Brooklyn, New York
New York, New York, USA
Summary of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat moved from graffiti artist to downtown punk scenester to celebrity art star in only the few short years of his career. This vertiginous rise took him from sleeping on the streets of New York City to being befriended by Andy Warhol and entering into the elite American art world as one of the most celebrated painters of the Neo-Expressionism art movement. Whilst Basquiat died at only 27 of a heroin overdose, he has now become indelibly associated with the surge in interest in downtown artists in New York during the 1980s.
His work explored his mixed African, Latinx, and American heritage through a visual vocabulary of personally resonant signs, symbols, and figures, and his art developed rapidly in scale, scope, and ambition as he moved from the street to the gallery. Much of his work referenced the distinction between wealth and poverty, and reflected his unique position as a working-class person of color within the celebrity art world. In the years following his death, the attention to (and value of) his work has steadily increased, with one painting even setting a new record in 2017 for the highest price paid for an American artist's work at auction.
- Basquiat's work mixed together many different styles and techniques. His paintings often included words and text, his graffiti was expressive and often abstract, and his logos and iconography had a deep historical resonance. Despite his work's "unstudied" appearance, he very skillfully and purposefully brought together a host of disparate traditions, practices, and styles to create his signature visual collage.
- Many of his artworks reflect an opposition or tension between two poles - rich and poor, black and white, inner and outer experience. This tension and contrast reflected his mixed cultural heritage and experiences growing up and living within New York City and in America more generally.
- Basquiat's work is an example of how American artists of the 1980s began to reintroduce and privilege the human figure in their work after the domination of Minimalism and Conceptualism in the international art market. Basquiat and other Neo-Expressionist painters were seen as establishing a dialogue with the more distant tradition of 1950s Abstract Expressionism, and the earlier Expressionism from the beginning of the century.
- Basquiat's work is emblematic of the art world recognition of punk, graffiti, and counter-cultural practice that took place in the early 1980s. Understanding this context, and the interrelation of forms, movements, and scenes in the readjustment of the art world is essential to understanding the cultural environment in which Basquiat made work. Subcultural scenes, which were previously seen as oppositional to the conventional art market, were transformed by the critical embrace and popular celebration of their artists.
- For some critics, Basquiat's rapid rise to fame and equally swift and tragic death by drug overdose epitomizes and personifies the overtly commercial, and hyped-up international art scene of the mid-1980s. For many observers this period was a cultural phenomenon that corresponded negatively with the largely artificial bubble economy of the era, to the detriment of artists personally and the quality of artworks produced.
Biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat
"I wanted to be a star, not a gallery mascot", Basquiat said. His life echoes this rise and struggle, and reveals the important dialogue between authenticity, representation, identity and recognition that is at the heart of understanding his work.
Important Art by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Basquiat began painting graffiti in the late 1970s, often socializing and working alongside other artists of the subculture in the Bronx and Harlem. Graffiti artists often focused on figurative images (cartoonish pictures of animals, people and objects), as well as simple 'tags' - logos or names designed to be a trademark or calling card, which was were Basquiat also began. But Basquiat's graffiti quickly developed in a more abstract direction, with the "SAMO" tag origins quite mysterious and loaded with symbolism.
This particular black spray paint tag on a wall is emblematic of the SAMO works that Basquiat and his collaborator Al Diaz made between 1976 and 1980. Quickly applied to public spaces in the street and subway, the SAMO pieces conveyed short, sharp and frequently anti-materialist messages to passersby. Usually seen as a sign of trespassing and vandalism, graffiti in the hands of Diaz and Basquiat became a tool of artistic "branding", and represents an important stage in the development of Basquiat's work.
The concept of SAMO, or "Same Old Shit", was developed during Basquiat's involvement with a drama project in New York, where he conceived a character that was devoted to selling a fake religion. Diaz and Basquiat applied the implicit critique embodied by this snake-oil-salesman figure to the commercial and corporate enterprises that they saw hawking goods in public spaces across their city. They initially began to spray paint the slogans that made up the works across subway trains as a way of "letting off steam" but, as Diaz remembers, they rapidly realized that it fulfilled an important role when they compared the work to more conventional graffiti tags. As Diaz says, "SAMO was like a refresher course because there was a statement being made".
After years of collaboration, Diaz and Basquiat chose to signify the end of their joint venture with the three-word announcement "SAMO IS DEAD". Carried out episodically in various cites as a piece of ephemeral graffiti art, the phrase surfaced repeatedly on gritty buildings, particularly those throughout Lower Manhattan, where much of the artistic scene Basquiat was part of was located.
An example of Basquiat's early canvas-based work, Untitled (Skull) features a patchwork skull that seems almost a pictorial equivalent of the monster from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - a constructed and sutured sum of incongruent parts. Suspended before a background that suggests aspects of the New York City subway system, the skull is at once a contemporary graffitist's riff on a long Western tradition of self-portraiture, and the "signature piece" of a streetwise bohemian. The expression on the skull-like face is downcast, with the rough stitches suggesting an unhappy combination of constituent parts. The colors used, which mix and swirl together, suggest bruising or wounds to the face, combining with the jagged lines to imply violence or its aftermath.
Basquiat's recent past as a curbside peddler, homeless person, and nightclub personality when he created this piece are all equally stamped into the troubled three-quarter profile. Together these characteristics suggest that the piece becomes a world-weary icon of the displaced Puerto-Rican and Haitian immigrant Basquiat seemed to think himself doomed to remain, even while successfully navigating the newly gentrified streets that were 1980s SoHo and the art market that took an interest in them.
Like a page pulled cleanly from a daily artist's journal, this untitled canvas features an array of Basquiat's personal iconography and recurring symbols set against a black background and smeared patches of bright paint. A white skull juts from the center of the ebony composition, vividly recalling the revered painter's tradition of the memento mori - a reminder of the ephemeral nature of all life and the body's eventual, merciless degeneration. The bone to the right of the canvas could also be read as a phallus, suggesting the representation of Black male sexuality as threatening or primitive (particularly when positioned next to the arrow in the painting). Scales appear directly below the skull, perhaps representing the scales of justice and therefore implying the inequality in treatment of Black men by the police and justice system that is perpetuated to this day.
Boldy appropriating images commonly associated with rural African art - a skull, a bone, an arrow - Basquiat modernizes them with his Neo-Expressionist style of thickly applied paint, rapidly rendered subjects, and scrawled linear characters, all of which float loosely across the pictorial field, as though hallucinatory. Basquiat demonstrates in one concise "study" how he is able to carry on an ancient practice of painting "still life" all the while suggesting that the artist's work was relatively effortless, if not completely improvisatory, as in the performance of a jazz musician. Nevertheless, the density of the imagery and its loaded symbolism reveal Basquiat's skill and his ability in composition.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jean-Michel Basquiat
- Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography (Greenwood Biographies)By Eric Fretz
- Jean-Michel BasquiatOur PickBy Rudy Chiappini
- BasquiatBy Marc Mayer
- Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, The Studio of the StreetBy Diego Cortez, Glenn O'Brien, Gerard Basquiat