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“Believe it or not, I can actually draw.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat
Brooklyn-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat came out of New York’s vibrant downtown scene of the late 1970s to become one of the most influential and internationally-renowned artists of the late 20th century. His street art and Neo-Expressionist works on canvas and paper as well as on random objects and surfaces are characterised by visually-striking and psychologically-powerful combinations of anatomical diagrams, charged words and cryptic phrases, numerals, pictograms, commercial graphic art, allusions to African history and African-American pop culture, as well as stick figures and maps.
Basquiat’s signature was the crown, which he used again and again in his work, adorning black male figures including athletes, musicians and writers. As his friend, fellow artist Francesco Clemente, explained: “Jean-Michel’s crown had three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician and the boxing champion.”
Born in 1960 of Haitian and Puerto-Rican descent, Basquiat was exposed to art by his mother and some of his teachers but received no formal art education. After dropping out of high school and leaving home in 1976, he scraped by selling t-shirts and postcards marked with his drawings. With his friend, Al Diaz, he created SAMO (“same old shit”). The tag, which they used as their logo, cropped up on buildings throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn in the late 1970s.
At the start of the 1980s Basquiat started to paint and draw with more focused effort as he befriended other artists and luminaries. A first public group show in a vacant Times Square building in June 1980, which also featured works by Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer and Kenny Scharf, marked a turning point for Basquiat and led to his first solo exhibition in 1982. Success among the contemporary art-loving public was immediate, while critics both lauded Basquiat as a genius and derided him as a product of the newly booming market. Basquiat basked in the limelight, appearing in Blondie’s video for the song ‘Rapture’ and starring in Glenn O’Brien’s ‘Downtown 81’, a film about the ultra-hip subculture of post-punk Manhattan.
In 1981 Basquiat met Andy Warhol and the two formed a close friendship, collaborating on several works in the mid-1980s.
In 1982 he became the youngest artist ever to exhibit at Documenta in Kassel, Germany.
Basquiat died of an accidental heroin overdose died in New York in 1988. He was just 27.
His works can be found in museum collections around the world including The Broad, Los Angeles, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
In 2017 his ‘Untitled’ was sold at Sotheby’s New York for US$100.5 million, setting a new record for any American artist at auction.
The influence of Basquiat’s complex aesthetic on subsequent generations of artist remains incalculable.