December 22, 1960- Jean-Michel Basquiat
Gay History, Art History, NYC in the 1970s & 1980s, all my interests intersect when considering the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
He was born in the middle-class neighborhood Park Slope in Brooklyn. His Haitian father was an accountant & a womanizer, his mother was Puerto Rican, & she spoke French, Spanish & English. She took took young Basquiat to theater & museums in Manhattan. He began to draw when he was 4 years old, around the time that he was hit by an automobile. His mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy while he was in the hospital. He would later make references to the accident & to that book in his paintings.
His father was physically abusive & once stabbed Basquiat after he was caught having sex with a male cousin. In school, he drew constantly. He was noted as being talented & angry as a kid.
When he was 15 years old, he ran away from home & lived for a while in Washington Square Park where he found company & drugs. To support himself, he sold painted Tshirts & painted postcards on the sidewalk where he made friends with fellow struggling young artists Keith Haring & Kenny Scharf. The trio became part of the East Village graffiti scene in the late 1970s. Basquiat’s graffiti was especially witty & poetic. He used the tag Samo & decorated his work with the copyright logo. Artists loved Samo & Basquiat became an underground celebrity.
He was charming, intelligent, droll & full of energy. His drugs of choice, heroin & cocaine made him both euphoric & paranoid.
Basquiat’s big break was a show in 1981. He presented 15 pieces on lumber & foam rubber found in the rubbish, filled with childlike drawings of cars & cartoon characters. All the works sold immediately. A demand for original Basquiats was strong & they sold as fast as he could paint them, going for $5,000 – $10,000. Basquiat lived & worked in his studio where he walked all over the pieces, ate on them, did cocaine off of them, scribbled phone numbers on them, made lists on them.
In March 1982, Basquiat had another sold-out show that garnered good reviews & the attention of the press. His output was phenomenal, fueled by drugs. He would do a painting a day, but he was given to rages about the pressure to paint. He would sometimes slash the pieces with a razor.
In November 1982, he had a show of portraits of his heroes: Charlie Parker, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, at Manhattan’s Fun Gallery. He sold everything from this show also, but Basquiat secretly hid some of his best work so it could not be sold. These canvases were found in a warehouse in Washington Heights years after his passing. They were worth millions.
Andy Warhol was impressed by Basquiat’s energy, youth & talent. Basquiat idolized Warhol, who seemed to embody contemporary culture. He desperately wanted Warhol’s approval. The 2 artists became inseparable, working & partying together. Warhol hated drugs, & he was appalled, yet intoxicated, by Basquiat’s excesses.
Warhol & Basquiat had a joint show in September 1985. It was a major media event, followed by a crazy, celebrity filled party at Palladium. But, the show received bad reviews. ArtForum said:
”The real question is, who is using whom here?”
Warhol could not deal with Basquiat’s drug taking & pulled back from their friendship.
NYC’s 1980’s art scene was filled with imagination & intelligence, but it was also bastardized by the Reagan era of greed & the cult of celebrity. Basquiat claimed that all he wanted was to be famous, but his dream of fame turned out to be a nightmare & his life began to unravel.
In 1985, he appeared on the cover of The NY Times Magazine. After Warhol left this world in 1987, Basquiat became increasingly isolated, & his heroin addiction & depression became more of a problem. He made an attempt at sobriety on a retreat to Maui. Basquiat left this world in the summer of 1988, taken by a heroin overdose in his art studio on Great Jones Street in NYC’s NoHo neighborhood. He was just 27 years old.
Among those speaking at Basquiat’s memorial service, attended by over 300 people from the art & music world, were the late, great Ingrid Sischy. Fab 5 Freddy read a poem by Langston Hughes. In his memory, Haring created Pile Of Crowns For Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Basquiat’s unique visual vocabulary, filled with graffiti symbols & urban rage challenged accepted notions of popular art. His vivid paintings incorporated such diverse images as African masks, quotes from Leonardo di Vinci, Egyptian murals, pop culture, & jazz. The critics called his work childlike & menacing & neo-primitive.
“Basquiat’s stuff I saw on the walls was more poetry than graffiti. They were sort of philosophical poems. On the surface they seemed really simple, but the minute I saw them I knew that they were more than that. From the beginning he was my favorite artist.”
Several major museum retrospective exhibitions of Basquiat’s works have been held since his passing. The first was at the Whitney Museum in 1993. The show then traveled to museums in Texas, Iowa, & Alabama. Another major & influential exhibition was at the Brooklyn Museum in 2005.
In this decade, Basquait’s paintings have never been hotter. Last summer, Dustheads, a large painting of a black fisherman, sold at Christie’s Auction House in NYC for 49 million dollars. When Basquiat’s father died in 2013, hundreds of his son’s paintings were found at his home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.
If you are interested in Basquait, & you should be, check out the film Basquait (1996), directed by artist Julian Schnabel, with Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat & David Bowie as Warhol, or the documentary, Jean-Michel Basquait: The Radiant Child, directed by Tamra Davis, available on PBS On Demand.
My friend, the theatre designer William Fregosi, based the design of his stage set for the Suzan-Lori Parks play, Imperceptible Mutabilities In The Third Kingdom, on Basquiat’s work. Fregosi:
“The playwright & the painter seemed to me to be completely complementary: she a dazzling writer whose work is filled with vibrant visual imagery; he a painter of brilliant, hard-hitting images whose work is full of text. It was one of my happiest production experiences.”