Jean Michel Basquiat Bio: Graffiti Artist Turned Sociopolitical Force

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s beginning in Brooklyn, New York on December 22, 1960 was a modest one, unconnected with the sophisticated art shows and famous partnerships he would someday experience. This street artist turned high profile painter, whose paintings would ultimately sell for upwards of $50,000 at one-man shows in Tokyo, Paris, and Dusseldorf, among other locations, was passionate, intelligent, and very politically aware.

His father, Gerard Basquiat, was an accountant of Ivorian descent born in Port-au-Prince Haiti. His mother was named Matilde Basquiat and was of African-Puerto Rican descent. Basquiat was one of four children born to Matilde and Gerard Basquiat, three of whom survived to adulthood. Jean was born after the death of his older brother, Max Basquiat. He had two younger sisters, Lisane Basquiat (1964- ) and Jeanine Basquiat (1967- ).

Basquiat’s parents, particularly his mother, encouraged him to immerse himself in arts and culture from an early age. His mother, who was something of an amateur artist herself, frequently took him to visit New York’s many art museums, and even enrolled him in a children’s program at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Basquiat would later credit his mother with getting him started as an artist. Basquiat’s first artistic works were cartoon drawings, often of characters from Alfred Hitchcock films. Basquiat would sit beside his mother at night, drawing his cartoon sketches while she worked on her own designs.

Basquiat was, by all accounts, a bit of a renaissance man, even at a young age. His education in the arts started when he was only four or five years old, and he was fluent in both French and Spanish by the age of seven, frequently reading all sorts of literature in any three of his spoken languages. Though he tended to read a great deal about history, poetry, and mythology, his reading interests were so varied as to include even medical texts, such as the iconic “Gray’s Anatomy.” After an accident in 1968 left him with multiple internal injuries and a broken arm, this book accompanied Basquiat through his recuperation. Its influence appeared even later on in Basquiat’s life, in the name of his band and in various pieces of his work. Basquiat also participated in extracurricular sports while in school, competing often in track events.

Basquiat’s parents separated later that year, when he was eight, and Basquiat and his sisters went to live with his father. They stayed in New York in Brooklyn until 1974, then moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a brief sojourn before moving back to New York in 1976. Basquiat’s mother was committed to a mental institution when he was 11 and spent time in and out of institutions for the rest of her life.

1976, Basquiat’s fifteenth year, was a tumultuous one for the precocious young artist. It was in this year that Basquiat began his five-year long collaboration with Al Diaz, a friend and fellow street artist, whose partnership would persist nearly until Basquia’s 20th year. The two began spray painting graffiti together in Lower Manhattan under the pseudonym SAMO. SAMO (stands for “Same Old Shit”) was a fictional character originally conceptualized by Basquiat during his time in an Upper West Side drama group called Family Life Theater. The character made a living selling a fake religion.

The SAMO Movement

The duo’s works featured short phrases and typically included “SAMO” somewhere in the inscription. The works were highly meaningful and often consisted of short, witty poems, such as, “SAMO saves idiots, Plush safe he think; SAMO”. When the partnership fell apart in 1979, Basquiat took to spray painting pieces inscribed, “SAMO is dead” in SoHo neighborhoods.

“SAMO as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics and bogus philosophy.”

“SAMO as an end to playing art.”

“SAMO as a neo art form”

“SAMO as an alternative 2 playing art with the ‘radical chic’ sect on Daddy’s $ funds.”

“SAMO as an escape clause.”

It was also in 1976 that Basquiat originally left home; this first time he ran away and was back within a week. He slept on benches in Washington State Park and was soon taken back home by the police. His relationship with his father, however, did not improve and the young artist was soon banished from the house altogether after he dropped out of tenth grade. Sometimes homeless, sometimes staying with friends in Brooklyn, Basquiat supported himself by selling souvenirs and working at a clothing warehouse in Brooklyn.

In 1979 Basquiat began to achieve some modest successes, especially with his band, Gray, which performed at local nightclubs and Arleen Schloss’s event, “Wednesdays at A’s”. Basquiat would later exhibit, in October of 1979, a few pieces under the SAMO brand. 1979 also marked the beginning of a friendship and collaboration with Andy Warhol, whom Basquiat met at a restaurant, where he showed Warhol a few pieces of his work.

