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Andy Warhol Jean-Michel Basquiat
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiatvia

The dA-Zed guide to Jean-Michel Basquiat

He shook up the 80s and gave a jolt of life to the galleries of New York – we round up everything you need to know about the art-scene supernova

Poet, painter and post-punk prodigy – Jean-Michel Basquiat shook up the 80s with his own kind of kamikaze creativity. The Brooklyn-born graffiti artist turned art-scene supernova honed his neo-expressionist style in a world still hooked on conceptualism, and brought a much needed jolt of life back into galleries everywhere. Throwing together the mystic scribbles of early African art with a rawer, more human approach, he poured racial injustice, identity and pop culture onto the canvas in a way that had never been seen before. It's little wonder that he's now considered to be one of the important cultural icons of the 20th century. We look back on a life of hard work (and equally hard partying).


The Italian label was lovingly adopted by Basquiat, who would wear their (often oversized) suits in place of painter's overalls. When money was flowing freely later in his career, he would allegedly pick out a brand new Armani shirt, jacket and tie before getting to work. Then, once he'd finished, that same paint-splattered outfit would be worn out for an indulgent night out in Manhattan. 


The painter's creative compulsions weren't just confined to the world of visual arts. After initially sparring with rappers Rammelzee and K-Rob over his artistic credibility, Basquiat agreed to a collaboration to prove them wrong. The result was “Beat Bop” – a rap record that eventually became one of the most influential of its genre. Although Basquiat's verse ended up being scrapped, he produced the track and designed the cover – but only 500 copies were ever pressed. 


Brought up in a creative, cross-cultural family, much of Basquiat's childhood was spent drawing, watching cartoons, or visiting the Brooklyn Museum of Art with his mother (an amateur artist herself). It was there that he discovered his passion for the paintbrush, and began obsessively producing his own sketches. He later confessed his childhood ambition had always been to become a cartoonist – an urge that remains clear throughout the splashy, offbeat creations he would eventually became famous for.


This 1981 film from director Edo Bertoglio was the perfect visual document of Manhattan's post-punk era. Starring Basquiat himself, it was produced by Polaroid artist Maripol and included a number of star cameos – including Kid Creole, James Chance and Debbie Harry (playing a magical bag lady, of course). Unfortunately, the release of this mysterious fairytale was delayed until 2000 because of financial issues – and by that time the original audio had been lost. For the rereleased version, Basquiat's voice was dubbed by actor Saul Williams.


One of the key-players of New York's glory days, Basquiat perfectly encapsulated the hedonistic nature of the 80s. He was known for having a voracious appetite for sex, drugs and dancefloors, which only helped elevate his status as an infamous icon of the post-punk era. And that's not even mentioning his impressively influential social circle, which included Madonna, Andy Warhol and Fab Five Freddy.


According to his father Gérard, Basquiat was plagued constantly by his anxiety and irrational fear of failure. One of his biggest concerns was remaining relevant and keeping credible in such a fickle industry. “Only one thing worries me,” he had told his father. “Longevity.” After rocketing to success at such a young age, he began to grow more and more paranoid that it was all merely a bit of a fluke. A failed creative partnership with Andy Warhol in 1984 – which was not warmly greeted by critics – only exacerbated this feeling. 


One of Basquiat's other forays into the musical world was with experimental art-rock group Gray. Formed in 1979 with performance artist Michael Holman (and a then 18-year-old Vincent Gallo), the band was allegedly named after Basquiat's lifelong fascination with the Grey's Anatomy medical guide – a book which had been given to him by his mother and was also a major influence in his art work.


It was Basquiat's addiction to heroin that would ultimately lead him to his death in 1988, at the age of just 27. His storming success on the art scene was a blessing, but it had also become a way of funding his longtime appetite for drugs. In fact, in the lead up to his death, he was becoming more and more isolated because of his habit – which some say was costing up to $20,000 – $30,000 a time towards the end of his life. 


With his art now selling for hundreds of million dollars, Basquiat's legacy is more profitable than ever. One of the best-selling artists of the last 50 years, his signature fusion of primitive drawings, cartoons and pop art were responsible for bringing black culture to the forefront of a white-washed art world. Among countless others, his work is now collected by both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jay Z (who famously shelled out $4.5 million for Basquiat's “Mecca” painting in 2013). 


