Life Story – Jean-Michel Basquiat

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“I had some money, I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Controversial, but also remarkably talented American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, December 22, 1960. He achieved fame as part of SAMO ( an informal graffiti duo who wrote enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 1970s where the hip hop, punk, and street art cultures had coalesced ).

By the 1980s, he started exhibiting his neo-expressionist paintings in galleries and museums worldwide. Neo-expressionism developed as a reaction against conceptual art and minimal art of the 1970s. Neo-expressionists returned to portraying recognizable objects, such as the human body (although sometimes in an abstract manner).

 Neo-expressionism developed as a reaction against conceptual art and minimal art of the 1970s. Neo-expressionists returned to portraying recognizable objects, such as the human body (although sometimes in an abstract manner).

Basquiat was the second of four children of Matilde Andrades and Gérard Basquiat. He had two younger sisters: Lisane, born in 1964, and Jeanine, born in 1967. He was born shortly after the death of his elder brother, Max. His father, Gérard Basquiat, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother, Matilde Basquiat, who was of Puerto Rican descent, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Matilde instilled a love for art in her young son by taking him to art museums in Manhattan and enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  In September 1968, at the age of seven, he was hit by a car while playing in the street. His arm was broken and he suffered several internal injuries, and he eventually underwent a splenectomy. While he was recuperating from his injuries, his mother brought him the Gray’s Anatomy book to keep him occupied. This book would prove to be influential in his future artistic outlook. When he was 13, his mother was committed to a mental institution and thereafter spent time in and out of institutions.


In 1976, Basquiat and friend Al Diaz began spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan, working under the pseudonym SAMO.  In 1978, he worked for the Unique Clothing Warehouse in their art department at 718 Broadway in NoHo and at night he began “SAMO” painting his original graffiti[18] art on neighborhood buildings. Unique’s founder Harvey Russack discovered Basquiat painting a building one night, they became friends, and he offered him a day job.


Basquiat‘s focus was on  “suggestive dichotomies”, such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He also used social commentary in his paintings as a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual”, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism, while his poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.

His first solo show was in Modena, Italy on May 23, 1981. Emilio Mazzoli the Italian gallerist saw the exhibition in The Times Square Show and invited Basquiat to Modena (Italy) to have his world first solo show. In March 1982 he worked in Modena, Italy, again to work on his second Italian exhibition and from November, Basquiat worked from the ground-floor display and studio space Larry Gagosian had built below his Venice, California, home and commenced a series of paintings for a 1983 show, his second at Gagosian Gallery, then in West Hollywood. He brought along his girlfriend, then-unknown aspiring singer Madonna.

In his short life, Basquiat produced around 1500 drawings, as well as around 600 paintings and many other sculpture and mixed media works. Basquiat drew constantly, and often used objects around him as surfaces when paper wasn’t immediately to hand.

Heads are seen as a major focal point of some of Basquiat’s most seminal works. Two pieces, “Untitled (Scull/Skull) (shown below)” 1981 and “Untitled (Head)” 1982, held by the Broad Foundation and Maezawa Foundation respectively can be seen as primary examples. In reference to the potent image depicted in both pieces, Fred Hoffman writes that Basquiat was likely, “caught off guard, possibly even frightened, by the power and energy emanating from this unexpected image.”


“Untitled (Scull/Skull)”

Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at his art studio in New York at the age of 27.