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A high school dropout, a panhandler, not a real person, but a legend. From sleeping on park benches, to becoming a featured artist of renowned art galleries, Jean Michel Basquiat managed to achieve more in his short, 8-year long career, than most artists do in a lifetime. His artwork explores themes of race, social injustice, and commercialism. Despite leading a life full of tragic events, Jean Michel Basquiat left a permanent mark on the contemporary art world with his unmistakable style.
Remarkably fluent in English, Spanish and French, Jean Michel Basquiat was a bright and gifted child. Born in 1960, he was the son of an immigrant Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. He was introduced to art and museums at an early age by his mother. At the age of 4, he was enrolled in a youth art program where he was recognized by art instructors as being a gifted student. Unfortunately, tragedy struck at the age of 8, when he was hit by a car and was forced to spend much of his time recovering in the hospital. That same year, his parents separated and it was decided that his father, Gerard, would raise all of the children. After moving from the United States and spending a few years living in Puerto Rico with family, Basquiat returned to New York, where he then had to witness his mother’s struggle with mental health issues and frequent stints in and out of mental institutions. To make matters more problematic, his disobedient behavior and need for self-expression could no longer be contained by his father. After dropping out of high school in June of 1978, Basquiat leaves his home for good, with the intention of becoming famous.
Now homeless, Jean Michel Basquiat took to the New York party scene and forged relationships with graffiti artists and those with a strong interest in music. In 1977, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz, created a character named SAMO, which is short for ‘Same Old Shit’, who made a living selling fake religion. Between 1977 and 1980, the duo use SAMO as their graffiti tag name and it begins appearing across the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the very popular, street art movement. The tag was frequently associated with humorous, satirical, and thought-provoking content. After a falling out with friend, Al Diaz, Basquiat put an end to the project with a simple message indicating that the character was dead. Still living on the streets of New York, he earned money by selling merchandise with his scribbled artwork on it, selling drugs and panhandling. Whether it was on a t-shirt or postcard, his artwork displayed a combination of graffiti art and abstract expressionism.
Being a young black man with a multicultural background placed him in a vulnerable state, in terms of being subject to discrimination and being an artist in a whitewashed art scene. These struggles eventually became themes that were portrayed in his paintings. As a graffiti artist, issues related to poverty and social status, were the main focuses of his work. Racial divide influenced several of Basquiat’s paintings such as, The Death of Michael Stewart, informally known as Defacement, which depicts two terrorizing police officers raising their batons over a smaller, isolated black figure. It was created following the death of 25 year old artist, Michael Stewart, who was racially profiled and brutally beaten by police. He later died as a result of his injuries.
As he continued to create, he eventually became a well-regarded artist and participated in his first group art exhibition, known as The Times Square Show. Several other solo shows followed, including international ones. His artwork continued to explore themes of mortality, religion and most commonly, the idea of finding one’s self, and defining individual values while breaking social conventions. Much of his artwork is abstract and contains line work, spattered words, bold paint blocks, and vibrant colors. Every object is distorted and display raw, primitive emotion. Untitled (Head) by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1981), is one of several self-portraits. The neo-expressionistic imagery depicts a skull with lifeless eyes and a deteriorating face. The teeth are dingy and yellow, and are clenched so hard that cracks appear possibly out of fear and anxiety of contemplative thoughts. The area where the brain would be located is dark, but there are layers of color and shapes that indicate there is still an active mind despite the emotionless outer appearance.
In the mid-1980s, he became so well known that he began collaborating with Andy Warhol and formed a close friendship. By this time, his artwork was selling rapidly and at high value. Basquiat could be seen in paint-splattered Armani suits and drinking wine with his newly found circle of famous comrades. During this era, he became more and more addicted to heroin and cocaine, and only worsened following the sudden death of Andy Warhol. Basquiat began secluding himself from society and he eventually passed away from a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27.
Basquiat’s work has since been sought out and purchased by private collectors at astonishing prices. Other artwork has been exhibited in museums all over the world. The intensity of his artwork and thought provoking messages continue to inspire contemporary artists.
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