“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat
How could a twenty-one year old black Brooklynite manipulate oil and spray paint into the strokes of genius that would create the world’s current highest grossing painting at auction at $110,000,000 USD? Far from an Old Master, Jean-Michel Basquiat is America’s most charismatic painter and up until the present day it’s highest sold.
Born in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat spent his childhood making art and mischief in Boerum Hill. While he never attended art school, he learned by wandering the halls of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum as well as galleries. He drew inspiration from unexpected places like the jazz music his father used to listen to at home. He would scribble his own versions of comic books, cartoons and biblical scenes on scrap paper from his father’s office. But it was a medical encyclopedia that arguably exerted the most powerful influence on Basquiat.
When young Jean-Michel was hit by a car his mother brought a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to his hospital bed. It ignited a lifelong fascination with anatomy that manifested in the skulls, sinew and guts of his later work. Which frequently explores both the power and vulnerability or marginalized bodies. By seventeen, he launched his first foray into the art world with his friend Al Diaz. They spray painted cryptic statements and symbols all over lower Manhattan, signing with the mysterious moniker : SAMO. These humorous, profound, and rebellious declarations were strategically scattered throughout Soho’s art scene and after revealing himself as the artist, Basquiat leveraged SAMO’s success to enter the scene himself : selling postcards, playing clubs with his avant-garde band, and boldly seeking out his heroes. By twenty-one, he turned to painting full time and was determined to make it in the art world by any means necessary.
His process was a sort of calculated improvisation, like beat writers who composed their work by shredding and reassembling scraps of writing. Basquiat used similar cut up techniques to remix his materials. When he couldn’t afford canvasses, he fashioned them out of discarded wood that he found on the street. He used oil stick, crayons, spray paint, and pencil and pulled quotes from the menus, comic books and textbooks he kept open on the studio floor. He kept these sources open on his studio floor often working on multiple projects at once, pulling in splintered anatomy, reimagined historical scenes, and skulls transplanted from classical still lifes Basquiat repurposed both present day experiences and art history into an inventive visual language.
He worked as if inserting himself into the legacy of artists he borrowed from : Cy Twombly (Apollo and the Artist, 1975), Pablo Picasso (Three Musicians, 1921), Leonardo Da Vinci (Proporzioni del Corpo umano secondo Vitruvio, 1490) producing collages (Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 / Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982) that were just as much in conversation with art history as they were with each other. For instance, Toussant L’Ouverture Versus Savanarola, 1983 and Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983 offer two distinct visions of Basquiat’s historical and contemporary concerns. But they echo each other in the details, such as the reappearing head that also resurfaces in PPCD, 1982. All these pieces form a network that offers physical evidence of Basquiat’s restless and prolific mind.
These chaotic canvasses won rapid acclaim and attention but despite his increasingly mainstream audience, Basquiat insisted on depicting challenging themes of identity and oppression. Marginalized figures take center stage such as prisoners, cooks, and janitors. His obsession with bodies, history and representation can be found in works like Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, 1982, Untitled (Maid from Olympia), 1982, Untitled (Black Tar and Feathers), 1982 evoking the Atlantic slave trade and African history as well as pieces like Hollywood Africans, 1983, Per Capita, 1981, Irony of the Negro Policeman, 1981 focusing on contemporary race relations.
In less than a decade, Basquiat made thousands of paintings and drawings along with sculpture, fragments of poetry, and music. His output accelerated alongside his meteoric rise to fame but his life and work were cut tragically short when he died from a drug overdose at the age of twenty seven. After his death, Basquiat’s work only increased in value but the energy and flair of his pieces have impacted much more than their financial worth. Today, his influence swirls around us in music, poetry, fashion, and film. His art retains the power to shock, inspire, and get under our skin.