December 22, 1960– Jean-Michel Basquiat
Gay History, Art History, NYC in the 1970s and 1980s, all my passionate interests intersect when considering the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
He was born in the middle-class neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn. His Haitian father was an accountant and a ladies’ man, his mother was Puerto Rican, and she spoke French, Spanish and English. She took young Basquiat to theater and museums in Manhattan. He began to draw when he was four years old, around the time that he was hit by an automobile. His mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy (the 19th century anatomy text, not Shondaland) while he was in the hospital. He would later make references to the accident and to that book in his paintings.
His father was physically abusive and he once stabbed Basquiat after he was caught having sex with a male cousin. In school, he drew constantly. He was noted as being a talented, angry kid.
When he was 15-years-old, he ran away from home and lived for a while in Washington Square Park where he found friendship and drugs. To support himself, he sold painted t-shirts and postcards on the sidewalk where he was introduced to fellow struggling young artists Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, who became his friends. Their little trio became part of the East Village graffiti scene in the late 1970s. Basquiat’s graffiti was especially witty and poetic. He used the tag “Samo” and he decorated his work with the copyright logo. Artists loved Samo and Basquiat became an underground celebrity.
He was beautiful, charming, intelligent, droll and full of energy. His drugs of choice, heroin and cocaine, made him both euphoric and paranoid.
Basquiat’s big break came with a gallery show in 1981. He presented 15 pieces on lumber and foam rubber found in the rubbish. The pieces were filled with childlike drawings of cars and cartoon characters. All of the work sold at the opening. A demand for original Basquiats only grew stronger and they sold as fast as he could paint them, going for $5,000 – $10,000.
Basquiat lived and worked in his studio where he walked all over his artwork, 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 and lots of attention from the press. His output was phenomenal, and was 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 he left for the great studio in the beyond. They were worth millions.
Andy Warhol was impressed by Basquiat’s energy, youth and talent. Basquiat idolized Warhol, who was the embodiment of contemporary culture. He desperately wanted Warhol’s approval. The two artists became inseparable, working and partying together. Warhol hated drugs; he was appalled, yet intoxicated, by Basquiat’s excesses.
Warhol and 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 wrote:
“The real question is, who is using whom here?”
Eventually, Warhol could not deal with Basquiat’s drug taking and pulled back from their friendship.
NYC’s 1980’s art scene was filled with imagination and intelligence, but it was also eaten up by the Reagan era of greed and 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 and his life began to unravel.
In 1985, he appeared on the cover of NY Times Magazine. After Warhol left this world in 1987, Basquiat became increasingly isolated, and his heroin addiction and depression became more of a problem. He made an attempt at sobriety on a retreat to Maui in 1988, but just weeks later Basquiat died, taken by a heroin overdose in his 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 and music world, was 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 and 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 icons, and jazz. The critics called his work childlike and menacing and 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 Basquia’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, and Alabama. Another major, influential exhibition was at the Brooklyn Museum in 2005.
In this decade, Basquait’s paintings have never been hotter. In 2015, Dustheads, a large painting of a black fisherman, sold at Christie’s 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.
As reported by World of Wonder’s own James St. James, in May, a Basquiat painting of a skull brought $110.5 million at auction at Sotheby’s, becoming the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction. Only 10 other works have gone for over $100 million. It was purchased by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder of Japan’s large online fashion mall, Zozotown, who chose Instagram to announce that the painting was now his. The painting, titled Untitled, broke all records for a work by any American artist. Previously holding the record for the highest-selling painting by an American artist was Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which sold for $104.5 million.
If you are interested in Basquait, and you really should be, check out the film Basquait (1996), directed by artist Julian Schnabel, with wonderful Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat and David Bowie as Warhol. Or try the documentary, Jean-Michel Basquait: The Radiant Child, directed by Tamra Davis, available on PBS On Demand.
My friend, famed theatre designer William Fregosi, based the design of his stage set for the Suzan-Lori Parks play, Imperceptible Mutabilities In TheThird Kingdom, on Basquiat’s work. Fregosi:
“The playwright and 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.”