Remembering Jean-Michel Basquiat. 10 Facts You Should Know About the Artist

“I don’t think about Art when I’m working. I try to think about life” 

-Jean-Michel Basquiat

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat born of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent was a prominent public figure in the New York City’s explosive art scene of the 1980s. His iconic paintings and drawings examining the colonial enterprise and his relationship to this legacy. Recounting events from Haitian, Puerto Rican, African and African American history thrust him into a world of fame and celebrity which would sadly be his demise. On August 12th, 1988, aged just 27, he was found dead in his apartment in NoHo, Manhattan after losing his struggle with heroin addiction.

#1 He sold sweatshirts and postcards with his artwork on to support himself

 

At the age of 17, Basquiat dropped out of high school. A decision his father didn’t take lightly and responded by kicking him out of his Brooklyn home. He survived by crashing with friends or panhandled on the streets living on a diet of cheap red wine and Cheetos. He supported himself by selling t-shirts and postcards that he had painted over.

#2 Basquiat created an Alter Ego (SAMO) that helped launch his Art Career.

 

His life on the streets surely influenced his interest in graffiti. He first gained public attention for his graffiti tag “SAMO” – short-hand for “Same-Old Shit” is a name adopted by Basquiat and his high school friend, Al Diaz to add mystery to their work. They began spraying this on walls around Lower Manhattan. It was a mixture of symbols and social commentary often poetic. The messages were meaningful and caught people’s attention.

In early 1980, Diaz and Basquiat had a falling out. Soon after Basquiat was writing “SAMO IS DEAD” all over the streets of Downtown. Some of the old phrases were still up at the time and written over with the news. As Basquiat was to put it later:

“I wrote SAMO IS DEAD all over the place. And I started painting”

After noticing the “SAMO© IS DEAD” phrases, Keith Haring held a mock wake for SAMO at his Club 57. Around 1980 Basquiat began to take over the SAMO name solo, before killing it off.

#3 Basquiat was a Die-Hard student of Art History.

 

Basquiat might have rejected formal education, but he was a die-hard student of art history. His foundation of knowledge was built on the institutions surrounding him in New York City and growing up in a cross cultural and multilingual family. He was an avid reader and by the age of 11 he spoke, read and wrote in 3 languages (Haitian, Creole, English and Spanish). This upbringing played a vital role in his perspective of the world.

His first introduction to museums dates back to his early years in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he resided with his parents and young sisters.

His mother, Matilda, a Puerto Rican American with a strong interest in fashion design and sketching was a big influence for young Basquiat growing up. She introduced him to art by taking him to museums and theatres where he would learn to draw from the books, she had bought him. His father was quoted as saying

“His mother got him started and pushed him.”. Basquiat’s first drawings were done on the paper that his dad would bring back from his accounting firm.

#4 A childhood accident gave way to his lifelong work.

 

At the age of 8 while playing basketball on the street Basquiat was hit by a car which left him with a broken arm and internal injuries so severe his spleen had to be removed. This experience played a significant role in his artistic development.

While he recovered his mother gave him a copy of Grey’s Anatomy, which he memorized. This inspiration became his foundational text. He loved discovering the interior architecture of his body and was intrigued by the way the body could be reduced to clean lines the most. The anatomical diagrams proved to be incredibly influential to his future art pieces, especially the Dutch Settlers series and the Anatomy Series

#5 Basquiat holds the record for the most expensive American artwork sold at auction.

 

The art world was sent into shock after Basquiat’s ‘Untitled’ 1982 painting fetched an unprecedented $110.5 million dollars after an intense bidding war at Sotheby’s in New York. Making it the most expensive American work ever sold at auction and the most valuable work by any African American artist. It is also the first piece created since 1980 to break the $100 million dollar mark.

Untitled signified Basquiat’s entry into the rarefied art world. In 1982, when he created the painting, he was an unknown graffiti artist living in New York. But Basquiat was soon to become perhaps “the only artist of color involved in any part of the art world at that time,” as art critic Jerry Saltz put it.

The buyer behind the staggering purchase is the 41-year old Japanese billionaire art collector Yasaku Maezawa, who’s dedication to Basquiat has singlehandedly driven his prices over the moon. He was also responsible for setting the previous record for yet another 1982 Basquiat which sold at $57.3 million a bargain in comparison.

“The moment I first saw the painting at the auction preview, the piece overflowing with his passion and technique, I felt shivers all over my body,” Maezawa said in the statement. “Regardless of its condition or sales value, I was driven by the responsibility to acknowledge great art and the need to pass on not only the artwork itself, but also the knowledge of the artist’s culture and his way of life to future generations.”

Yasuku generously loaned the painting to the Brooklyn Museum to showcase shortly after acquiring it. The final home will be in Maezawa’s private collection at his museum in Chiba, Japan.

Although Sotheby’s calls the painting a “a virtually incomparable masterwork” the piece was only expected to sell for around $60 million, more than half its actual selling price. 

#6 Jean-Michel and lifelong friend and mentor Andy Warhol’s friendship defined the Art World in 1980’s New York City.

