Jean-Michel Basquiat Life and Art Periods

"Believe it or not, I can actually draw."

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT SYNOPSIS

Jean-Michel Basquiat emerged from the "Punk" scene in New York as a gritty, street-smart graffiti artist who successfully crossed over from his "downtown" origins to the international art gallery circuit. In a few fast-paced years, Basquiat swiftly rose to become one of the most celebrated, and possibly most commercially exploited American "naif" painters of the widely celebrated Neo-Expressionism art movement.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT KEY IDEAS

Basquiat's work is one of the few examples of how an early 1980s American Punk, or graffiti-based and counter-cultural practice could become a fully recognized, critically embraced and popularly celebrated artistic phenomenon, indeed not unlike the rise of American Hip Hop during the same era.
Despite his work's "unstudied" appearance, Basquiat very skillfully and purposefully brought together in his art a host of disparate traditions, practices, and styles to create a unique kind of visual collage, one deriving, in part, from his urban origins, and in another a more distant, African-Caribbean heritage.
For some critics, Basquiat's swift rise to fame and equally swift and tragic death by drug overdose epitomizes and personifies the overly commercial, hyped up international art scene of the mid 1980s, a cultural phenomenon that for many observers was symptomatic of the largely artificial bubble economy of the era.
Basquiat's work is an example of how American artists of the 1980s could reintroduce the human figure in their work after the wide success of Minimalism and Conceptualism, thus establishing a dialogue with the more distant tradition of 1950s Abstract Expressionism.
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MOST IMPORTANT ART

TITLE: SAMO Graffiti (1980)
SAMO Graffiti(1980)
Artwork Description & Analysis: Citing artistic differences, Al Diaz and Basquiat chose to sever their artistic collaboration, SAMO, with this three-word announcement. Carried out episodically at various cites as a piece of ephemeral graffiti art, the phrase surfaced repeatedly on gritty buildings throughout Lower Manhattan. At one time a sign of trespassing and vandalism, graffiti in the hands of Diaz and Basquiat became a tool of artistic "branding"; repeated here and there throughout the billboard-dotted city, "SAMO is Dead" slowly took on the status of a corporate mantra, such as, for instance, Coca Cola's "It's the Real Thing".

Graffiti

  • SAMO Graffiti(1980)
  • Untitled (Skull)(1981)
  • Untitled(1982)
  • Flexible(1982)
  • Untitled (History of the Black People)(1983)
  • Arm and Hammer II(1985)
  • Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper)(1986-1987)
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JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960. His mother was of Puerto Rican heritage, and his father a Haitian immigrant, the combination of which eventually led to the young Jean-Michel's fluency in French, Spanish, and English (indeed, early readings of French symbolist poetry would come to influence Basquiat's later work). Basquiat displayed a talent for art in early childhood, learning to draw and paint with his mother's encouragement. Together they attended New York City museum exhibitions, and by the age of six, Jean-Michel found himself already enrolled as a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum.

After being hit by a car as a young child, Basquiat underwent surgery for the removal of his spleen, an event that led to his reading the famous medical and artistic treatise, Gray's Anatomy. The sinewy bio-mechanical images of this text, along with those equally linear personages that Basquiat enjoyed in popular graphic novels, would one day come to inform his mature, graffiti-inscribed canvases.

After his parents' divorce, Basquiat lived alone with his father, his mother having been determined unfit to care for him owing to mental instability. Claiming physical and emotional abuse, Basquiat eventually ran away from home and was adopted by a friend's family. Although he attended school sporadically in New York and Puerto Rico, he finally dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School, in Brooklyn, in September 1978, at the age of 18.

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Early Training

Jean-Michel Basquiat Biography

Basquiat's art was fundamentally rooted in the 1970s, New York City-based graffiti movement. In 1972, he and an artist friend, Al Diaz, started spray-painting buildings in Lower Manhattan under the nom de plume, SAMO, an acronym for "Same Old Shit". With its anti-establishment, anti-religion, anti-politics credo packaged in an ultra-contemporary format, SAMO soon received media attention from the counter-culture press, the Village Voice the most notable among them. When Basquiat and Diaz had a falling out, Basquiat ended the project with the terse message: SAMO IS DEAD, which appeared on the façade of many SoHo art galleries and downtown buildings. After taking note of the mantra, contemporary street artist, Keith Haring, staged a mock wake for SAMO at his Club 57. Homeless and sleeping on park benches, Basquiat supported himself by panhandling, dealing drugs, and peddling hand-painted postcards and T-shirts.

