Basquiat's Beginnings: The Postcards

In this work, another riot of clashing symbols, drawings and text, the artist's strident and clashing mark-making emphasises startling paradoxes in society's treatment of animals. Images of dogs and canine body parts are displayed alongside sausages and other meat items. Text referring to landmark moments of twentieth-century history, such as ‘US Troops end occupation 1936 Haiti’ brush up against robotoid depictions of body parts. Dog Leg Study © Jean-Michel Basquiat 2019
Rebecca Marsham

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Jean-Michel Basquiat’s path to superstardom in the art world was not shaped by traditional pathways: much of his early career happened outside of gallery walls. Beginning with postcards, Basquiat's innovative spirit shone through these mini canvases, which he would sell and distribute throughout the streets of New York City. These small, yet impactful pieces captured the essence of his raw emotive style, blending text and imagery in a powerful commentary on society. These postcards, often overlooked, were instrumental in launching the career of one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century.

The Beginning of Everything: Basquiat's Early Years

Basquiat's early years set the stage for his meteoric rise in the art world. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960, Basquiat was the second of four children. His mother, Matilde, was of Puerto Rican descent, and his father, Gerard, was Haitian. Basquiat's precocious nature and early exposure to a diverse cultural heritage played a significant role in shaping his artistic language. From a young age, Basquiat showed an interest in art, heavily influenced by his mother, who took him to art museums in New York and enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. When he was seven years old, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in his neighbourhood. This required several procedures and hospitalisation, during which his mother brought him a copy of Gray's Anatomy. The figures present in this book would highly impact his anatomical drawings and make a significant impact on his art. Tragically, a few years later, his mother was institutionalised for mental illness, an event that deeply affected him and would later influence his work.

As a teenager, Basquiat attended Edward R. Murrow High School but dropped out at 17. He left home and started living on the streets, couch-surfing among friends in Manhattan and working odd jobs. During this time, he supported himself by selling homemade postcards and T-shirts. In May 1978, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz, began gaining attention for their graffiti under the pseudonym SAMO© (Same Old Shit). Their cryptic, epigrammatic messages were sprayed across the Lower East Side of Manhattan, capturing the attention of the city’s art community. This graffiti, characterised by a distinctive iconography and aphoristic messages, marked Basquiat's first foray into the public art scene, setting the foundation for his future work.

Basquiat's art was deeply influenced by his experiences in New York City, particularly the urban landscape, socio-political issues, and the African American and Latino experience. His work often featured a fusion of words, symbols, and imagery, reflecting his interest in history, race, and social commentary.

“I had a lot of PEZ dispensers, so he ripped up the packaging and made these EPZs everywhere and said, ‘We can keep making these cards.’ So we did that and we mounted them on this raggedy-ass piece of cardboard and we’re walking around New York City, interacting with people and saying, ‘Postcards! Postcards! One dollar! One dollar!’ We’d stand there screaming! We went everywhere trying to sell them. We had methods: I’d do the ladies and he’d do the guys. We made money to eat. I had my room from working, but I didn’t have any cash. We literally had nothing.”
Jennifer Stein, Basquiat's friend

From Street Art to Postcards: A Unique Medium

Basquiat's journey from street art to creating unique postcards is an important chapter in his artistic evolution. Transitioning from the ephemeral nature of street art, Basquiat began to explore a more tangible medium: postcards. Basquiat created them on repurposed materials, already showcasing the signature style that would later define his larger works. He often collaborated with his friend Jennifer Stein in producing these cards, which were sold on the streets of New York. This endeavour was a means of survival, as he lived off the proceeds of these, but it was also a way to gain visibility in the competitive art scene of the city. Many of these postcards were signed “Jean Basquiat,” omitting the “Michel” from his name. This signature marks a period in Basquiat's life when he was still emerging as an artist, not yet a recognised name, let alone an international star. The simplicity of the signature, “Jean Basquiat,” reflects his initial steps towards establishing his identity in the art world. Commenting on these early works, Kristine Woodward aptly described them as an example of creative marketing, akin to an artist’s business card. This analogy captures the essence of Basquiat's postcards. They were more than just pieces of art; they were strategic tools for self-promotion and networking.

Each card was a miniature canvas, where Basquiat distilled his thoughts, influences, and artistic flair. These postcards allowed him to directly engage with a wider audience, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the art world, and are critical in understanding Basquiat's artistic development. They encapsulate his ability to communicate complex ideas and emotions through a confluence of text and imagery, a feature that would become a hallmark of his larger works. These early creations on postcards highlight Basquiat's raw talent and his innovative approach to art and marketing, setting the stage for his later success as a groundbreaking artist.

