Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an American artist and the first artist of African descent to become an international art star. His career in art began as a graffiti artist in New York City, and in the 1980s produced Neo-expressionist painting. Basquiat died due to a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27.
Basquiat was born in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, the first of three children to Matilde and Gerard Basquiat. His mother was a Puerto Rican woman from Brooklyn, and his father was a Haitian immigrant to the United States. Due to his heritage, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish and English by the age of eleven. He was able to read in all three languages, including Symbolist poetry, mythology, and history.
At an early age, Basquiat displayed an aptitude for art, and was
encouraged by his mother to draw, paint, and to participate in other
When Basquiat was seven years old, his parents divorced and his mother suffered severe bouts of bipolar disorder due to the separation.
She was deemed unfit to care for children, so Basquiat and his younger
sisters, Lisane and Jeanine, were raised by their father in the Midwood
neighborhood of Brooklyn. His father was alleged to be a violent
alcoholic, and Basquiat would later claim that he endured physical and
emotional abuse by his father.
When Basquiat was 15 years old, he ran away from home in order to escape his father. He slept on park benches in Washington Square Park, supported himself by panhandling, drug dealing, selling T-shirts and homemade post cards, and working in the Unique Clothing Warehouse in the West Broadway district of Manhattan.
Searching for a home, Basquiat was legally adopted by a friend's
parents as he refused to be returned to the care of his father.
Basquiat returned to attending school around this period, however dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn in September 1978.
While a high school student, Basquiat and Al Diaz started spray-painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan, working under the pseudonym SAMO. The designs inscribed messages such as "Plush safe he think.. SAMO" and "SAMO as an escape clause". In December 1978, the Village Voice published an article on the graffiti. The SAMO project ended with the epitaph "SAMO IS DEAD," inscribed on the walls of SoHo buildings.
In 1979, Basquiat had appeared on Glenn O'Brien's live public-access cable show TV Party. In the late 1970s, Basquiat formed the punk rock band Gray with Vincent Gallo, Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Nick Taylor and Wayne Clifford. Gray performed at nightclubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrah, and the Mudd Club. Basquiat starred in an underground film Downtown 81 which featured some of Gray's recordings on its soundtrack. He also appeared in the Blondie music video "Rapture" as a nightclub disc jockey.
In June 1980, Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition, sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and Fashion Moda. In 1981, Rene Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum magazine, which brought Basquiat to the attention of the wider art world.
In late 1981, he joined the Annina Nosei gallery in the SoHo district of Manhattan. By 1982, Basquiat was showing regularly, and alongside Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, was involved with the Neo-expressionist movement. He was represented in Los Angeles by the Larry Gagosian gallery, and throughout Europe by Bruno Bischofberger. He briefly dated then-aspiring performer Madonna in September 1982. That same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated from 1984 to 1986. He was also briefly involved with artist David Bowie. Basquiat worked on his paintings in Armani suits, and often appeared in public in the same paint-splattered $1,000 suits.
By the mid 1980s, he had left the Annina Nosei gallery, and was showing in the famous Mary Boone gallery in SoHo. On February 10, 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist".
He was a successful artist in this period, however increasing drug
addiction began to interfere with his personal relationships.
After Warhol died on February 22, 1987, Basquiat became increasingly isolated, and his drug addiction and depression increased.
After an attempt at sobriety during a trip to Honolulu, Hawaii, Basquiat died due to a heroin overdose in his SoHo studio on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27.
Untitled acrylic, oilstick and spray paint on canvas painting by Basquiat, 1981
Several major museum retrospective exhibitions of Basquiat's works have been held since his death.
The first was the "Jean-Michel Basquiat" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art
from October 1992 to February 1993. It subsequently traveled to museums
in Houston, Iowa, and Alabama in 1993–1994. The catalog for this
edited by Richard Marshall and including several essays of differing
styles, was a groundbreaking piece of scholarship into his work and
still a major source. Another major and influential exhibition (and
was the "Basquiat" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum March–June 2005
(which subsequently traveled to Los Angeles and Houston in 2005–2006).
Until 2002, the highest money paid for an original work of Basquiat's was US$3,302,500, set on November 12, 1998 at Christie's. On May 14, 2002, Basquiat's Profit I (a large piece measuring 86.5"/220 cm by 157.5"/400 cm), owned by drummer Lars Ulrich of the heavy metal band Metallica, was put up for auction, again at Christie's. It sold for US$5,509,500. The proceedings of the auction are documented in the film Some Kind of Monster.
In another Christie's auction, on November 12, 2008, Ulrich sold a 1982 Basquiat piece, Untitled (Boxer), for US$13,522,500 to an anonymous telephone bidder. The record price for a Basquiat painting was made on May 15, 2007, when an untitled Basquiat work from 1981 sold at Sotheby's in New York for US$14.6 million.
