In 1985, Jean Michel Basquiat appeared on the cover of New York Times Magazine, titled New Art, New Money, dressed in a three-piece Giorgio Armani suit on a chair bare foot with his paintings in the background. Three years later, months before his 28th birthday, Basquiat was found dead due to a heroin overdose, leaving behind over 1000 paintings and 3000 drawings. Such was the turbulent life of Brooklyn-born Jean Michel Basquiat, who remains a constant beguilement to those who read about him. 30 years since his death, the world remains transfixed by his career and those who write about him often romanticise the story of a young black man who burst onto the white, elitist New York art scene.
Basquiats life paralleled between two worlds. He appeared in Blondie,s music video ‘Rapture’, dated Madonna and was close friends with Andy Warhol. He played the lead role in the film New York Beat Movie (renamed Downtown 81 and starred in the documentary Radiant Child by film maker Tamra Davis). Art critic Robert Hughes once likened him to the ‘Eddie Murphy of the art world’. His life is often overshadowed with remarks about his celebrity identity, that so many overlook the cultural significance of his work and his existence as a young black artist in the ’80s.
After leaving home at the age of 17, Basquiat made his way to downtown to a pre-gentrified gritty New York that was falling apart at the seams. Riddled with poverty, crime and on the verge of bankruptcy, it was a haven for richly outspoken creative individuals, sparkling with talent – artists, musicians and photographers. The run-down streets of New York were a sanctuary with cheap rent that attracted some of the finest names that continue to inspire today. None more so than Jean Michel Basquiat.
The first public viewing of Basquiat’s work as an independent artist came in 1981 at the MoMA PS1 at the triumphant New York/New Wave exhibition in Long Island by curator Diego Cortez. Out of 119 artists, musicians, writers, performers and filmmakers, including Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, Basquiat was the only artist to be given an entire wall for his drawings. After the show he gained his first art dealer, Annina Nosei, who gave him a space and supplied material to work under her gallery. In 1982, he opened six solo shows worldwide and was the youngest artist to exhibit work at the Documenta 7 In Kassel, Germany. Subsequently, his work was also displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial.
Underneath the mythologized facade of a young black man who commanded the attention of the white art world, Basquiat, the son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, figuratively elucidated the bleak realities of racism, poverty, mortality, capitalism and class divides. Basquiat once said, ‘The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them’. His paintings were abstract and gestural, the visual language in his work often likened to Cy Twombly. He painted black heroes with a reappearing motif, the crown, on significant figures missing from mainstream media – ‘kings, heroes, and the street,’ were the three reoccurring themes. Breaking into the predominately white, art world, was arguably the greatest feat of the prodigious artist who used his art as his means of social commentary to shine light onto injustice. His messages became widespread and challenged the hierarchy of power and corruption. One of his lesser-known, yet significant pieces came after the death of Michael Stewart, a young black graffiti artist who was beaten unconscious by the police and died after 13 days in a coma at the age of 25. ‘Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)’ 1983 was painted as a tribute to Michael whose death, as a young black artist himself, had triggered him.
Like many young artists at the time, Basquiat idolised Andy Warhol. A hero in his eyes, their collaborative relationship began before Basquiat had started commanding attention as a prolific artist. Basquiat plucked up the courage to sell Warhol a postcard after spotting him in a restaurant he was dining in. The pair struck an unlikely friendship which would lead them to work on several collaborations including Ten Punching Bags, Olympic Rings and Untitled 1984-85. In spite of that, their contemporaries were cynical of the duo’s relationship. Some perceived Basquiat as a social climber, while others labelled Warhol, whose popularity had wavered at the time, an opportunist, who was using Basquiat to remain relevant. After a string of successful collaborations, Tony Shafrazi staged a show at his gallery, which despite the buzz, received negative reviews by many critics, with some claiming that Basquiat was Warhol?s mascot. After the exhibition, Basquiat severed all ties with Warhol, leaving New York still furious at the aftermath of recent events. In 1987, Warhol passed away due to a surgical complication. Basquiat became inconsolable, the death of a dear friend who he often viewed as a father figure pushed him back into drugs that he had once tried to give up. Subsequently his heavy drug use and his mental state caused him to die of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.
Perhaps a testament to his endearing legacy, that today Basquiat’s paintings are the most collected amongst actors, musicians and entrepreneurs. Debbie Harry was the first person ever to pay for a Basquiat artwork, which he sold for $200. In 2017, Sotheby’s sold Untitled 1982, for $110.5 million, making it the most expensive piece of artwork sold by an American artist, beating out none other than Andy Warhol.
Swiss Beatz, Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp are just some of the recognisable names who own a Basquiat.? It is no surprise as one of the few black artists to break into the international scene, that he continues to inspire a generation of black creatives, some who mention him in their work. His name is frequently name-checked in lyrics, including A$AP Rocky ‘Painting vivid pictures, call me Basquiat Picasso’, Lil Wayne ‘Red on the wall, Basquiat when I paint’ and Wiz Khalifa ‘Please appreciate this art and this Basquiat that I’m painting’. Brands today continue to infuse his work with their own creative visions. COMME des GARÇONS, OFF-WHITE, Supreme and Uniqlo are just a few who have celebrated his legacy through their vision.