“I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on 22 December 1960 in Brooklyn, New York. His father was of Haitian decent and his mother, Puerto Rican, though she was institutionalised when he was still very young, she would be of great influence to his creativity and creations, taking him to museums and art galleries as a child and, after an operation on his spleen giving him the medical gospel Gray’s Antomy, which would influence him throughout his creative life. By the age of 11, Basquiat could speak French, Spanish and English fluently. By 15, Basquiat was running away from home; when finding him on a park bench his father remembered the young Basquiat said to him, “Papa, I will be very famous one day.” When he dropped out of tenth grade, he would be permanently banished from home by his father and stay with friends in Brooklyn, he would begin to support himself using his creativity, by selling t-shirts and homemade postcards. Soon he would meet the grand-master of pop art and his brief life be transformed forever.
Basquiat is known for his abstract, neo-expressionist style, through which he infused and appropriated poetry, recurring symbols, drawing, painting, to create pictoal critiques on power structures and systematic racism as well as a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual”. He employed an automatic, child-like, graffiti-style of drawing and painting. The medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy influence would pop up in the majority of his works (in 1981 he would name his avant-garde industrial band Gray) with the motifs of feet, heads and the human body overlayed with text would recur. A favourite motif of his was also the crown, and after he died of a heroin overdose aged 27, his friend Keith Haring (pictured) created the incredibly touching Pile of Crowns (1988) in memory of him.
Basquiat was not fussy about his canvas, it could be whatever was in front of him: a traditional canvas, a refrigerator, a lab coat, shipping crate, type writer – everything had the potential to be transformed . He also liked to work in an Armani suit, which, when finished, he would go out in, covered in paint splatters.
His free-association with any canvas probably harkens back to his early days as a graffiti artist back in the mid 1970s. He and his friend Al Diaz began spraying graffiti on buildings all over lower Manhattan. The tag would always be SAMO – which stands for ‘Same old Shit’. The founder of Unique, Harvey Russack, stumbled upon Basquiat painting a building one night and they became friends. Soon after he offered Basquiat a day job and on 11 December 1978, The Village Voice published an article about the graffiti. But by the 1980s SAMO IS DEAD started to appear all over the city, this marked a falling out between the pair, and the project had come to an end.
Basquiat, Warhol and His Contemporaries
Basquiat didn’t just know a lot of famous people, he collaborated with them. Before he was a famous artist he appeared in his friend, Debbie Harry’s video for Rapture, and she and her boyfriend Chris Stein bough Basquiat’s first painting for $200. He was great friends with fellow street artist Keith Haring, and his relationship with Andy Warhol is even more notorious than his relationship with Madonna; the two artists would become firm friends and collaborators, working on numerous projects in various mediums together, including works featuring the Olympic Rings, Ailing Ali In Fight of Life (1984), and a number of photographs and prints. Warhol’s death in 1987 had a heavy effect on Basquiat, one that saw him sink in to a depression that would eventually lead to his fatal overdose aged 27 in 1988.
His most expensive works
Notable private collectors of Basquiat’s work include John McEnroe, Madonna, Debbie Harry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jay-Z. In 2016 he achieved an artist record at Christies in New York with his Untitled 1982 work selling for $57,300,000 / £39,606,300. Previously his most expensive work had been Dust Heads, which sold in 2013 for $43,500,000. For any young artsists out there, it’s worth remembering that when he was starting out, Basquiat’s work was rejected by both The Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney; where they are now very proud to have his work.