Jean-Michel Basquiat first attracted attention for his graffiti under the name "SAMO" in New York City. He sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets before his painting career took off. He collaborated with Andy Warhol in the mid-1980s, which resulted in a show of their work.


1960-1988. NEW YORK CITY. USA.



Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960. His mother, Matilde Andradas was born in Brooklyn. His father, Gerard Basquiat, was an immigrant from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As a result of this mixed heritage the young Jean-Michel was fluent in both French and Spanish as well as English. His early readings of French symbolist poetry in their original language would later be an influence on the artworks that he made as an adult. Basquiat displayed a talent for art in early childhood, learning to draw and paint with his mother's encouragement and often using supplies (such as paper) brought home from his father's job as an accountant. Together Basquiat and his mother attended many museum exhibitions in New York, and by the age of six Jean-Michel was enrolled as a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum.

After being hit by a car whilst playing in the street at age 8, Basquiat underwent surgery for the removal of his spleen. This event led to his reading the famous medical and artistic treatise, Gray's Anatomy (originally published in 1858), which was given to him by his mother whilst he recovered. The sinewy bio-mechanical images of this text, along with the comic book art and cartoons that the young Basquiat enjoyed, would one day come to inform the graffiti-inscribed canvases he became known for.

Basquiat's art was fundamentally rooted in the New York City graffiti scene of the 1970s. After becoming involved in an Upper West Side drama group called Family Life Theater he developed the character SAMO (an acronym for "Same Old Shit"), a man who tried to sell a fake religion to audiences. In 1976, he and an artist friend, Al Diaz, started spray-painting buildings in Lower Manhattan under this nom de plume. The SAMO pieces were largely text based, and communicated an anti-establishment, anti-religion, and anti-politics message. The text of these messages were accompanied by logos and imagery that would later feature in Basquiat's solo work, particularly the three-pointed crown.

The SAMO pieces soon received media attention from the counterculture press, most notably the Village Voice, a publication that documented art, culture, and music that saw itself as distinct from the mainstream. When Basquiat and Diaz had a disagreement and decided to stop working together, Basquiat ended the project with the terse message: SAMO IS DEAD. This message appeared on the facade of several SoHo art galleries and downtown buildings during 1980. After taking note of the declaration, Street Artist contemporary and friend of Basquiat Keith Haring staged a mock wake for SAMO at Club 57, an underground nightclub in the East Village.

During this period Basquiat was frequently homeless and forced to sleep at friend's apartments or on park benches, supporting himself by panhandling, dealing drugs, and peddling hand-painted postcards and T-shirts. He frequented downtown clubs however, particularly the Mudd Club and Club 57, where he was known as part of the "baby crowd" of younger attendees (this group also included actor Vincent Gallo). Both clubs were popular hangouts for a new generation of visual artists and musicians, including Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, movie director Jim Jarmusch and Ann Magnusson, all of whom became friends and occasional collaborators with Basquiat

Due in part to his immersion in this downtown scene, Basquiat began to gain more opportunities to show his art, and became a key figure in the new downtown artistic movement. He, for example, appeared as a nightclub DJ in Blondie's music video Rapture, cementing his cache as a figure within the "new wave" of cool music, art, and film emerging from the Lower East Side. During this time he also formed and performed with his band Gray. Basquiat was critical of the lack of people of color in the downtown scene, however, and in the late 1970s he also began spending time uptown with graffiti artists in the Bronx and Harlem.

After his work was included in the historic Times Square Show of June 1980, Basquiat's profile rose higher, and he had his first solo exhibition in 1982 at the Annina Nosei Gallery in SoHo. Rene Ricard's Artforum article, "The Radiant Child", of December 1981, solidified Basquiat's position as a rising star in the wider art world, as well as the conjunction between the uptown graffiti and downtown punk scenes his work represented. Basquiat's rise to wider recognition coincided with the arrival in New York of the German Neo-Expressionist movement, which provided a congenial forum for his own street-smart, curbside expressionism.

Basquiat began exhibiting regularly alongside artists like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, all of whom were reacting, to one degree or another, against the recent art-historical dominance of Conceptualism and Minimalism. Neo-Expressionism marked the return of painting and the re-emergence of the human figure in contemporary art making. Images of the African Diaspora and classic Americana punctuated Basquiat's work at this time, some of which was featured at the prestigious Mary Boone Gallery in solo shows in the mid 1980s (Basquiat was later represented by art dealer and gallerist Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles).

1982 was a significant year for Basquait. He opened six solo shows in cities across the world, and became the youngest artist ever to be included in Documenta, the prestigious international contemporary art extravaganza held every five years in Kassel, Germany. During this time, Basquiat created some 200 art works and developed a signature motif: a heroic, crowned black oracle figure. The legendary jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie and boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali were among Basquiat's inspiration for his work during this period. Sketchy and often abstract, the portraits captured the essence rather than the physical likeness of their subjects. The ferocity of Basquiat's technique, with slashes of paint and dynamic dashes of line, was intended to reveal what he saw as his subjects' inner self, their hidden feelings, and their deepest desires.

By the early 1980s, Basquiat had befriended Pop artist Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated on a series of works from 1984 to 1986, such as Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) (1985-86). Warhol would often paint first, then Basquiat would layer over his work. In 1985, a New York Times Magazine feature article declared Basquiat the hot young American artist of the 1980s. This relationship became the subject of friction between Basquiat and many of his downtown contemporaries, as it appeared to mark a new interest in the commercial dimension of the art market. Warhol was also criticized for potential exploitation of a young and fashionable artist of colour to boost his own credentials as current and relevant to the newly significant East Village scene. Broadly speaking, these collaborations were not well received by either audiences or critics, and are now often viewed as lesser works of both artists.

Perhaps as a result of the new-found fame and commercial pressure put upon his work, Basquiat was by this point of his life becoming increasingly addicted to both heroin and cocaine. Several friends linked this dependency to the stress of maintaining his career and the pressures of being a person of colour in a predominantly white art world. Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in his apartment in 1988 at the age of 27.



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