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Jean-Michel Basquiat

A master graffiti artist and painter during the 1980s, Jean Michel Basquiat was one of the pioneers of contemporary art.  The question of black identity, the streets of New York, death and violence were the themes that influenced his often child-like although terribly serious work.  A member of the neo-expressionist movement, he helped to give art a new sense of freedom.

Biography

Basquiat, New York street artist

Jean Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn on the 22nd December 1960 of a Puerto-Rican mother and Haitian father. He showed artistic ability very early on and was encouraged by his mother, who regularly took him to visit the New York museums. He was 7 years old when she gave him the famous Gray’s Anatomy, a book which inspired Basquiat and had a considerable influence on his work.

In 1976, the young artist and his friend Al Diaz began to spray-paint the slums of Manhattan and around the art galleries.  Their graffiti had a certain poetry and was mixed with strange symbols; Basquait added the signature SAMO (“Same old shit”) from 1977.  The following year he left the family home and school to live with friends, selling T-shirts and postcards to survive.  He continued to paint graffiti and gradually became known in artistic circles, especially due to his participation in the Time Square Show, an artists’ exhibition, in 1980.

From graffiti to neo-expressionism

From 1980, Basquiat left the walls of New York behind him to express his talent on canvas. He took his inspiration from the street and from his passion for painting pictures whose central theme was death, an obsession for the artist (Dusthead, 1982). From 1980 to 1982 he completed numerous paintings representing skeletal silhouettes as well as faces that looked more like masks, showing a certain influence of African art. Following on from the underground movement, Basquiat broke with artistic constraints: “I don’t listen to art critics.  I don’t know anyone who needs a critic to understand what art is”. Basquiat’s work remained imbued with graffiti right from the very beginning, combining vivid colours and themed texts.  From 1982, he joined the future Neo-expressionist movement.
Basquiat met Andy Warhol in 1983: it was the beginning of an association based on friendship and work.  Together they worked on a long series of original paintings that received great acclaim: Monster Meat (1984-1985), Eggs (1985), Zenith (1985).

Basquiat, a rebellious, tormented genius

Basquiat has always claimed to belong to black cultureFrom 1982 to 1985, he painted symbolic historical or contemporary black figures and the events that linked them (Slave auction, 1982). Certain works clearly contained political denunciations, thus emphasising the outrage of an artist keen to assert his Creole origins.  His paintings were presented on multiple panels and used a great deal of superimposition of various elements from writing to collage: “I don’t think about art when I am working.  I try to think about life.”
Basquiat’s dependence on heroin began to have an obvious influence on his work from 1986. He entered a new artistic phase that contrasted with his other works: his painting became more figurative and he used techniques, styles and components that had never been used before (Because it Hurts the Lungs, 1986). Some would go as far as to say that his last works were as if “possessed”.
In 1987, the death of Andy Warhol destroyed Basquiat and he increasingly sought refuge in drugs.  He died of an overdose on the 12th August 1988: at the age of only 27, two European museums had already dedicated a retrospective exhibition to him. 

Useful links

Brooklyn Museum: Street to Studio, the Art of Jean Michel Basquiat

Basquiat (1996), film by Julian Schnabel that retraces the life of the artist. 

Identity

Nationality(ies) : American
Born on : 22/12/1960
Died on : 12/08/1988
Profile : Designer, Painter
Artistic current(s) : Neo-Expressionism
Theme(s) covered : Portraits - Characters, Urban

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