“I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is”
A 21st century icon for the new generations, American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, played an important and historic role in the rise of Punk Art and Neo-Expressionism. He first emerged in New York in the 1970s as a gritty, street-smart graffiti artist under the name SAMO.
Jean-Michel Jean-Michel and his friend Al Diaz, were known for spray painting enigmatic epigrams on buildings in lower Manhattan. After some time Basquiat and Diaz had a falling out and Basquiat ended the project with the message ‘SAMO is dead’, which appeared on the façade of Soho art galleries and downtown buildings. During this time, Basquiat was homeless and sleeping on park benches. He supported himself by dealing illegal substances and selling hand-painted T-shirts and postcards.
During the early 1980s Basquiat had a stint as a punk rocker and appeared as a nightclub DJ in the Blondie music video, Rapture. He often hung-out at Mudd Club and Club 57 with New York City’s artistic elite. After inclusion of his work in the historic, punk-art Times Square Show of June 1980, Basquiat had his first solo exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery, in Soho in 1982.
At this time Basquiat was gaining wider recognition and this coincided with the arrival of the German Neo-Expressionist movement in New York, which provided a like-minded forum for his own street-smart, expressive views. Basquiat then began exhibiting regularly with artists including David Salle and Julien Schnabel who were also reacting against the recent dominance of minimalism and conceptualism. Neo-Expressionism marked the return of the human figure and painting. In 1981 Rene Ricard’s article, The Radiant Child solidified Basquiat’s position as a respected figure in the greater art world.
Although much of Basquiat’s life was largely troubled, 1982 was a banner year for the artist. He opened six solo shows in cities across the world and became the youngest artist ever to be included in Documenta, the international contemporary art extravaganza held every five years in Kassel, Germany. During this time, Basquiat created over 200 art works and developed his signature motif: a heroic, crowned black oracle figure. Dizzy Gillespie, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali inspired Basquiat’s work.
His portraits featured ferocious slashes of paint that were Neo-Expressionist in appearance, revealing the inner feelings and deepest desires of his subjects. The griot, a storyteller and leader of West African descent also features heavily in Basquiat’s work. From 1984 to 1986 he collaborated on a series of works with pop artist Andy Warhol including Ten Punching Bags. Warhol would paint first and then Basquiat would layer over his work. New York Times Magazine declared Basquiat as the hot young American artist of the 1980s.
Unfortunately during this time of hype, Basquiat was becoming increasingly addicted to illegal substances which led to his tragic death in 1988 at the young age of 27. Basquiat and his work continue to serve as a metaphor today for the dangers of artistic and social excess, just as he rocketed to fame and riches in his short but epic life.
In May of 2017 a Basquiat painting Untitled sold for 110 million dollars by Sotheby’s, which was a record price for work by an American artist.