There were a number of recurring themes throughout Basquiat's back catalogue, with the majority of his art addressing sports, black identity and music – especially jazz. In pieces like “Trumpet”, “Horn Players” and “Charles the First”, he demonstrates his love of the genre by creating brash, erratic tributes to it. He would listen to jazz almost constantly whilst painting, and would curate elaborate DJ sets at clubs throughout New York featuring the music he was most enamoured by – from Bebop and hip hop to new wave.


Pulling similarities between the Beats and Basquiat isn't exactly the hardest thing to do – both were seen as the cutting-edge new voices of their era, and both believed in the importance of spontaneous composition and the free-form approach to their art. In fact, Basquiat was so inspired by the famous 60s movement that he was never seen without his own battered copy of Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans, carrying it with him constantly. He even painted a special triptych tribute (“Five Fish Species”) to his friend, Junky author William S Burroughs


Basquiat's influence has extended far beyond the art world, with references constantly being made to his work in literature, film and music (particularly by A$AP Rocky, NAS, Common, Kanye and Lil Wayne). On his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay Z makes several mentions of the artist throughout. “Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner,” he raps on track “Picasso Baby”. “Go ahead lean on that shit Blue, you own it.” He even based 2010 song “Most Kingz” on Basquiat's “Charles the First” painting. 


A true ladies man, Basquiat had a penchant for younger women, with ex-girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk claiming to Vanity Fair that he “always needed to be surrounded by blonde models”. His wandering eye even fell upon Madonna for a brief period, with the pair dating just before she blew up the music scene with her first major single, “Lucky Star” – though the pair eventually split because of his drug problem. “He was an amazing man and deeply talented,” she told Howard Stern recently. “I remember getting up in the middle of the night and he wouldn't be in bed lying next to me; he'd be standing, painting, at four in the morning, this close to the canvas, in a trance. I was blown away by that, that he worked when he felt moved.”


Neo-expressionism was an art movement born in the late 1970s, also known as ‘Neue Wilden’ (‘The new wild ones’). It was an explosion of brash brushwork, and raw, intense colour that brought mythological and historical imagery back to the art world after a long absence. Alongside other pioneers (like Julian Schnabel, Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz), Basquiat was a leader of the scene, and fought the more fashionable conceptual, minimalist movements of the time with his more human approach.


Basquiat's fascination with anatomy creeps into much of his work. Whether it's floating organs, dismembered limbs or surreal X-ray vision, it's a visual obsession that stems from a childhood fascination with the body itself. After being hit by a car when he was eight years old, he was hospitalised for a month with a broken arm, and his spleen was removed. It only was when his mother brought him in a copy of Grey's Anatomy to help him understand his injuries that his creative juices began to flow, and the book became a huge influence on his art work from that point on.


German graphic artist Peter Max and his psychedelic, counter-culture cartoons of the 1960s were Basquiat's first taste of real art. Although worlds away from the more sophisticated circles he would eventually end up in, the electrifying use of colour was an aesthetic that would stay with him throughout his career. In fact, it was only once he had filmed Downtown 81 that he began to discover the more classic side of the art world (including Monet, Cy Twombly and Picasso) – moving his focus from the street to the canvas.


The first biography written on Basquiat, Phoebe Hoban's A Quick Killing In Art, was published ten years after his death in 1998. It painted him as the rebellious, live-fast-die-young “Jimi Hendrix of the art world”, and spoke in detail about his rapid rise from a scribbler of graffiti to international art star. Although it attracted minor criticism for its salaciousness, A Quick Killing In Art satiated those that were hungry to know more about one of the most charismatic, and tragic, art icons of the last century. 


The New York art scene has never been known for its vibrant multiculturalism – and for Basquiat, a black artist concerned with cultural identity and social injustice, this racial imbalance would have felt more prevalent than ever. “Most of my reviews have been more on my personality more so than my work, mostly,” he revealed in documentary The Radiant Child. “They’re just racist most of these people. They have this image of me as a wild monkey man or whatever the fuck they think.” Stuck between two worlds, he wasn't embraced fully by African-American critics either, who mostly believed he was selling out. “I remember myself and Vernon Reid being invited to Jean-Michel Basquiat's loft for a party in 1984, and not even wanting to meet the man, because he was surrounded by white people,” wrote critic Greg Tate in an essay for the Whitney's Black Male show. 