Basquiat frequented the Mudd Club and Club 57-both teeming with New York City's artistic elite. During his stint as a punk rocker, he appeared as a nightclub DJ in the Blondie music video, Rapture. After inclusion of his work in the historic, punk-art Times Square Show of June 1980, Basquiat had his first solo exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery, in SoHo (1982). Basquiat's rise to wider recognition coincided with the arrival, in New York, of the German Neo-Expressionist movement, which provided a congenial forum for his own street-smart, curbside expressionism. Basquiat began exhibiting regularly with artists like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, all of whom were reacting, to one or another degree, against the recent historical dominance of Conceptualism and Minimalism. Neo-Expressionism marked the return of painting and the re-emergence of the human figure. Images of the African Diaspora and classic Americana punctuated Basquiat's work at this time, some of which was featured at the prestigious Mary Boone Gallery in solo shows in the mid 1980s (Basquiat was later represented by art dealer and gallerist Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles). Rene Ricard's Artforum article, "The Radiant Child", of December 1981, virtually solidified Basquiat's position as a formidable figure in the greater art world.

Mature period

1982 was a banner year for Basquait, as he opened six solo shows in cities worldwide and became the youngest artist ever to be included in Documenta, the international contemporary art extravaganza held every five years in Kassel, Germany. During this time, Basquiat created some 200 art works and developed a signature motif: a heroic, crowned black oracle figure. Dizzy Gillespie, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali were among Basquiat's inspirational precursors; sketchy and Neo-Expressionist in appearance, the portraits captured the essence rather than the physical likeness of their subjects. The ferocity of Basquiat's technique, those slashes of paint and dynamic dashes of line, presumably revealed his subjects' inner-self, their hidden feelings, and their deepest desires. In keeping with a wider Black Renaissance in the New York art world of the same era (such as with the new, widespread attention at the time being given Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence), another epic figure, the West African griot, also features heavily in Basquiat's work of the Neo-Expressionist era. The griot propagated community history in West African culture through storytelling and song, and he is typically depicted by Basquiat with a grimace and squinting elliptical eyes, their gaze fixed securely on the observer.

Jean-Michel Basquiat Photo

By the early 1980s, Basquiat had befriended Pop artist Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated on a series of works from 1984 to 1986, such as Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) (1985-86). Warhol would often paint first, then Basquiat would layer over his work. In 1985, a New York Times Magazine feature article declared Basquiat the hot young American artist of the 1980s. At the same time, Basquiat was unfortunately becoming increasingly addicted to heroin and cocaine, which untimely led to his tragic death in 1988 at the age of 27.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT LEGACY

In his short and largely troubled life, Jean-Michel Basquiat nonetheless came to play an important and historic role in the rise of Punk Art and Neo-Expressionism in the New York art scene. While the larger public latched on to the superficial exoticism of his work and were captivated by his overnight celebrity, his art, often described inaccurately as "naif" and "ethnically gritty", held important connections to expressive precursors, such as Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly.

A product of the hyped-up 1980s, Basquiat and his work continue to serve for many observers as a metaphor for the dangers of artistic and social excess. Like a superhero of a graphic novel, Basquiat seemed to rocket to fame and riches, and then, just as speedily, fall back to Earth, the victim of drug abuse and eventual overdose.

The recipient of posthumous retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum (2005) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1992), as well as the subject of numerous biographies and documentaries, including Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010; Tamra Davis, Dir.), and Julian Schnabel's feature film, Basquiat (1996; starring former friend David Bowie as Andy Warhol), Basquiat and his counter-cultural example persist. His art remains a constant source of inspiration for contemporary artists, his short, but seemingly epic life a constant source of intrigue for a global art-loving public.

Original content written by Bonnie Rosenberg
. [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org website. Available from:
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JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT QUOTES

"I am not a black artist, I am an artist.."

"I had some money, I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people."