“The type who bought the postcards were people that could get a joke, people who had humour, or people that were sort of in the art world. We did go up to the Museum of Modern Art and they kept coming out and saying, ‘You can’t sell things’, and we were like, ‘Art denial! Art denial! Art denial!’ We did that for days on the street and finally they invited us up and then they bought one.”
Jennifer Stein

Meeting Warhol and The Transition to Global Fame

It was while selling his postcards in Soho In 1979 that an excited Basquiat spotted Andy Warhol dining with art critic Henry Geldzahler. Basquiat approached them, eager to sell his art. Geldzahler dismissed him, citing his youth, but Warhol saw something in the young artist, purchasing a postcard. This brief initial interaction, somewhat snide from Geldzahler’s part, ironically preluded a near future where Basquiat would be interviewed by him as one of New York's most significant emerging artists. By the early 1980s, Basquiat had transitioned from street art and postcards to working on canvas; his style was raw and emotive, characterised by aggressive lines and bold colours. He drew from a range of sources, including African art, music, poetry, African-American history, and his own Caribbean heritage. This unique blend of influences quickly garnered him acclaim in the art world. Basquiat's rise was rapid. By 1981, he had participated in a group show with several prominent artists, which catapulted him into the spotlight. In 1982, he became one of the youngest artists to ever take part in Documenta in Kassel, Germany.

A more substantial meeting happened in 1982 in Warhol’s studio, with both artists taking Polaroids of each other. Despite an invitation to lunch from Warhol, Basquiat chose to return to his studio to work. Remarkably, by the afternoon, Basquiat sent his studio assistant back to The Factory with a freshly completed painting, Dos Cabezas, depicting both artists. Warhol was astonished by Basquiat's speed and talent, noting in his diary the impression Basquiat's work had made on him. This encounter and the exchange of art signified mutual respect and admiration, laying the groundwork for a deep and productive friendship. Their relationship blossomed quickly from this point. Starting in 1983, Basquiat and Warhol embarked on a series of collaborations that were both controversial and celebrated. Their friendship and professional relationship became one of the most talked-about dynamics in the art world, drawing attention and scrutiny. The collaboration was a profound exchange of ideas and energies that propelled Basquiat even further into the spotlight. Warhol, an established figure in the art world, provided Basquiat with a form of mentorship and exposure, while Basquiat brought fresh, vibrant energy that reinvigorated Warhol's work. Basquiat's transition to global fame was marked by this relationship, which underscored his ability to navigate the complexities of the art world while maintaining his unique voice.

Despite his success, Basquiat struggled with fame and the pressures that came with it. He faced challenges as a young, black artist in a predominantly white art world and grappled with drug addiction. Sadly, his life was cut short when he died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27.

“He sold Stupid Games, Bad Ideas to Warhol. We were walking down the street and we were really trying to make money to live – it was not like we were rich and doing it to have fun. We needed to have that dollar, so we would do anything it took. We were walking past this restaurant and Andy Warhol is sitting there and Henry Geldzahler, who was the head of the Metropolitan Museum, and he said, ‘I’m going in!’ And I said, ‘Ok.’ I’m waiting outside a really long time, so I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ And he comes out and I said, ‘What took you so long?’ He goes, ‘They had to get change from a five.’ He was really disappointed because he thought they would just give him the $5 for the two postcards, but they had to get ones, then gave him two ones. But it was still really thrilling for him.”
Jennifer Stein

The Legacy of Basquiat's Innovative Guerrilla Marketing Tactics

Basquiat's work has had a lasting impact on the art world, influencing a new generation of artists. His exploration of race, identity, and society remains as relevant today as it was during his lifetime. His early years, marked by a blend of hardship and creativity, laid the groundwork for a brief but intensely prolific career that reshaped the landscape of contemporary art. Basquiat's innovative guerrilla marketing tactics with his postcards and street art not only propelled him from the streets of New York City to the heights of the international art scene but also left a lasting legacy on the way artists promote themselves and engage with their audience. By selling postcards featuring his artwork on the streets and especially targeting areas frequented by the art elite, Basquiat effectively bypassed traditional gallery systems to gain visibility. His approach to marketing his art was unconventional, disruptive, and deeply intertwined with his creative output, setting a precedent for how artists could leverage public spaces and direct engagement to build their careers.

The legacy of Basquiat's guerrilla marketing tactics foreshadowed how artists today use social media and other direct-to-audience platforms to build their careers. Artists now regularly engage in these marketing tactics, from selling merchandise and prints directly to fans, to using social media to bypass traditional art world gatekeepers. Basquiat's approach foreshadowed this shift, demonstrating the effectiveness of building a personal brand and engaging directly with an audience. Basquiat's success story illustrates that innovative, grassroots marketing can break down barriers to entry and challenge the status quo. His legacy in marketing is a testament to the power of creativity, not just in the production of art but in its presentation and promotion to the world.

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