 

Warhol and Basquiat met in the early 1980s when a teenage Basquiat frequently visited Warhol’s New York City studio, The Factory. At first Warhol didn’t give much notice to the teenager and it wasn’t till a few years later in 1982 when Swiss power-dealer Bruno Bischofberger set up a lunch between them that he began to pay attention to him.

Jean Michel and Andy at 860 Broadway, October 26, 1983.© THE ANDY WARHOL FOUNDATION FOR THE VISUAL ARTS, INC.

 

We gain initial insight into this momentous union of the older statesman of pop art and a then rising star of the New York Art scene in an off-hand entry in Andy Warhol’s diary:

“Down to meet Bruno Bischofberger (cab $7.50). He brought Jean Michel Basquiat with him. He’s the kid who used the name ‘Samo’ when he used to sit on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village and paint T-shirts…he was just one of those kids who drove me crazy…he’s black but some people say he’s Puerto Rican so I don’t know…And so had lunch for them and then I took a Polaroid and he went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together.”

—ANDY WARHOL

Andy Warhol and Basquiat played an important role in each others lives. They were an unlikely pair from different generations and backgrounds but became two creative forces of an era, and close friends. Together they forged one of the most important relationships within the history of contemporary art. Warhol, the creator of Pop Art and his much younger Neo-Expressionist protégé Basquiat. The mutual respect and admiration that they shared for one another inspired two iconic bodies of work.

© THE ANDY WARHOL FOUNDATION FOR THE VISUAL ARTS, INC.

#7 Jean-Michel Basquiat lived and worked in Larry Gagosian’s home studio. 

 

Jean-Michel worked from the ground-floor display and studio space Larry Gagosian had built below his home.

Venice, Los Angeles offered him a removed environment where he found security and solitude from New York. Here he was able to get on with his work with far less distraction. It gave him a new lease for life and awakening his stimuli to new source material.

Gagosian explains…

“I had a big house on the beach in Venice,” Gagosian says, “and I gave him an enormous room for a studio.” Basquiat stayed for six months, working ferociously. He developed a pattern in which work and life, completely entwined, were both forced to the limit. There was something childlike about his appetites. He had used so much cocaine he’d perforated his septum. Nile Rodgers, the musician, who ran into Basquiat in the Maxfield Blue store and gave him a ride, later found he had left half a dozen brand-new Armani suits in the car. “He was flying out friends to stay with him,” Gagosian says. “It was really a zoo.”

His paintings were exhibited in the Gagosian gallery in West Hollywood. Many of these works referenced famous musicians, boxers and Hollywood films with a focus on roles played black actors.

#8 The Kind of Street Art Meets the Queen of Pop.

 

Basquiat loved women and his love life was as mysterious as it was popular. He met Madonna while he was living with Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles.

Larry revealed to Interview magazine that Basquiat was fond of his girlfriend. When he was introduced to her Basquiat told him that she was going to be “a big, big star”. The couple started dating in 1982 while they were both on the cusp of mainstream stardom.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and MadonnaPhotography by Stephen Torton

While Madonna was grooming herself to become the future queen of pop. Basquiat was already hailed as a promising artist holding regular gallery shows. Madonna and Basquiat were often seen going to art events and parties together where he would introduce her to artists and gallerists. Like many artists Basquiat had a tendency to put his work before his relationships. His love affair with Madonna was no exception. Madonna recounts on an episode of the Howard Stern Show:

“I remember getting up in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t be in bed lying next to me; he’d be standing, painting, at four in the morning this close to the canvas, in a trance. I was blown away by that, that he worked when he felt moved.”

He was sadly also deeply immersed in the world of heroin. Madonna also recounts \

“He wouldn’t stop doing heroin. He was an amazing man and deeply talented, I loved him.”

When Madonna called the relationship off, Basquiat took back the paintings that he made for her and blacked over them with paint.

#9 Basquiat was a multifaceted artist.

 

Basquiat was far more than just a graffiti artist and painter, taking part in various art forms throughout his career. Back in 79, he formed an industrial noise rock band called Grey with filmmakers Shannon Dawson and Michael Holman, as well as actor Vincent Gallo, among others.

Grey frequently performed at some of the city’s most legendary spots including Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, and the Mudd Club. In 1983, he produced a rap single, Beat Bop, (a 10-minute rap battle) of which only 500 copies were made. It’s referred to as the “holy grail” of rap records and one of the rarest pieces of hip-hop history, valued at upwards of $10,000 dollars. The record features artists Rammellzee and K-Rob. Basquiat also worked with David Bowie and featured in Blondie’s Rapture video.

#10 He was the most successful black visual artist in history

 

Basquiat has been credited with bringing the African American and Latino experience to the elite art world.

Shortly after Basquiat’s death, African-American cultural critic Greg Tate pointed out that “When Basquiat died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose, he was the most financially successful Black visual artist in history and, depending on whether you listened to his admirers or detractors, either a genius, an idiot savant, or an overblown, overpriced fraud”.

Credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984© Christopher Makos