In 1996, seven years after his death, a film biography titled Basquiat was released, directed by Julian Schnabel, with actor Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat.
In 1991, poet Kevin Young produced a book, To Repel Ghosts,
of 117 poems relating to Basquiat’s life, individual paintings, and
social themes found in Basquiat’s work. He published a “remix” of the
book in 2005.
In 2005, poet M.K. Asante, Jr. published the poem "SAMO," dedicated to Basquiat, in his book Beautiful. And Ugly Too.
A 2009 documentary film, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, directed by Tamra Davis, was first screened as part of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
 Artistic activities
Basquiat incorporated words into his paintings.
Before his career as a painter began he produced punk-inspired
postcards for sale on the street, and become known for the
political–poetical graffiti under the name of SAMO. On one occasion Basquiat painted his girlfriend's dress, with the words "Little Shit Brown".
The untitled head ,"untitled (skull)," 1984, is an example of his early 1980s work.
A middle period from late 1982 to 1985 featured multi-panel paintings
and individual canvases with exposed stretcher bars, the surface dense
with writing, collage and imagery. 1984-85 was also the main period of
the Basquiat–Warhol collaborations.
A major reference source used by Basquiat throughout his career was the book Gray's Anatomy
which he was given in the hospital as a child. It remained influential
in his depictions of internal human anatomy, and in its mixture of image
and text. Other major sources were Dreyfuss' Symbol Sourcebook, Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks, and Brentjes African Rock Art.
 Representing his heritage in his art
Basquiat’s 1983 painting "Untitled (History of the Black People)", according to Andrea Frohne, "reclaims Egyptians as African and subverts the concept of ancient Egypt as the cradle of Western Civilization". At the center of the painting, he depicts an Egyptian boat being guided down the Nile River by Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead.
On the right panel of the painting appear the words “Esclave, Slave,
Esclave”. Two letters of the word "Nile" are crossed out and Frohne
suggests that, "The letters that are wiped out and scribbled over
perhaps reflect the acts of historians who have conveniently forgotten
that Egyptians were black and blacks were enslaved." On the left panel of the painting Basquiat, has illustrated two Nubian style masks. The Nubians historically were darker in skin color, and were considered to be slaves by the Egyptian people. Throughout the rest of the painting, images of the Atlantic slave trade are juxtaposed with images of the Egyptian slave trade centuries before. The sickle in the center panel is a direct reference to the slave trade in the United States,
and slave labor under the plantation system. The word “salt” that
appears on the right panel of the work refers to the Atlantic Slave
Trade, as salt was another important commodity to be traded at that
Another of Basquiat’s pieces, "Irony of Negro Policeman" (1981), is intended to illustrate how African-Americans have been controlled by a predominantly Caucasian
society. Basquiat sought to portray how complicit African-Americans
have become with the “institutionalized forms of whiteness and corrupt
white regimes of power” years after the Jim Crow era had ended.
Basquiat found the concept of a “Negro policeman” utterly ironic. It
would seem that this policeman should sympathize with his black friends,
family and ancestors, yet instead he was there to enforce the rules
designed by "white society." The Negro policeman had “black skin but
wore a white mask”. In the painting, Basquiat depicted the policeman as
large in order to suggest an “excessive and totalizing power”, but made
the policeman's body fragmented and broken.
The hat that frames the head of the Negro policeman resembles a cage,
and represents how constrained the independent perceptions of
African-American’s were at the time, and how constrained the policeman’s
own perceptions were within white society. Basquiat drew upon his
Haitian heritage by painting a hat that resembles the top hat associated
with the Haitian trickster lwa, leader of the Gede family of lwas and guardian of death and the dead in vodou.
 Further reading
- Deitch J, Cortez D, and O’Brien, Glen. Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981: the Studio of the Street, Charta, 2007.
- Fretz, Eric. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography. Greenwood Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-313-38056-3
- Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (2nd ed.), Penguin Books, 2004.
- Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Abrams / Whitney
Museum of American Art. Hardcover 1992, paperback 1995. (Catalog for
1992 Whitney retrospective, out of print).
- Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat: In World Only. Cheim & Read, 2005.
- Marenzi, Luca. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Charta, 1999.
- Mayer, Marc, Hoffman Fred, et al. Basquiat, Merrell Publishers / Brooklyn Museum, 2005.
- McCluskey, Danny. "Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art Capitalism Mascot or Radiant Child? Cameron, 2009.
- Tate, Greg. Flyboy in the Buttermilk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. ISBN 978-0-671-72965-3
- Thompson, Margot. American Graffiti, Parkstone Press, 2009 ISBN 978-1-84484-561-3