The Artist Life of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat's artist life

Remaining today to be one of the most influential artists of the modern and contemporary art period, the young but immensely talented Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artist life today remains enigmatic. Dying at an early age at the peak of his fame, there’s not much to be said about Basquiat’s artist life but his artwork tells it all. Even now, years after his death, his popularity and notoriety remain unshaken. His artwork has been making him the most expensive American artist, after the $110 million sale of his masterpiece, ‘Untitled (1982)’, at a Sotheby’s auction. Today we look back at the short-lived life of the radiant child and see how his artwork became so well known to today’s world. His work remains especially relevant today given the social and political climates across the world.

Early Life

Born December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat, to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents. Growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn alongside his two younger sisters, his multi-cultural upbringing meant that by the age of 11 Basquiat was able to read, write and speak fluently in French, Spanish and English.

His parents and teachers recognized this intelligence, including his early artistic ability. Basquiat’s mother, Matilde, nurtured this talent and took him on inspirational trips to art museums in New York. He would later produce cartoon-inspired drawings alongside his mother, who had an interest in fashion design and sketching.

However, Basquiat did not have an easy childhood, in 1968 he was hit by a car, requiring a month’s recovery in hospital. That same year his parents separated, and his father Gerard raised him and sisters moving to Puerto Rico in 1974 for a few years before returning to New York. His mother had several spells in mental institutions, and Basquiat used to run-away from home as a teenager.

Yet these difficult experiences did not determine the course of Basquiat’s artist life. His creativity still flourished, especially through his attendance at the progressive City As School in Manhattan. The high school encouraged a practical learning style to provide more benefit to gifted children than the conventional education system.

Start of Artist Life

Basquiat ended up dropping out of school at the age of 17 and began creating art full time, gaining notoriety for his invented character SAMO (“Same Old Shit”), who made a living peddling “fake” religion.

He depicted SAMO’s signature in graffiti art with cryptic messages in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then, he began painting on found materials, buildings, t-shirts, and commercial items. He delved into the urban 1980s cultural Renaissance that was burgeoning in New York. In fact, he incorporated his love of poetry in his artworks, placing text over his images, creating wildly expressive paintings that earned him considerable acclaim by his first solo exhibition in 1982.

Artist Life

His capacity to function from his vision of society became somewhat like an oracle for painting and defined his artist life. Although Basquiat’s influence on the people of New York under the name SAMO was phenomenal, his new style of graffiti is what brought neo-expression into mainstream art, worthy of recognition by curators, critics, and major galleries, encouraging graffiti to become a true art form, rather than just pointless doodles made by delinquents.

Neo-Expressionism Artist Life

Neo-expressionism developed as a reaction against conceptual art and minimal art of the 1970s. It comprised a varied assemblage of young artists who had returned to portraying the human body and other recognizable objects, in reaction to the remote, introverted, highly intellectualized abstract art production.

The movement was linked to and in part generated by new and aggressive methods of salesmanship, media promotion, and marketing on the part of dealers and galleries.

By the 1980s, this resurgence had become part of an international return to the sensuousness of painting and away from the stylistically cool, distant sparseness of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Very different artists, especially in the United States, from Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente to Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned in expressive directions to create work that affirmed the redemptive power of art in general and painting in particular, drawing upon a variety of themes including the mythological, the cultural, the historical, the nationalist, and the erotic.

Depicting Police Brutality and Racism in America

In 1983, Michael Stewart, a black graffiti artist was seized graffiti tagging at Avenue station in Brooklyn where a transit police officer John Kostich, arrested Stewart. Kostich opposed proclaiming that Stewart resisted and became violent. Stewart was beaten unconscious and tied around the joints with zip ties. Stewart was only 25 years of age when he was found spraying near the student accommodations of Parsons School of Design. Stewart was then promptly sent to Bellevue hospital and his family were informed that he was physically braindead and had hemorrhaged due to strangling or choking.

Michael Stewart sadly passed away 13 days after the arrest in a coma. All eleven police officers involved were acquitted and found not guilty by a white American jury, infuriating Stewarts’ family and the African American community.

Basquiat artist life
Jean-Michel Basquiat – The Death of Michael Stewart, 1983

Basquiat was veritably distressed by this event, leading him to paint ‘Defacement’ (The Death of Michael Stewart). Having been a close friend of Michael Stewart’s, Basquiat was influenced to take a darker turn in his art, producing pieces that reflected his current thoughts on the constant events of this brutality.

Besides the public, other artists were moved by Basquiat’s responsive art. For Basquiat’s artwork to be recognized by and to be held to such high critique showed his major capacity to have such an effect on other significant artists as well as the public is something to be acknowledged.

artist life of Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio, 1985

Basquiat stood out not only as a black man in the white-washed world of art, but also as an artist who brought attention to its ethnic imbalance. Ever conscious of his identity as an African American in the art world, Basquiat’s work was rife with imagery commenting on race relations in America and drawing from the culture of the African Diaspora. Combining African, Aztec, Hispanic, and ancient Roman and Greek imagery with his own invented iconography and graphic marks in artist life that emphasized the physical and the gestural aspects of the artistic process.

Last Years and Death

In 1983 he befriended his idol, Andy Warhol, and the two collaborated on several projects. Their friendship blossomed, and they began collaborating on art. Through his camera, Warhol watched Basquiat at work. In a diary entry, Warhol recalls seeing him as “the kid who used the name ‘Samo’ when he used to sit on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village and paint T-shirts, and I’d give him $10”. However, it wasn’t until art dealer Bruno Bischofberger discovered Basquiat painting in lower Manhattan that his career really kicked off.

The beginning of their collaborative work grew as they created a close relationship as they both completed each other’s artistic needs. While Basquiat wished for Warhol’s fame, Warhol wished for Basquiat’s new image and style. Interviews and information from friends of Basquiat and Warhol confirmed that they were incredibly close where Warhol had a parental type role model towards Basquiat and deeply cared for him as of his artwork.

Warhol and Basquiat

While it took artists like Van Gogh to die to become famous, Basquiat reached an unprecedented level of fame during his artist life at 20 years old. The truly unique quality of his work, the themes he communicated and his romantic rags to riches story continue to attract the intrigue of art world giants and art lovers across the world.

As little time passed Andy Warhol passed from a gall bladder surgery in 1987 where Basquiat had an insane attack where he believed to be the cause and led to a break in the state of mind leading to a drug habit spiraling out of control. As he tried to separate from the heroine escaping to Hawaii, he sadly passed a 27 in his studio from an overdose.

The tragedy of his earlier death catapulted him towards an art royalty status among the greats.

Overview of The Artist Life

Basquiat has totally impacted the artist and fashion society and all public together through police brutality, fashion, and collaborations. As an African American artist, his ethnicity has inspired many artists to express themselves and pursue their dreams of acting as a figure role model. An African artist under this discrimination which still exists to this day.

Basquiat – Riding with Death, 1988
(one of his last paintings)

The enduring message of Basquiat’s work points to a society where racism and segregation are just as rampant as centuries past. The only difference is the method by which that racism and segregation are enforced. Basquiat’s opinion of this society was mirrored in the themes of his works and was the result of his treatment as a successful black man in the predominantly white art world. It was his depiction of this society that spurred him to fame, but once he was there it was the way he dealt with that recurring treatment – through his artist life – that kept him in the spotlight.

His perception of the way the world responded to the color of his skin can be felt most acutely when he asserted that “I am not a black artist; I am an artist.” But the fact that he was fundamentally a black artist and the way he perceived and depicted the world, as a result, was ultimately what made his artist life.

Written by Karen Pasos.

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