Jean-Michel Basquiat has become synonymous with the raw, visceral and unvarnished manifestation of emotion in art. His art blends words, symbols, stick figures, and animals, in a unique fusion of styles— Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Expressionism and Primitivism—infused with raw graffiti and Pop Art elements. A self-taught artist, who rose from street art to the pinnacle of the international art world, Basquiat made an indelible mark on the landscape of contemporary art and beyond.
Born on December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat emerged from the post-punk underground scene in the late 1970s and began as a graffiti artist under the pseudonym SAMO, before transitioning to painting on canvas. A central figure in the New York art scene of the 1980s, Basquiat collaborated with many artists, most famously with Andy Warhol, but his first collaboration, resulting in the SAMO tag, was made with friend and fellow artist Al Diaz.
Basquiat’s work is a kaleidoscope of his personal experiences, historical narratives and Afro-Caribbean culture. It has its own symbolic language, and deftly explores themes of wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation and inner versus outer experiences. His portrayal of the Black experience alongside his critique of power structures and systems of racism is powerful and poignant, positioning him as a critical socio-political commentator of his time.
Basquiat's work represents a key juncture in the evolution of American art – especially in how it confronts and explores race and identity. His influence has transcended the art world, permeating pop culture and inspiring a new generation of artists in the realms of art, music and fashion. Though Basquiat’s life was cut tragically short by a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27, he left behind an artistic legacy that continues to resonate today and cemented his place at the peak of pop and street culture.
Basquiat’s enigmatic personal life led him to enter the pantheon of 20th century idols, yet the puzzle of Jean-Michel Basquiat is not simply about the man, or his astoundingly meteoric career path, but the profound and lasting influence of his art.
In the late 1970s, the streets of New York City became the canvas for a mysterious new graffiti tag: SAMO©. This intriguing acronym – short for "Same Old Crap" – was the brainchild of two teenagers, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz. SAMO© was a commentary on the stagnant, repetitive patterns of society, and it was this counter-culture movement that set the stage for Basquiat's ascension to the mainstream art world.
SAMO© came into existence as an organic response to the disillusionment Basquiat and Diaz felt towards the socio-political climate, consumer culture and religious institutions of their time. Amid the urban landscape, across the Lower East Side, SoHo and Tribeca, the duo sprayed cryptic, poetic messages. These epigrams were often ironic, challenging the status quo and offering a raw, unfiltered critique of societal norms. The style of SAMO© was distinct, marrying the immediacy and spontaneity of street art with thought-provoking aphorisms that blurred the line between graffiti and high art. Messages like "SAMO© as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics, and bogus philosophy" caught the public’s attention, sparking curiosity about the identity behind these words.
In 1980, after a falling out, Basquiat and Diaz decided to "kill" SAMO©, signalling the end of this chapter with a final message from Basquiat scrawled repeatedly on the walls of downtown buildings: "SAMO© IS DEAD". This marked Basquiat’s transition from street art to the mainstream art world, and he began painting canvases. Nevertheless, he doubtless carried the spirit of SAMO© with him into his painting, with its wit, socio-political critique, rawness and rebelliousness. The themes that permeated the SAMO© graffiti such as social inequality, institutional critique and existential angst also continued to resonate in Basquiat's later work. Similarly, the style of SAMO©, with its combination of text and image, carried over into his canvas work. The words in his graffiti were integral to the artwork, a trait that remained consistent throughout his painting career.
The legacy of SAMO© cannot be understated. It was the launching pad for one of the most influential artists of the late 20th century but, crucially, it was a statement and a movement, using the rawness of graffiti to challenge society and turn the streets of New York City into a thought-provoking canvas.
The 1980s were a dynamic and transformative period in the New York art scene, characterised by a resurgence of figurative painting and an amalgamation of high and low culture. At the heart of this vibrant artistic milieu was Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose talent and charisma would lead him to international fame within a few short years.
After the dissolution of SAMO©, Basquiat began creating works on canvas and found materials, combining the raw energy of street art with the tenets of fine art. In June 1980, Basquiat had his first public exhibition in the group show "The Times Square Show", marking his transition from street artist to a recognised figure in the art world. By 1982 he was exhibiting his work alongside established artists like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, and he was the youngest artist ever to participate at the Documenta in Kassel, Germany.
However, his rapid ascent to prominence was not without its challenges. As a young, black artist in a predominantly white art world, Basquiat often faced racism and was stereotyped as a “primitive” artist. He grappled with these issues in his work, creating pieces that delved into themes of race, inequality, police brutality and colonialism.
During this period, Basquiat formed relationships with several key figures in the art world. One of the most significant was with Pop Art maestro Andy Warhol. The two artists admired each other’s work and soon began a productive collaborative friendship. Their artistic styles complemented each other, resulting in a unique blend of their distinctive aesthetics. Despite their age difference, they shared a deep connection, each influencing the other’s work until Warhol's death in 1987.
Another significant relationship was with his friendship with Keith Haring, a fellow artist who also started his art career in the street art scene. Haring’s bold lines and vibrant colours, often used to transmit social messages, resonated with Basquiat. Both products of their time, they shared a common understanding of art as a medium for social commentary, which deepened their friendship and mutual influence.
Basquiat’s time in the 1980s New York art scene, though brief, was intensely productive. His influence went beyond his paintings, affecting the way art was perceived and blurring the lines between street art and high art. His life and work encapsulate the energy, ambition, and turbulence of this transformative period in art and cultural history.