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat Influences

Interactive chart with Jean-Michel Basquiat's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet was a French painter and sculptor, and arguably one of the most famous French artists of the mid-to-late-twentieth century. Dubuffet's paintings employed the impasto technique, in which oil paints were thickened by materials such as sand, tar and straw. He coined the term "Art Brut," otherwise known as "raw art."
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jean Dubuffet
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Rauschenberg
Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly is an American artist whose large-scale paintings incorporate writing, scrawls, and graffiti on their surfaces. He combines the gestural quality of Abstract Expressionism with a contemporary interest in language and registers of meaning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cy Twombly
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Andy Warhol
Keith Haring
Keith Haring
Keith Haring was a crucial part of the 1980s New York City art, performance and street scenes, creating graffiti-inspired works and drawings, often in public places such as the subway.

Modern Art Information Keith Haring
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel is an American painter, interior decorator and filmmaker. In addition to being a major figure in the Neo-Expressionist movement, he is most well-known as the director of such films as Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Julian Schnabel
Francesco Clemente
Francesco Clemente
Francesco Clemente is an Italian painter commonly associated with the Neo-Expressionist movement, otherwise known as Italian Transavantguardia. Much of his work fuses sexuality with an emotional rawness and brutality. Clemente's paintings also contain visual elements of Surrealism.

Modern Art Information Francesco Clemente
Graffiti Art
Graffiti Art
Graffiti Art arose out of graffiti tags in urban centers like New York in the 1960s and 70s. Part of a larger street art movement, graffiti art tends to incorporate text and visual scrawls, and is often political or subversive in content.

Modern Art Information Graffiti Art
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism began as a movement in German art in the early 1960s with the emergence of Georg Baselitz. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with the addition of painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck. Drawing inspiration from German Expressionism, many of its practitioners focused on the country's troubled modern history. In the 1980s, it inspired many successful painters across the world, including Julian Schnabel.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Neo-Expressionism
Punk Art
Punk Art
Punk art is a term referring to an American alternative (also referred to as "Downtown") art movement, roughly spanning 1969-1989. Punk art developed as an urban, counter-culture, bohemian equivalent to the Anglo-American Punk music scene; artists drew for their inspiration on Pop art, urban graffiti, ephemeral performance art, feminism, "Beat" poetry, advertising, rock-music album cover art, and other popular-culture phenomena.

Modern Art Information Punk Art
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Al Diaz
Al Diaz
Al Diaz was a part of the artistic team "SAMO" with Jean-Michel Basquiat. The two were classmates at City as School high school. Diaz had previously been part of the New York graffiti scene, using the tag "Bomb I." In early 1980, Diaz and Basquiat had a falling out and the "SAMO" project ended.

Modern Art Information Al Diaz
David Salle
David Salle
David Salle is a contemporary American artist whose work uses imagery from the world of advertising and consumerism. His paintings, installations, and found photographs often deal with voyeurism, sex, and the gaze.

Modern Art Information David Salle
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold is an African American artist, best known for her painted story quilts.She was greatly influenced by the fabric she worked with at home with her mother, a fashion designer, and has used fabric in many of her artworks. Her painted story quilts blur the line between "high art" and "craft" by combining painting, quilted fabric, and storytelling.

Modern Art Information Faith Ringgold
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence was a twentieth-century African-American painter and self-described "dynamic cubist." Lawrence's figurative paintings often depicted slices of African-American life and hardship.

Modern Art Information Jacob Lawrence
SAMO Graffiti
SAMO Graffiti

Title: SAMO Graffiti (1980)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Citing artistic differences, Al Diaz and Basquiat chose to sever their artistic collaboration, SAMO, with this three-word announcement. Carried out episodically at various cites as a piece of ephemeral graffiti art, the phrase surfaced repeatedly on gritty buildings throughout Lower Manhattan. At one time a sign of trespassing and vandalism, graffiti in the hands of Diaz and Basquiat became a tool of artistic "branding"; repeated here and there throughout the billboard-dotted city, "SAMO is Dead" slowly took on the status of a corporate mantra, such as, for instance, Coca Cola's "It's the Real Thing".


