From the streets of New York to the art galleries of the world, the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was characterized by many colors, but also countless shadows. He was a fundamental influence on those African-American artists who aimed to make their voice heard in the art world during the ’80s, such as Spike Lee and Jay-Z. His art concentrated on dichotomies like wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and word versus abstraction.
Given the massive value of African-American voices in today’s contemporary art world and entertainment industry, it might be interesting to retrace the origins of this 20th-century art prodigy and how he was able to make a lasting impact up until this day. His artistic language was incisive, universal, and critical towards repressive power and racism; a true social criticism that opened a path for future generations of black artists all around the world.
Genius and Recklessness
Basquiat’s artistic inclinations drew attention at a young age. He was a precocious child who learned to read and write by the age of four. His mother, Matilde, noticing that these innate qualities were associated with a strong sensitivity, encouraged his genuine thirst for creativity by enrolling him as a young member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
After The Village Voice published an article about the SAMO graffiti, he was invited on different television talk shows to articulate his thoughts on arts and society, and the meaning behind his original combinations of words. “What we were doing was more like Greco-Roman graffiti, making commentaries on the world around us and that set us aside. We thought we were a little bit ahead of the game,” said Al Diaz to Dazed and Confused Magazine. However, despite his early association with graffiti, Basquiat never considered himself a graffiti artist.
He sold his first painting, Cadillac Moon, to Debbie Harry in 1981. She was the lead singer of the punk rock band Blondie, and bought the piece for $200, without even knowing this kid from Brooklyn. And it’s right in the first half of the ’80s that Basquiat established himself as one of the youngest artists allowed to take part in the most prestigious exhibitions of contemporary art, alongside Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, and Andy Warhol. When a gallerist arranged for him to meet Warhol for lunch in 1982, Warhol recalled, “I took a Polaroid and he went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together” (Pat Hackett, The Andy Warhol Diaries). The painting, Dos Cabezas, sparked a symbiotic relationship between the two of them.
In the same year, Annina Nosei hosted his first one-man show, which turned out to be an incredible success. Basquiat then travelled to Modena, Italy, and the paintings he produced there, such as Untitled (1982), are considered among his most important pieces. In fact, eight of the ten world auction records for the artist are held by works from 1981 to 1983. In that period, Basquiat was capable of creating more than one work per day and selling it, at least, for ten thousand dollars. Suddenly, he became the thing he criticized the most: he spent money on the world’s finest wines, threw hundred dollar bills out of the window, and wore expensive suits stained with paint.
In the mid-’80s, he got to the point where he earned $1.4 million a year. Nonetheless, “the more money Basquiat made, the more paranoid and deeply involved with drugs he became,” wrote journalist Michael Shnayerson. The pressures of being part of an exploitative industry dominated by white dealers and buyers ultimately jeopardized his emotional stability. Heroin became an antidote to his malaise, and it was at that moment that the problems began. Despite attempts at sobriety, he died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose at his home in Manhattan, on August 12, 1988.
The Weight of Color
When an artist dies at 27, killed by nothing other than his own way of life, he automatically moves on to benefit from the cursed blessing of a legend. The 27 Club lists illustrious names such as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, just to name a few. Since his death, the value of Basquiat’s artworks has increased excessively. His painting Untitled (1982) was sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million in 2017, becoming one of the most expensive paintings to have ever been sold.
As a natural-born iconoclast, Basquiat irreversibly shaped American pop culture as we know it today. The finest form of his artistic expression was dictated by instincts, uncontrollable impulses, and that uniquely rebellious wisdom he had acquired from the streets of the world – mostly New York City. As one of the greatest contemporary artists, he was suddenly crushed by the unbearable weight of expectations and immediate fame. Among the countless shadows, though, there’s a terrific amount of color he left behind.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.