A prodigious, prolific and revolutionary artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat is celebrated as one of the defining and most influential American artists of the post-war era. Capturing the zeitgeist of downtown Manhattan in the 1980s, his raw, radical paintings saw him rocket to meteoric fame and acclaim in just a few years. With a life cut tragically short due to a drug overdose, Basquiat and his art achieved a legendary status in a small number of years.
Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to middle class Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, the plurilingual Basquiat had a prodigious artistic talent from an early age, learning to paint and draw with his mother’s encouragement. Attending, often sporadically, an alternative Manhattan high school, he began spending time around the School of Visual Arts, where he met Keith Haring. He first achieved notoriety as a graffiti artist in the late 1970s. Working with his friend Al Diaz under the acronym SAMO, the pair tagged mysterious, subversive epigrams across Lower Manhattan.
After SAMO disbanded in 1979, Basquiat turned his focus to painting, which displayed a unique combination of Abstract Expressionism and Graffiti Art. Influenced by artists from Da Vinci to Picasso, Twombly, and Rauschenberg, his work distilled aspects of contemporary culture, featuring athletes, Jazz musicians, figures from black culture and cartoons, as well as consumer items, such as Pez sweets. Bringing together a never before seen combination of traditions, practices, and styles, his painting often incorporated letters, symbols, logos, numerals, or diagrams, portraying a personal and immediately identifiable iconography. His Neo-Expressionist, almost auto-biographical work offered a much-desired relief from the reigning minimalist aesthetic of the late 1960s and 70s.
In the early 1980s, Basquiat befriended Andy Warhol, and the two artists collaborated on a number of works. Basquiat’s major break came in June 1980 when he was included in ‘The Times Square Show,’ a group exhibition that featured the work of Kenny Scharf, Nan Goldin, Jenny Holzer, and Keith Haring.
1982 was a pivotal year in Basquiat’s short life. The year before, he had joined the Annina Nosei gallery in SoHo, which was the site of his first solo exhibition the following year. With increasing critical interest and acclaim – he was featured in an article in Artforum that year, and exhibited at Documenta VIII in Kassel – he began to attract the attention of collectors and dealers alike, living and working for a time in a studio below Larry Gagosian’s home in Los Angeles.
In 1983, aged just 22, Basquiat was included in the Whitney Biennial; the youngest artist ever to have represented America in a major international exhibition of contemporary art. The first retrospective to be held of his work was the posthumous exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992. Basquiat’s prolific and groundbreaking oeuvre can be found in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Broad, Los Angeles; Pompidou Center, Paris, among others.
Jean Michel Basquiat died on August 12, 1988 in New York City.