Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American street artist who achieved fame in the 1980s as an influential Neo-expressionist painter.
Jean-Michel was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1960. He learned to read and write by age four. By the age of eleven, Basquiat could fluently speak, read, and write French, Spanish and English. His teachers noticed his artistic abilities, and his mother encouraged her son’s artistic talent.
When he left home, Basquiat lived with friends and supported himself by selling homemade t-shirts and postcards. He and his friends began spray-painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan. They signed their poetic messages “SAMO.” A local paper published an article about the graffiti, but the SAMO project ended with the epitaph “SAMO IS DEAD,” inscribed on the walls of SoHo buildings.
In 1979, Basquiat started a “noise rock band” called Grey. He performed on tv, in music videos, and in night clubs like CBGB. A year later, Basquiat starred in a movie called Downtown 81 and was introduced to the famous pop artist, Andy Warhol. The artists became good friends and worked together on many art projects.
Soon after, Basquiat was included in The Times Square Show, a huge art exhibition. His paintings were dense painterly collages of words and images. They were covered with text and codes of all kinds: letters, numerals, pictograms, logos, map symbols, diagrams and more. Artforum magazine published a story about Basquiat called “The Radiant Child.” The story made Basquiat world famous as a Neo-expressionist. Neo-expressionists were sometimes called “The new wild ones” because their style was intentially rough and messy. The style emerged internationally as a form of uninhibited self-expression. By 1982, Basquiat was showing regularly alongside Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Andy Warhol. He wore Armani suits when he painted, and often appeared in public in the same paint-splattered $1,000 suits. On February 10, 1986, he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
Basquiat was an extremely successful artist. His paintings have sold for multiple millions of dollars. Several movies have been made about his life and art. Unfortunately, Basquiat was also lonely, sick, and frequently depressed. When Andy Warhol died in 1987, Basquiat became even more isolated. He died in 1988 from a drug overdose. He was 27 years old.
Basquiat’s Riding With Death (above) happens to be one of my all time favorite paintings. It may not look like much online but the actual painting is massive. The background is a field of broad and flowing gold brushstrokes. The figures seem to float upon it. In person, Riding With Death can set your mind adrift. I felt transported it.
Portrait of Basquiat drawn by yours truly.