Jean-Michel Basquiat 1960-1988
By Aliza Wall
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist who existed, and continues to exist, in terms of dichotomous contradictions, at once commercial and overplayed, unique and derivative, modern and primitive. Born in Brooklyn, New York on December 22, 1960, Basquiat was the second of four children. His mother, Matilde, was Puerto Rican and his father, Gérard, was Haitian. Basquiat’s mixed identity impacted not only his own art but its critical reception. Basquiat was an intelligent and precocious child, trilingual and noticeably creative. His mother nurtured this talent, taking Basquiat to art museums and enrolling him Saint Ann’s, an exclusive private art school. At age seven, Basquiat was hit by a car. While in hospital, his mother brought him Gray’s Anatomy, a medical text that would monumentally impact his art. At fifteen, he ran away from home, sleeping on park benches until he was arrested and returned to his father just a week later. At seventeen, Basquiat dropped out of public high school, later attending the alternative school, City-As-School. As a result, his father banished him from their home. Although this period of Basquiat’s life was not uniformly positive, its selective retelling is revealing. Yes, he was a runaway and a child of divorce, but he was also a talented, privileged boy who had attended private school and was encouraged to follow his artistic inclinations. The framing of Basquiat’s early life as one of poverty and squalor exposes the racially charged assumptions that would plague the artist throughout his career.
Basquiat’s first foray into the art world was carried out under the pseudonym SAMO©, an acronym for “same old shit” and a play on the racial slur “Sambo”. This name was shared by friend and fellow artist, Al Diaz. During this period, Basquiat and Diaz used the medium of graffiti to express their whims and grievances with consumerism, religion, politics, and, notably, the art world. Graffiti was found primarily in SoHo and the Lower East Side, areas with clusters of art dealers. Basquiat and Diaz’ contempt for and mockery of contemporary fine art can be seen in their piece that reads, “SAMO© , AS AN ALTERNATIVE 2 ‘PLAYING ART’ WITH THE ‘RADICAL CHIC’ SECTION OF DADDY’$ FUNDS”. The dissolution of SAMO© as a partnership was catalysed by Basquiat’s calling himself SAMO© on Glenn O’Brien’s TV show, TV Party. When Diaz and Basquiat’s friendship ended in 1979, the epitaph “SAMO© IS DEAD” covered the walls of SoHo. Although Basquiat himself dismissed this project as “immature” and “unambitious”, the powerful and subversive use of language it prompted is omnipresent in his later work.
1980 marked the beginning of Basquiat’s meteoric rise from struggling artist to art world darling. In June 1980, he participated in The Times Square Show, an exhibition that included many acclaimed artists. It was at this exhibition that he was noticed by Italian gallery owner Emilio Mazzoli, who invited him to Italy to have a solo show. In 1981, Basquiat starred in New York Beat Movie (later released under the title Downtown 81 ) alongside Blondie’s Debbie Harry, who bought one of his first paintings, Cadillac Moon (1981) for only $100. Cadillac Moon contains the staples of Basquiat’s mature work, covered in frenetic, childlike drawings and repetitive, almost prayer-like words and phrases. His works are, in general, at once highly cryptic and overtly communicative. In Cadillac Moon, Basquiat asserts his identity, first crossing out SAMO©, then alluding to African-American baseball player Hank Aaron (perhaps to equate their greatness), and finally signing his own name. In 1982, Basquiat joined the Annina Nosei gallery, the exhibition he created there earning him $250,000. In the time following this debut, Basquiat built up an oeuvre of around 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings, most of which referenced popular culture and Basquiat’s own lived experiences.
Between 1983 and 1985, Basquiat worked on a series of collaborative paintings with close friend and idol Andy Warhol. Warhol would typically begin the piece, silkscreening an iconic logo or product onto the canvas. Basquiat would promptly write or paint over it, recalling his early interest in graffiti as means to subvert convention. This era is epitomised by the duo’s 1984 piece Arm and Hammer II, in which one of Warhol’s two painted logos is transformed by Basquiat into a Black man playing the saxophone. Basquiat subverts Warhol’s images of contemporary consumerism to expose its foundations in coerced Black labour. Although the collaboration lead to a falling out, Basquiat was heartbroken by Warhol’s death in 1987.
Basquiat would die of a heroin overdose just a year later. There was nothing romantic about Basquiat’s addiction; in his last years he hit girlfriends and fell out with lifelong friends. One of his last paintings, Eroica (1988), explores Basquiat’s premonition of his own death, the phrase “Man Dies” repeated frantically across the canvas. A former lover describes Basquiat as being “cannibalised by the art world,” not emotionally able to be the “noble savage” or “radiant child” of the critics that so often misunderstood and fetishised him. The modern viewer is no less guilty of this, so wedded to the myth of Basquiat that we negate his humanity.
Kane, Ashleigh. “The story of SAMO©, Basquiat’s first art project.” Dazed. September 6, 2017. http://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/37058/1/al-diaz-on-samo-and-basquiat.
Laing, Olivia. “Race, power, money- the art of Jean Michel Basquiat.” The Guardian. September 8, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/08/race-power-money-the-art-of-jean-michel-basquiat.
Rodrigues, Laurie A. ““SAMO© as an Escape Clause”: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Engagement with a Commodified American Africanism.” Journal of American Studies 45, no. 2 (2011): 227-243. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23016272.
Stokes, Alastair. “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The life and work behind the legend.” BBC Online. July 9, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150709-jean-michel-basquiat-the-life-and-work-behind-the-legend.
Stokes, Alastair. “Jean-Michel Basquiat’s former lover on why she could see he would die.” Financial Review. October 6, 2017. https://www.afr.com/lifestyle/arts-and-entertainment/art/jeanmichel-basquiats-former-lover-on-why-she-could-see-he-would-die-20170916-gyj02b.