he started dating Alexis Adler and moved into her apartment, even her clothes weren't spared from his artistry.
"He Burned Really Bright."
Around 1981-1982, Jean-Michel went from penniless to unbelievably rich. His art was first publicly exhibited in the 'Times Square Show' in an abandoned building in the Times Square area. This was a merging of two sub-cultures in New York: the glitzy, downtown neo-pop and the uptown rap and graffiti. Basquiat seemed to sit squarely between the two cultures. A downtown boy with neo-pop influence and graffiti background.
Jean-Michel sold his first painting for $200 to Debbie Harry (singer, songwriter, actress, and the lead vocalist of Blondie). Within months he was bringing in $20,000 apiece! His first public showing included 20 paintings alongside William Burroughs and Andy Warhol, who would later become a close friend and mentor to Jean-Michel.
By the mid-80s, he was gaining increasingly more attention. With his reputation skyrocketing, he had successful shows in LA and New York where every single piece was sold. He began traveling internationally for shows. At 21, he was the youngest artist invited to the international exhibition "Documenta 7" in Kassel, West Germany. In 1985, he produced a show of works he created with his friend, Andy Warhol. They were not as successful as hoped, but to have collaborated with such an acclaimed artist is a testament to Basquiat's talent. Why Warhol is a household name, while Basquiat is not, is for further discussion.
Basquiat began to take on a rock star-like persona and was even featured on the New York Times Magazine cover. He sat, carefree, in a fancy suit, neatly cropped dreads, and bare feet. At 21 years old, he ate caviar in Armani suits and threw parties with Cristal champagne and mountains of cocaine.
Basquiat had drug-filled energy that allowed him to paint 20 paintings in a couple of weeks. His friends would find him in brilliant chaos with the TV on, records playing, and him working on several canvases at one time. He would turn up to an exhibition a couple of weeks early emptyhanded and paint an entire gallery worth of work.
Basquiat is known for his paintings, but he was a man of many talents. He played the clarinet and synthesizers for the band 'Gray' that he formed with filmmaker Michael Holman. He regularly DJd at various Manhattan clubs. He recorded a rap record with Ramalzee and KRobb, for which he designed the cover. He even starred in a film, Downtown 81.
Race identity was a recurring issue for Basquiat. He once complained that "there's not enough black people in this… whatever it is, pseudo art bullshit." Racism was rampant at the time. Basquiat was denied entry to restaurants. He would return home from international art shows and be unable to get a cab.
Basquiat's three-pointed crown became his signature motif. Basquiat turned the crown into a symbol of black power. Race became more prominent in his work with pieces such as Hollywood Africans and Ray Robinson. He featured black actors, musicians, and sportspeople, often placing his signature crown upon their heads.
"Then the Fire Went Out."
Despite his fame and celebrity-like status, the intellectual art world refused to recognize his success. Perhaps due to his age, his lack of training, his race, or because his genre-defying work was beyond his time. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) turned down an offer to exhibit his work, and they still don't own any (although they do now have a few on loan). The Whitney Museum also rejected his work. Many dealers considered him too troublesome to work with.
Jean-Michel also seemed to have contradictory feelings about his fame and wealth. On the one hand, he was traveling the world and living the life of a rock star, but he also painted over his Armani suits and is said to have thrown $100 bills out the window of his limousine. It seems he found a contradiction between himself and his celebrity and success.
Jean-Michel became more and more reclusive. Warhol's death in 1987 had a profound effect on him. He was beginning to struggle mentally, and his heroin use was catching up with him. He did try to become clean and took himself off to his ranch in Hawaii to stay away from the drug scene. When he returned, he seemed extraordinarily happy. Unfortunately, that was not to last.
"But the Embers are Still Hot."
Traditional art institutions have slowly come around to recognizing his genius, but it's in pop culture that his work truly lives on. His work features on T-shirts, sneakers, tattoos, and in the homes of celebrities. Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Johnny Depp, and Leonardo DiCaprio are just some of the stars with a Basquiat piece hanging in their homes. He even lives on in the lyrics of rap music. Not only does Jay-Z own a Basquiat painting, but he also references him in his song "Picasso Baby," singing "I'm the next Jean-Michel."
Basquiat is one of the few black American painters to reach international fame. In fact, over the last decade, 77% of all auction sales for African-American artists are attributed to Basquiat. In 2017, a Basquiat painting sold for $110.5 million, the sixth most expensive painting ever sold at auction.
Basquiat challenged the status quo. He succeeded amid societal, cultural, and racial pressures and can inspire anyone looking to break the mold and create something new.