It was in 1980, at the tender age of 20, when Basquiat first began to achieve notoriety in New York’s art circles. This year marked Basquiat’s first public exhibition, the now iconic “Times Square” show in June. The exhibition featured pieces by over 200 different artists and was sponsored by two New York companies. Basquiat exhibited his work as SAMO, and would continue to do so for subsequent shows until later in his career.

1980 was an interesting time to become an artist. Basquiat’s style reflected this; his pieces were highly reflective and were not meant to impress art industry big wigs. Starting as a street artist meant that Basquiat’s style was spontaneous, meaningful, and extremely passionate. Basquiat was, to an extent, anti-establishment, and his career reflected this.

It was also in 1980 that Basquiat sold his first paintings and began working full-time as an artist. Wanting to concentrate on his pieces, Basquiat quit Gray in the same year. 1980-1981 saw a few more exhibitions for Basquiat, still going under SAMO, including his first solo exhibition in Modena, Italy.

Basquiat and Andy Warhol

In November of 1983 Basquiat and Warhol, whom Basquiat had met in 1981 through a mutual friend, began collaborating on a series of paintings. In one series of works, Warhol creates multiple works playing on the Olympic five-ringed symbol, which Basquiat opposes with his very different graffiti-style art. The collaboration lasted through 1985.

It was in late 1984 that Basquiat’s friends began to worry about his drug use. He was said to be constantly paranoid and unconcerned about everyday realities including, uncharacteristically, his appearance.

Basquiat’s heavier drug use also coincided with his growing paranoia about his own place in the art world; he was worried that he would become an artist who faded out early, or that basquiat artwork would be stolen or otherwise taken. Basquiat has many conversations with Warhol about these fears.

16 paintings collaborated on by Basquiat and Warhol premiered in September of 1985. Reviews were mixed, and it was believed that unfavorable reviews ultimately caused an irreparable rift in the two’s friendship.

It was around this time that Mary Boone became Basquiat’s primary art dealer in New York. The relationship was short lived and volatile, however, and less than two years after it began, their work relationship ended in 1986, leaving Basquiat without a New York art dealer. It was also in 1986 that Basquiat visited Africa for the first time, to the Ivory Coast, and made his first and only trip to the South, in Atlanta.

In The End…

Basquiat was very fearful of the unfavorable racial reality in America, and saw himself as in no small amount of danger. These feelings often presented themselves in Basquiat’s work, which was typically socially and politically charged.

His paintings were highly symbolic in nature and often focused on what he saw as intrinsic dichotomies, such as the wealthy versus the impoverished or integration versus segregation. Basquiat’s works typically included words or short phrases in his works, and in fact some pieces consisted solely of the written word.

One of Basquiat’s most iconic works were the multiple graffiti works inscribed, “SAMO IS DEAD” which appeared throughout Lower Manhattan. The graffiti, which to some would be seen as trespassing and vandalism, indicate Basquiat’s possession of the locations and ideas he worked with. Possession would prove a defining theme throughout the artist’s life.

Basquiat’s “Untitled (History of the Black People) from 1983” was indicative of the influence of Renaissance thinkers and artists on his work. The work itself showed many similarities to Renaissance paintings; the painting included multiple panels and revealed stretcher bars. In this particular piece, Basquiat lived out a struggle which was all too familiar to him; the racial reality of the United States. Intelligent and able to think for himself, Basquiat was very afraid, and often paranoid, of the trouble he faced as both a black man and a black artist in New York. He once told an interviewer, “I am not a black artist, I am an artist.” Though Basquiat made multiple trips to Africa and was heavily invested in African-American movements, he was also readily aware of the troubles he faced and the judgements made against him because of his race. This painting recreates his own ancestors’ arrival in the United States as slaves while also drawing attention to centers of African American culture.

Basquiat quickly deteriorated after Warhol’s 1988 death, for which he painted, “Gravestone”. Facing both artistic and personal difficulties, Basquiat turns to drugs even more frequently.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died in his New York loft on August 12, 1988. The cause of death was a drug overdose. Over three hundred admirers attended a November 5 memorial for the artist, a testament to his enduring legacy as both an artist and a rising sociopolitical force. His works continue to be exhibited, studied, and sold even today.

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