Graffiti

Untitled (Skull)
Untitled (Skull)

Title: Untitled (Skull) (1981)

Artwork Description & Analysis: An example of Basquiat's early canvas-based work, Untitled (Skull) features a patchwork skull that seems the pictorial equivalent of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - a sum of incongruent parts. Suspended before a New York City subway map-like background, the skull is at once a contemporary graffitist's riff on a long Western tradition of self portraiture and the "signature piece" of some anonymous, streetwise miscreant. Basquiat's recent past as a gritty curbside peddler, virtually homeless floater, and occasional nightclub interloper are all equally stamped into this troubled three-quarter profile, making for a world-weary icon of the displaced Puerto-Rican and Haitian immigrant Basquiat forever seemed to remain even while successfully navigating the newly gentrified streets that were 1980s SoHo.


Acrylic and mixed media on canvas - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Untitled
Untitled

Title: Untitled (1982)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Like a page pulled cleanly from a daily artist's journal, this untitled canvas features Basquiat's personal iconography, some reminiscent of that of Paul Klee. Boldy appropriating images commonly associated with 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. A white skull juts from the center of the ebony composition, vividly recalling a revered painter's tradition of the memento mori - a reminder of the ephemeral nature of all life and the body's eventual, merciless degeneration. Basquiat demonstrates in one concise "study" how he is able to carry on an ancient practice of painting "still life", all the while suggesting, as does a great jazz musician, that the artist's work was relatively effortless, if not completely improvisatory.


Acrylic and oil paint stick on canvas - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Flexible
Flexible

Title: Flexible (1982)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Flexible features two of Basquiat's most famous motifs: the griot and the venerable crown. A sole black figure, half cadaver, half living entity, stares "blindly" at the viewer, its arms creating a closed circuit, perhaps a reference to spiritualized energy. With few distinguishing characteristics, the subject takes on the visage of the Everyman. At the same time, this is not just any figure, but one of African ethnicity and proud heritage a clear reference to Basquiat's own identity (note the diagrammatic rendering of the figure's lungs and abdomen, reminiscent of the young Basquiat's fascination for Gray's Anatomy sketches). Given that the griot is traditionally a kind of wandering philosopher, street performer, and social commentator all in one, it is probable that Basquiat saw himself in this role within the New York art world, one that nurtured his artistic success but also swiftly exploited it for material profit.


Acrylic and oil paint stick on wood - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Untitled (History of the Black People)
Untitled (History of the Black People)

Title: Untitled (History of the Black People) (1983)

Artwork Description & Analysis: As though he were reconstructing an epic history, or precedent, for his own ancestors' arrival on the American continent, this expansive work of the early 1980s compresses together the relationship of Egypt to Africa, with references to more local centers of African-American music and greater southern culture, such as Memphis, Tennessee. At the center of the painting, Basquiat depicts a yellow Egyptian boat being guided down the Nile River by the god Osiris. Rife with visual and textual references to African history, the painting tackles a heady subject with a deceptively naïve style. Basquiat's late-period works feature multi-panel paintings, in the tradition of Renaissance religious tryptichs, and canvases with exposed stretcher bars. Often the surfaces of these pieces are virtually consumed by their own freight of dense writing, collage, and abstruse imagery.


Acrylic paint and oil paint stick on panel - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Arm and Hammer II
Arm and Hammer II

Title: Arm and Hammer II (1985)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Typical of their collaboration, "Arm and Hammer II" demonstrates how Basquiat and Warhol would pass a work between them for their mutual intervention, like a game of chance happening, free association, and mutual inspiration. Warhol's characteristic employment of corporate logos and advertising copy as shorthand signs for the materialistic modern psyche is frequently overlaid by Basquiat's only partially successful attempt to deface them, or otherwise "humanize" them, freehand, as though he were vainly railing his fist at a largely invisible and insidious monster.


Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas - Gallery Bruno Bischofberger AG

Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper)
Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper)

Title: Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) (1986-1987)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) is a collaboration between Basquiat and Andy Warhol, once commissioned by Alexandre Iolas, the international art gallerist and collector. This piece was originally intended to be displayed in Milan directly across the street from Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Opposite the Renaissance masterpiece, Ten Punching Bags was to function, somewhat playfully, as a "call to arms" for contemporary art against all forms of ideological oppression.


Acrylic and oil stick on punching bags - The Andy Warhol Museum

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.