SAMO was the graffiti alias of Basquiat and his high school friend Al Diaz. Created in 1977, it was (and still is) scrawled across the streets of downtown Manhattan alongside playfully poetic statements: “SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS AND GONZOIDS…”, “SAMO©… 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE” and “SAMO as an alternative 2 playing art with the ‘radical chic’ sect on Daddy’s$funds”. An abbreviation of ‘the same old shit’, it was started as a joke, but then escalated to ultimately become a well-respected street poetry project. 


For this 2010 documentary, director Tamra Davis collected all the unseen footage she could find from her time with Basquiat over 20 years earlier. This resulted in one of the most personal and insightful documentaries that had been made on the artist, and helped shed light on some of the darker corners of his private life. The Radiant Child also included several interviews with people who knew him while he was alive, including Larry Gagosian, Maripol, Thurston Moore and Julian Schnabel. 


In a special (and admittedly very weird) tribute to his friend, Andy Warhol made Basquiat the subject of one of his famed ‘piss paintings’ – made from copper metal powder, liquitex acrylics and urine. It was a technique that Warhol had been experimenting with since the early 60s, but many felt that it was a little disrespectful to Basquiat. Especially because, in his later life, the discoloured patches on his face from poor health began to resemble the same patches on the painting.


Basquiat's influences were varied, and his paintings often seemed like a chaotic concoction of his rich cultural heritage. Amongst the downtown street signs, found writing and consumerist logos, there would always be a darkness lurking nearby. Many images, although often funny, would hint at something more disturbing – and his primitive sketches were often seen as a nod to the voodoo culture of Haiti and West Africa. It was clearly a practise that interested him, and in the year of his death he had been planning to travel to the Ivory coast to meet with some local shamans. The plan was to go for a ritual cleansing to help cure him of his drug addiction.


The unlikely friendship with Andy Warhol was one of the most enduring and important of Basquiat's life. Between 1984 and 1985, the pair began to collaborate creatively – though the work they produced together didn't welcome a warm critical reception. “The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood,” Ronny Cutrone remembers in Warhol: The Biography. “Jean Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again.” Warhol's death in 1987 was thought by many to be a driving force in Basquiat's own death, with the artist becoming more reclusive as a result. 


Before he began working with canvas, Basquiat's art career mainly consisted of selling baseball cards and postcard collages on the street. The majority of these would be made using a colour Xerox machine on Spring street – a tool he would continue to use long after his days as a street artist were over. At the time, the use of a xerography was almost unheard of, but it would eventually became so widely used that it would spark its own mini-movement (Xerox art), opening up a new world of experimental photography in the process. 


Although he ran away from home to live in Washington Square park when he was just a teenager, Basquiat was actually from a very well-off, middle-class family. His father Gérard was an accountant, and his mother Matilde was an aspiring artist (though she had a history of mental health issues). “Jean-Michel, for some reason, liked to give the impression that he grew up in the ghetto,” Gérard Basquiat told Vanity Fair in 1988. “I was driving a Mercedes-Benz.” Despite that, the relationship between father and son was always strained, with Jean-Michel citing Gérard's beatings as the main reason for leaving home at such a young age. 


Basquiat's devotion to the ‘work hard play hard’ lifestyle was ferocious and formidable. As well as having an alleged hundred-bag-a-day heroin habit, he would stay up for days on end with minimal sleep, drawing or painting across any available surface. “There would be 20 sheets of paper on the floor, all seemingly half-finished pieces of work”, Diego Cortez remembers in The Radiant Child. “He would jump from one, walk across five and literally walk on them leaving sneaker prints.” Larry Gagosian, his dealer, once lent the artist a beach house for a professional retreat, but was shocked to what he came home to. “He was flying out friends to stay with him”, he revealed to Vanity Fair. “It really was a zoo”.