Jean-Michel Basquiat's art is a fusion of dichotomies: word and image, high and low culture, expressionistic colour and raw line work. His signature style is marked by the integration of text and symbolism, making his work instantly recognisable and deeply impactful.
Perhaps his most renowned painting is Untitled (1982), which features a powerful, skull-like head on a bright blue background. The head is a riot of colours and abstract patterns, overlaid with frenetic, almost aggressive line work that seems to depict both physical and psychological turmoil. Amidst this chaos are hints of Basquiat's signature text – words like "Teeth", "Asbestos" and "Milk" are scattered across the canvas, adding to the painting’s cryptic narrative. This work encapsulates Basquiat's exploration of themes such as mortality, anxiety and the human condition; this is reflected in the fact that this is Basquiat’s most expensive painting to date, having sold for £85.2 million in 2017.
A painting that similarly illustrates his merging of textual and visual art and difficult themes is Dustheads (1982), which depicts two figures against a black background, their bodies filled with a jumble of colours. The figure rendered in bright red has its hands and arms raised above its head, its eyes are large and intense, with multiple circles within them and has a wide grin. A second figure, less active yet equally striking, is also depicted with enlarged eyes filled with the same concentric circles. The painting is imbued with a sense of disorder, immediacy and dynamism. Dustheads supposedly takes its inspiration from individuals from his social group who were known to consume PCP (commonly referred to as Angel Dust) and the figures in the artwork are presumably under the influence of this substance. This painting is an example of Basquiat's ability to create a dialogue between visuals and the darker aspects of society, and a testament to his unique techniques and thematic approach.
Basquiat’s work frequently addressed systemic issues, including racism and police brutality; one such work is Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) from 1983. This piece was not initially intended for public viewing but was a deeply personal response to a tragic event. Michael Stewart was a young, black graffiti artist who died following an encounter with the New York City Transit Police in 1983. Basquiat and Stewart were both part of the same creative circles in downtown New York, and Stewart's death profoundly affected Basquiat.
In Defacement, Basquiat depicts two white police officers beating a black figure who resembles a stick figure. The policemen's faces are distorted and demonic, emphasising the violence of their actions. The black figure’s head is framed by the blue of the police uniform, and lines surrounding it give the appearance of spinning. While this artwork is not as widely recognised as some of his other pieces, it is one of his most personal and is an explicit depiction of police brutality in Basquiat’s body of work.
These works highlight Basquiat's unique artistic style, a revolutionary and visually engaging blend of text, symbolism, and expressionistic colour, not to mention his concern with themes hitherto marginalised by mainstream art: racism, class struggle, colonialism, drug abuse and personal identity.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career trajectory is a remarkable narrative of a young talent's rapid rise from the gritty streets of New York to the prestige of auction houses and offers a fascinating lens into the dynamics of the art world and the role of the market in an artist’s overall success. This is particularly true in Basquiat’s case: the art market played a pivotal role in his rise to fame, as collectors, dealers and auction houses recognised the power of his work and the potential for investment long before traditional institutions did. He is one of the few artists of his generation that never received a major exhibition during his lifetime, and both the MoMa and the Whitney rejected his artworks during the 1980s. Despite that, the artist was and is hugely commercially successful, in his time and now — in 2017, his work Untitled (1982) was sold at Sotheby's for an astounding £85.4 million, then a record price for an American artist at auction. Many have attributed this lack of Basquiat representation in major artistic institutions to racism and snobbery.
However, it’s essential to note that the high prices fetched at auction are not merely a testament to market forces, but also a recognition of Basquiat's raw talent and the enduring relevance of his themes such as race, power and inequality, which continue to resonate in contemporary society. Echoing the commercial success he found in his life, he is now said to be the most collected artist by athletes, actors, musicians and entrepreneurs. His journey from street art to Sotheby’s is a testament to his extraordinary talent and the power of his work to transcend boundaries. Despite his short life, his influence continues to be felt in contemporary art today, and his story is not just about the meteoric rise of an artist; it's about the power of art to engage, provoke, and ultimately transcend its origins.
Jean-Michel Basquiat's impact on contemporary art and culture extends far beyond his tragically short life. Basquiat's fearless blending of high and low culture, his use of a graffiti aesthetic in a fine art context and his incorporation of text into his paintings have influenced countless artists who seek to challenge traditional artistic boundaries. Having shattered the barrier between street art and gallery art, he paved the way for artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey. The former has often chosen to interact with Basquiat’s work, having created two murals at the Barbican in 2017 that reference his work.
Beyond the art world, Basquiat's impact extends to the broader popular landscape, with elements of his style and themes appearing in fashion, music and film. His artwork has been featured on clothing lines, album covers, and has inspired films and songs. His life and work have become symbols of the struggle for recognition and respect faced by artists of colour, and he has been mentioned in songs by Kanye West and Jay-Z, to name a few.
The lessons and messages from Basquiat's life and work are numerous. His story is a reminder of the power of art to transcend boundaries and to give voice to marginalised narratives. It is a testament to the struggle faced by artists of colour for recognition and respect. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a call to continue challenging, questioning, and disrupting, much like Basquiat did through his art.
Want to learn more about Jean-Michel Basquiat's thriving print market? Read our 2023 American Pop Print Report here.