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Throughout the 1980s there was one particular artist that had the gift of translation. He was able to take art from the street and translate it into beautiful pieces in which could be understood in galleries. This artist was Jean-Michel Basquiat. He is most known for his rough around the edges, graphic style. This style addressed issues such as race, culture, and heritage in a provocative and loud way. His notorious street art became an icon and brought light to the Neo-expressionism era as well as empowering art as a whole. Paintings such as Untitled Skull were a huge part of this movement in this era of art.
Jean Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York, to a Haitian father, named Gerard Basquiat, and a Puerto Rican mother, named Matilde Andrade’s. He was the oldest of the three children. Leanne and Jeanine were his sisters. He learned to read and write by the age of four, and could do it in English, French, and Spanish by eleven. His artistic abilities were recognized at an early age by his mother and teachers. With their recognition came support and encouragement. As a young boy Basquiat’s mother would take him to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where he was enrolled as a junior member. This experience at the art museum was what exposed him to different artistic, pieces and types of paintings.
Jean Michel was hit by a car when he was eight years old. This accident brought a lot of internal injuries, causing him to stay at the hospital for an entire month. During this time, his mother bought him the book Gray’s Anatomy, an English human anatomy textbook, to keep him occupied during this time. Shortly after his recovery from the car accident, his parents separated. His mother was sent in and out of mental intuitions. Due to her instability, his father raised him and his siblings. Basquiat dropped out of high school at the age of 17 and left home. He lived in the streets with friends and fellow artists. He attracted attention in the late 1970 under the name ‘SAMO.’ He tagged subway train and Manhattan trains with cryptic aphorisms with the help of close friends. To make ends meet he also sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork. Basquiat’s career spanned barely a decade and culminated with his untimely death at the age of 27.
Jean Michel Basquiat never hid his background from the public, he didn’t exhibit shame or even the need to reverse negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Basquiat publicized most details of his life in the paintings. He didn’t feel welcome in the upper-class black art communities, this explains why he didn’t involve himself in black political arena. In as much as he didn’t become involved in politics directly concerning African Americans, he criticized and made statements in his works that condemned the mistreatment of his race and others.
He repeated themes in his paintings, portraying his ideas innovatively and intellectually. At a first glance his works seem to have a primitive style, but the symbolism used and his chaotic, discordant technique merely enhances the impact of the message he tries to send. His use of words, phrases, arrows, symbols and scribbles are the reason for much of this discord; but perhaps he felt as if his message would not be heard unless he made use of them.
The messages in his paintings are bold and defiant. Some sort of anger and contempt towards the human condition is almost expressed in some of his works. His paintings depict a deep-rooted hostility toward the exploitation and corruption of the innocent. Exploitations for capital gains through the use of religion, land grabbing from natives, and also through excessive industrialization and commercialism at the expense of those who have no power.
Basquiat’s work is a crucial part of the Neo-Expressionist movement – an art movement defined by an intense deliberation with subjectivity, a rough handling of materials, expressive brushwork and intense colour. Basquiat’s technique shows itself in his brutal, raw depiction of subjects and themes, and an unforgiving commitment to using this technique to overthrow art world standards. Take “Untitled” (1982), for example, the piece takes a raw, yet personal subject of the skull and renders it with heavily applied paint and frantic, sprawling lines that create an intense energy. “Untitled” (1982) also shows us one of Basquiat’s most recurring motifs; the skull.
Basquiat held an intense obsession with limbs which began when his mum gifted him the book Gray’s Anatomy after he was hit by a car. The crown is another key motif, which he employed to honor the majesty of his heroes: groundbreaking Black athletes, musicians, and writers. He also used the crown in his self-portraits.
Jean-Michel Basquiat crossed over from his downtown origins to the international art gallery circuit. Basquiat rose to become a celebrated, and probably the most commercially exploited American painter, in the widely celebrated Neo-Expressionism art movement. His work is an example of how the American artists could once more introduce the aspect of human beings in their work after the vast achievement of minimalism and conceptualism. The works of the former graffiti sprayer Jean-Michel Basquiat penetrated the global art scene with an unparalleled quickness. His work got the attention of big short art dealers like Bruno Bischofberger, Mary Boone, and Anina Nosei. His work also captivated a large audience varying from vagabonds to high society. Up to date, his paintings are compared to ancient tribal drawings and nursery school scribbles. The comparisons are purposed to show the works’ raw innocence and tone of legitimacy. All in all, there is nothing juvenile in the communicative power of Basquiat’s work.
His paintings express varied themes such as drug abuse, bigotry, jazz, capitalism and mortality. The issues of racial and socioeconomic inequality and the degradation of life seem to be pervasive throughout his paintings. Each of his paintings has an immediate message despite their impulsive composition. Through his paintings, the society is advantaged to view the urban beauty and decay, together with the social malpractices that lurk within the society. Therefore Basquiat skillfully and purposefully brought together in his work a horde of contrasting customs, practices, and styles to craft a kind of visual college.
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