Why is Jean-Michel Basquiat so famous?

Artists have always been important members of society. From Leonardo da Vinci to Banksy, these creative geniuses have gained fame for their beautiful works, contributions to human knowledge, and impact on the trajectory of the field of art. However, there are few that have remained revolutionary for decades, not just limited to a pivotal moment but retaining contemporary relevance too. Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of the few who, even over 30 years after his passing, still makes waves with his engaging techniques and radical social commentary. So, why is he still so famous?

Who was Jean-Michel Basquiat? 

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a jack of all trades: musician, graffiti artist and poet. But he is most famous for his paintings.

Childhood

Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and New York-raised Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat became a polyglot, and by the age of 11 was fluent in English, French and Spanish. His talent was recognized at a young age prompting his mother to introduce him to New York’s art museums, where he appreciated and sketched the paintings.

However, his childhood wasn’t easy. His father believed in corporal punishment, while his mother suffered from severe mental health issues, spending long periods of time in institutions — both influenced Basquiat’s art. In 1968, his parents split and he and his siblings were raised by their father. That same year, Basquiat was hit by a car, and consequently spent a month in hospital. His mother gifted him a copy of the medical book Gray’s Anatomy which, as cultural historian Augustus Casely-Hayford comments, inspired Basquiat to look at “history as a cadaver that could be deconstructed and reanimated to suit us”. The book was extremely influential, evidenced by the recurring motifs of skulls and feet in his art, as well as his experimental band called Gray.

 

Credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984© Christopher Makos

Early career

Basquiat’s artistic career started in 1977 when he and his friend Al Diaz created the fictional character, SAMO, while they attended the prestigious Manhattan school for gifted children, City-As-School. Short for ‘Same Old Sh*t’, SAMO became their tag, adorning the streets of downtown New York. Their graffiti art came in the context of the gentrification of the East Village as it started its transformation from heroin-riddled slums to a New York artist’s dreamland. SAMO was accompanied by sarcastic commentary on anything from traditional art to racism, usually fitting the location where they were sprayed. In 1980, the two fell out, and the last SAMO tag –– ‘SAMO IS DEAD’ –– was painted.

Despite attending this special school, Basquiat dropped out a year before graduation and lived on the streets of New York, supporting himself by selling hand-painted T-shirts, postcards and other paraphernalia while embarking on a solo street art career. During this time, he involved himself in the party and punk scenes, DJing at the Mudd Club, one of the most notable countercultural nightclubs of the time. He famously sold a postcard to Andy Warhol, who later became his mentor and friend.

Artistic style

Basquiat’s work is neo-expressionist. The movement blew up in the 1980s, dealing with rough handling of materials in opposition to the minimalism and conceptual art prevalent in the 70s. His work can be characterized as angry, rebellious, controversial and politically radical. The paintings are simple, almost primitive-looking or child-like. However, they are rife with references, vibrancy and hidden meanings. While the human body is a major feature of Basquiat’s art, epitomized beautifully in pieces like Femur and Right Clavicle from his Anatomy series, his messages are heavily influenced by emotion. He also frequently displayed famous black figures, principally musicians, sports stars and boxers, in his work.

How did Jean-Michel Basquiat become famous?

Slowly but surely, Jean-Michel Basquiat gained acclaim, not just for his marvelous art, but also for his spirited and dynamic personality. He frequently appeared on the live show TV Party and starred alongside Blondie’s Debbie Harry in the film Downtown 81, based on his life. Although the film wasn’t actually released until the year 2000, Basquiat was able to use the fees to finance his art and get in touch with key artists.

His first artistic recognition, though, was the groundbreaking The Times Square Show in 1980, and he gained more and more traction after appearing in the group exhibition New York/New Wave. His graffiti tag dissipated as he started to nurture a global reputation and was the subject of an Artforum article entitled ‘The Radiant Child’. Basquiat’s works were displayed alongside influential artists in Italy, as well as in the illustrious Gagosian Gallery in LA, while he collaborated with leading artists like Warhol and Francesco Clemente.

In 1985, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, under the title ‘New Art, New Money’. The piece focused on the concept of the ‘art star’, using Basquiat as a prototype of this artist-celebrity hybrid who became rich from his craft, and showed it off. This was a foreign idea at the time when the image of the starving artist was widespread, and fellow rich and famous painters, such as Jackson Pollock, were known to frequent grubby bars and show disdain for their wealth.

However, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career was cut short due to his untimely death from a heroin overdose in 1988, adding his name to the tragic 27 club alongside Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. He built his legacy in a mere 8 years, from an unknown graffiti artist to a renowned painter. 

That being said, his real call to fame came after his passing. In 2010, a film about him, aptly named The Radiant Child in homage to the article that kick-started his career, was released. Musicians still reference him constantly, with ‘Picasso Baby’ by Jay-Z being a notable example. Artists use him for inspiration to this day — Banksy’s Banksquiat from 2019, for instance. Basquiat has been featured in fashion and cosmetics, including collections at Supreme and Urban Outfitters and a make-up range from Urban Decay. And, perhaps the most staggering illustration of his posthumous success came in May 2017, making history when his painting, Untitled, sold for a whopping $110.5 million. This was record-breaking on multiple counts: the highest sum ever paid at an auction for an American artwork, the most expensive work by a black artist, and the first $100 million artwork to have been created after 1980.

Why is Jean-Michel Basquiat famous?

Jean-Michel Basquiat gained celebrity due to both his striking art and his electrifying personality. He was fearless, creative and driven, quickly becoming a cultural icon embodying the New York City art scene of the 1980s and beyond. Not only is Basquiat still considered just as cool as he was back then, but his messages still resonate today, if not more.

Fighting the good fight

His own personal ancestry, as well as his experience growing up in Brooklyn, shaped his art and the sharp political commentary it spewed. The images and overlaying text in Basquiat’s works always point to important questions about the history of art, consumerism, classism and racism. He dealt with serious and historical issues, such a marginalization, through the lens of slavery and colonialism and very few of his pieces are overt. Instead, he mostly used different themes and motifs to convey his cynicism. A great example of one is the recurring image of the crown, representing a criticism of class and race, but also serving as a reminder of Basquiat’s own wealth and rise to fame.

Basquiat used influential black figures such as Muhammad Ali and Max Roach, intentionally presenting them in their might with an aura of royalty. This respect for his own heritage combined with his powerful messages and beautiful art made him one of the most sought-after black artists in history, and he was accepted into the clique in a way other artists of color haven’t before. Basquiat also managed to attract the attention of stars like David Bowie and even dated Madonna. Despite this, he was acutely aware of his position in society in relation to the white upper class, notorious for wearing African chieftain outfits to the parties of rich collectors.

Jean-Michel Basquiat - Estate Print - 6

These ideas still strike a chord today, perhaps now more than ever with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The eruptions of the campaign, and especially the mass international protests following the 2020 death of George Floyd, eerily exemplify the relevance of Basquiat’s work for the modern era. Consider his 1970s graffiti reading “SAMO AS AN END TO THE POLICE”, and 1981’s Irony of Negro Policeman critiquing black people who serve the state. This features a black mask covering a white face, suggesting they are controlled by white law enforcement, possibly in tribute to Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin, White Masks.

Style and substance

It isn’t just the messages in his paintings that are radical and thought-provoking, but also his technique and novel style which had never been seen before. His art looks like a mosaic of random thoughts, either symbolized with imagery or pronounced with words on the canvas. Basquiat cared less about his art being aesthetically pleasing and more about the emotions it sparks and subliminal information that it conveys to the viewer. Unlike Warhol, whose works are fully mainstream by now, in order to enjoy Basquiat, you need to understand him as a person. This is what makes him so fashionable — his art requires a connection between himself and the viewer, making it more intimate and personal than that of many other prominent artists. Knowing, fully comprehending and appreciating his craft has become something of a symbol of cultural capital.

Toeing the line between established and obscure, Basquiat is the perfect hipster companion with his elaborate references to jazz, cinema, literature and television that don’t stop at the surface. When he takes the character of Charlie Parker, he doesn’t just revere in his music, but also draws a comparison between them. The shared burdens of celebrity, racism, their revolutionary roles in their respective art movements, as well as their struggles with addiction, are all hidden beneath the skin of his craft. Those are details that you can only understand with a vast knowledge of art as well as Basquiat himself, making his works the ultimate ‘highbrow’ art pieces. As such, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s role in art is important as it is unique — and perhaps that $110.5 million price tag doesn’t seem as surprising anymore.