Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Born: 22nd December 1960
Died: 12th August 1988
Place(s) of work: New York (us)
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960 to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the quintessential 1980s graffiti-writer-turned-artist, reaching a level of international fame at 23 that was, and still is, unmatched. Basquiat’s story is essentially the narrative of his breakneck trajectory, from early stardom to his heroin overdose at 27. But even his death could not halt the meteoric rise of his reputation; indeed, his premature demise only accelerated it. Since Basquiat’s overdose in 1988, his paintings--inspired by urban graffiti and African sculpture (as filtered t … (read more)
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960 to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the quintessential 1980s graffiti-writer-turned-artist, reaching a level of international fame at 23 that was, and still is, unmatched. Basquiat’s story is essentially the narrative of his breakneck trajectory, from early stardom to his heroin overdose at 27. But even his death could not halt the meteoric rise of his reputation; indeed, his premature demise only accelerated it. Since Basquiat’s overdose in 1988, his paintings--inspired by urban graffiti and African sculpture (as filtered through Picasso)--have been honored with major retrospectives and monographs, and prices for his art now reach into the millions on a regular basis. Ironically, the work of the youngest and shortest–lived artist of the so-called 1980s “Neo-Expressionist” movement, which also included Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente, has proven to be the most enduring by far.
A troubled teenager, Basquiat ran away from his middle-class household at 15, living in Washington Square park and at friends' houses while gaining some notoriety as a graffiti artist under the tag SAMO, short for “same old shit.” In 1977 he dropped out of high school and by 1979 was a well-known presence on the East Village scene, appearing on Glenn O’Brien’s cable access show “TV Party” and in a Blondie video. In 1980 Basquiat was in his first group show and only a year later the downtown poet and critic Rene Ricard had announced his arrival in a piece for Art Forum titled "The Radiant Child." By 1983 Basquiat was a full-blown international art star, showing at the most powerful galleries in the world: Annina Nosei, Gagosian, Mary Boone, and Bruno Bishofberger. He had also begun to indulge in a life of reckless hedonism, doing copious drugs, dating an ever-revolving roster of women (including Madonna), and throwing money out of limousines driving through the Lower East Side. In 1984 he began a close relationship with Andy Warhol, whom Basquiat had first met when, at 18, he approached the Pop artist and eminent curator Henry Geldzahler at a SoHo restaurant, offering to sell them postcard-sized artworks. (Warhol bought one for $1.) Acting as Warhol's protege, Basquiat looked to the older artist as a father figure of sorts--Basquiat’s own relationship with his father was strained at this point--and Warhol took him under his wing, promoting his work and encouraging him to lead a healthier lifestyle. The two also collaborated on a number of artworks, which were poorly received by critics. Of one, the New York Times described it as "large, bright, messy, full of private jokes and inconclusive."
Basquiat’s work and lack of training reflected his perceived “wildness” and added to a romantic myth that some critics derided as a racist, with Basquiat filling the role of untamed black naïf. Basquiat’s canvases were full of noise: references, phrases, images, text, and sculpture, always coalesced under his characteristically nervous but energetic line and his lyrical placement of imagery. "Every line means something," Basquiat said of his work. In his earliest paintings, Basquiat frequently referred to a copy of Gray’s Anatomy given to him by his mother during a hospital stay, and references to death through skulls and skeletons were a major motif in his work. Later he turned to themes of the African Diaspora (he showed in Cote D'Ivoire) and in these canvases politically-charged images were often coupled with three-dimensional elements recalling Robert Rauschenberg’s “combine” paintings of the 1950s. "The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings," Basquiat said. "I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them."
Basquiat was not without his critics however, who charged that fame and exploitation by his dealers was fueling the rote production of a seemingly endless stream of canvases and reinforcing the drug habit that was now required to keep up the pace, and which eventually killed him. Over time however, Basquiat’s reputation has only grown, even surpassing his legend. In the last twenty years his talent has been established as fact by curators, critics, the market, and the public alike. In 1996, Basquiat’s life was turned into a movie directed by fellow 1980s art star, Julian Schnabel. Most recently, Basquiat’s legacy was honored by a major 2005 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum that subsequently traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angles.