Our World

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Art & Design

When Jean-Michel was eight years old he was struck by a car that required his spleen to be removed. His mum gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to explain his operation and show him illustrations of human anatomy. This medical textbook, that later became the well-known television series by the same name, influenced his young artistic mind. Basquiat’s love of art was ignited when he was five and his mother started taking him to museums, encouraging his interest in art. She could see that he was innately talented and had enrolled him in a private arts-focused school. At a very young age, he became a student of art history, visiting museums as often as possible. It was in many respects an escape from his troubled family life. When he was 10 years old, his father admitted his wife, Matilde Andrades, to a psychiatric hospital where she spent most of her life in and out of institutions in her native Puerto Rico. Basquiat’s father was abusive and beat him regularly forcing him to leave home at fifteen. He briefly attended the City-as-School, a refuge for gifted New York children before he became homeless and survived by working odd jobs and living on 15-cent bags of Cheetos.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Street Art

In the early 1970’s Basquiat became one of New York’s famed underground graffiti-artists using the tag SAMO on buildings and subway stations in Brooklyn and the Bronx. With gaining attention and fame, he announced to the world at a party in Soho that he was the artist. SAMO, was in fact not Basquiat working on his own. His partner was fellow artist Al Diaz, who had attended the same high school in 1976 and were close friends. Seventeen-year-old Basquiat explained to NYC’s Village Voice, an American publication focused on culture, that, “This city is crawling with uptight, middle-class pseudos’ trying to look like the money they don’t have. Status symbols – it cracks me up. People should live more spiritually, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalks all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.”

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled Crown (1982)

As a 19-year-old high school dropout and struggling artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat went to The Whitney Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibit of Cy Twombly’s work that would ultimately change his life. He said that Twombly taught him that he could scratch things off a canvas. Scratching the surface with words, names, graffiti and numbers, became his art form. Crossing out words, repeating words, using poetry, mythology, and scribbles took his graffiti to a new creative art form. Art critic Jerry Saltz wrote, “In this genesis moment, he took Twombly’s speed of history and amped it up to the speed of life.” It transformed the young artists imagination and his connection to poetry that was a major influence in his favourite artist’s work. Basquait was known to work with a book of Twombly’s paintings opened beside him. His favourite was ‘Apollo and The Artist’ with Apollo written across it. Twombly’s barbed lotus that appears in many of his works is echoed in Basquiat’s now famous signature motif, a three-pointed crown. Art historians believe the symbol was used to “depict him as a king with great ambition” while others believe it represented ‘the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion’.

Jean Michel-Basquiat, New York King

Jean Michel-Basquiat, A Panel of Experts (1982)

Jean-Michel Basquit and Andy Warhol at 860 Broadway, October 26 1983

To make money, Basquiat printed T-shirts and postcards to sell to tourists. A chance meeting with one of his idols, Andy Warhol, would change his life. He had spotted him through a window at a New York restaurant and took the opportunity to introduce himself and show him some new postcards. Warhol bought two. He was so impressed that he took Basquiat under his wing. At the time, Italian art dealer Annina Nosei had set him up in a basement studio at her Prince Street Gallery and he was well on his way to becoming an important artist, but it was Warhol, 32 years his senior, that would accelerate his fame and become a much-needed father-figure in his life. He introduced him to the international art world, dealers, and influential clients. Warhol also helped keep Basquiat off drugs for quite a long time and create a stable period in his life. It was during this period he and Madonna became an iconic couple in 1983, at a time where they were both starting to make a name for themselves. They only dated for a few months but remained close friends until his death. Basquiat and Warhol continued to work closely together, sometimes on one canvas. In 1985 they collaborated on a show that received a lot of attention in the art world. It was successful for both, but jealousy and rivalry ultimately broke up their close relationship. On his own, Basquiat became more reclusive, and his heroin addiction returned. After Warhol’s unexpected death from a routine gall bladder surgery in 1987, he struggled with guilt and grief.

Jean-Michel Basquit and Andy Warhol © LIZZIE HIMMEL

Jean-Michel Basquit and Madonna

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Irony of the Negro Policeman (1981)

From the young age of 21, Basquiat was well on his way to becoming a millionaire. Although he resisted being labelled as a Black artist, he was connected to the Black experience. He explored issues of racism, politics, poverty, homelessness, and class struggles. In his professional career he created over six hundred paintings and fifteen hundred drawings. At the early age of 27, less than two years after the death of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat died of an accidental heroin overdose. His father Gerard who had never shown any love or interest in his son, took control over his estate and ultimately became a very wealthy man by the time he died in 2013.

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Cadillac Moon (1981)

Jean-Michel Basquiat sold his first painting to Debbie Harry from the band Blondie for $200. At the time of his death his net worth was estimated at $10 million. Today he is amongst the most highly valued artists, not only in the United States, but in the world. His pieces regularly sell for tens of millions at auctions. In 2016, a Basquiat painting sold for over $57 million. A year later in May 2017, “Untitled”, 1982 sold at Sotheby’s contemporary art auction for $110.5 million to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. It was originally purchased by Jerry and Emily Spiegel in 1984 for $19,000. Basquiat’s work continues to command higher prices than any other American artist and has become one of the most influential artists of our lifetime.

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled (1982)

Jean Michel-Basquiat, In This Case (1983)

Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York. Photo courtesy of Marion Busch

Keith Haring, A Pile of Crowns (1988)

Basquiat was complex. He loved simple things in life like eating croissants, listening to jazz, reading poetry, and books about his favourite artists - Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet and Pablo Picasso. He also loved buying Armani suits only to paint in them. He suffered from imposter syndrome yet had become one of the top artists working in New York City. He was obsessed with fame and money, but refused to have a bank account.

On August 2nd, 1988, the world lost a great artist who broke cultural barriers. New York artist Keith Haring created a piece to memorialize his best friend entitled “A Pile of Crowns” depicting a towering pile of Basquiat’s trademark symbol. Sadly only two years later Keith Haring would pass away at the age of 31 from AIDS related complications. Three great artists, Warhol, Basquiat and Haring, eternally connected have left an indelible mark on American art.