Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait

Jean-Michel Basquiat

United States 1960 - 1988


Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat
United States
March 18, 2016

Art has been used for far more than expressing the prowess of an individual in a given field: it often crossed bridges and set milestones in history for people divergent in many aspects. It allows those having different, even opposite points of view to be aware of the state of mind of the other by giving it a physical form, one perceivable and available for everyone to experience. Dealing mainly with the social issues of the late 20th century, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work is both artistically alluring and bringing to the forefront many of the dualities of the time. Although he had an unfortunately short life and career, Basquiat has left an enormous impact on the world of art.

Jean-Michel Basquiat york artist painting 1983 like
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Jawbone of an Ass (detail), 1982

Beginner’s Struggle

Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of those people that knew what they were going to do at a young age and didn’t give up on it. Roughed up more than once during his youth, the one thing constantly present in his everyday was art. The love for it was instilled by his mother Matilda, as she had taken him to the Manhattan museums regularly, as well as making him a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Having issues at home in his teens, Basquiat left the high school only one year before graduation, and he used art as a means of survival. He would sell shirts and postcards that portrayed his skills while making a living out of it, staying with friends in Brooklyn. During the late 1970s, his creativeness manifested in the form of graffiti, as he tagged the street walls and trains under the name of SAMO.

Roughed up more than once in his youth, the one thing constantly present in Basquiat’s everyday was art

Jean-Michel Basquiat york untitled street
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Boy and dog in a Johnnypump, 1982


His financial struggle lasted for over three years, and during this time, he would paint the buildings of Lower Manhattan with graffiti bearing messages like “SAMO as an escape clause” or “Plush safe he think.. SAMO” (SAMO standing for “Same old shit”). He even appeared on the TV show “TV Party,” but the real breakthrough that he needed came in the form of a group exhibition in the early 1980s. With his work being noticed, he had joined the Annina Nosei gallery and utilized their space to work towards his first one-man show. Naturally, it was a huge hit – he often conjoined words, phrases, cryptic symbols and figures which engaged the viewers profoundly.

The emergence of Basquiat in the art scene of the 1980s coincided with the appearance of Neo-expressionism which is characterized by rough handling of the material, and it couldn’t have served him better. Even though he had switched to painting at one point, he maintained his characteristic style of improvisation and “quick input.” His collaboration with Andy Warhol, both private and professional, aided Basquiat’s fame as much as it did Warhol’s work. They produced a number of “mutual” paintings, one finishing the work of the other, which brought them both positive and negative reviews over the years.

Basquiat’s collaboration with Andy Warhol aided him in acquiring worldwide fame

Jean-Michel Basquiat untitled american
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Bird on Money (detail), 1981

References in the Artworks of Basquiat

By the age of 27, Basquiat managed to produce over 1000 paintings and 2000 drawings! Yet, his pieces were never without purpose or a deeper meaning, whether he was talking about numerous social issues or wittily referencing various book content and knowledge through his work. Having an African-Caribbean heritage, he would often criticize the systems of colonialism and racism in his paintings, drawings, and poetics. He was also greatly influenced by the book Gray’s Anatomy that he read as a child, portraying anatomical elements in many of his pieces later on. One of such reoccurring elements is the foot, shown on multiple occasions even within the same artwork, depicting not just his studies of anatomy but all sorts of historical, even religious references through narratives.

There was a certain duality that permeated his works on several levels. Dichotomies of a sort, he would merge text and image, historical elements with contemporary status; his narratives portrayed wealth versus poverty, often having mysterious and hidden meanings next to primitive elements. It all added to the genius of his practice, and though some parts may seem crude, Basquiat used them as tools for deeper truths of the individual.

Basquiat often criticized the systems of colonialism and racism in his paintings, drawings, and poetics

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Per Capita, 1981

Drug Issues

Claiming worldwide critical acclaim in such short notice, even after not-so-envious beginnings, anyone would think that Basquiat will dominate the art scene in the years to come. However, there was one major weak point in his otherwise thriving career, one that would impede his creative output and influence his social behavior towards the end of his life. The death of his friend Andy Warhol was hard on Basquiat, and his already existing drug addiction and depression grew far more severe in the following period. The fame he obtained worked against him during the tough times of the mid-1980s, and friends described him as paranoid as he would segregate himself from any company for prolonged periods of time. His trip to Hawaii in 1987 was an attempt at sobriety, one that unfortunately did not bring results. Basquiat returned to New York in 1988 and died of heroin overdose at his gallery studio in NoHo neighborhood at the age of 27.

Basquiat’s already existing drug addiction and depression grew far more severe in the mid-1980s

Jean-Michel Basquiat death
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Wolf Sausage (detail), 1983

Divided Thought of Value

Even though his career and life ended far sooner than they should have, the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat left behind an extensive oeuvre, one that is at the top of the list of monetary value today. However, the thought is divided of how truly valuable his works are, with some critics nudging towards it becoming repetitious. Others, on the other hand, see his presence and repertoire as a gift, as Basquiat had not just an eye, but a touch for artistic expression. The fact that he was a self-thought artist gives his works a whole new dimension, and regardless of how he is portrayed, he left an incredible influence on the course of art during his 27 years of life.

The artist is represented by Vroom & Varossieau.
Featured image: Jean-Michel Basquiat. All photos credit
All images used for illustrative purposes only.

Year Exhibition TitleMuseum/GallerySolo/Group
2016I Got Rhythm. Art and Jazz since 1920Kunstmuseum StuttgartGroup
2015Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now's the Time Centro Cultural Banco de Brasil Rio de JaneiroSolo
2015Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now's the Time Art Gallery of Toronto TorontoSolo
2015Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now's the Time Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) OntarioSolo
2015The Unknown NotebooksBrooklyn Museum New YorkSolo
2014/2015Basquiat and the BayouProspect.3 at Ogden Museum of Art New OrleansGroup
2014Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family CollectionThe Acquavella Galleries in Manhattan New YorkSolo
2014Poetics of the Gesture: Schiele, Twombly, BasquiatNahmad Contemporary gallery New YorkGroup
2014The HouseFaggionato Fine Art LondonGroup
2014Look at Me: Portraiture from Manet to the PresentLeila Heller Gallery New YorkGroup
2013/2014Warhol/Basquiat The Kunstforum ViennaGroup
2013/2014Navigating Art Languages: The James M. Shelton, Jr. CollectionEl Paso Museum of Art El PasoGroup
2013/201430 Americans (traveling group exhibition)First Center for the Visual Arts Nashville, TennesseeGroup
2013/2014Selections from the Permanent CollectionMOCA Los AngelesSolo
2013Jean-Michel BasquiatArt Basel Miami Beach MiamiSolo
2013Jean-Michel BasquiatGagosian Gallery New YorkSolo
2010Jean-Michel BasquiatFoundation Beyeler BaselSolo
2008Jean-Michel Basquiat: To Repel GhostsFundacion Marcelino Botin SantanderSolo
2006The Jean-Michel Basquiat ShowFondazione La Triennale di Milano MilanSolo
2006Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the StreetDeitch Projects (currated by Glenn O’Brien and Diego Cortez) NYSolo
2005Jean-Michel BasquiatMuseo d'Arte Moderna LuganoSolo
2005In Word OnlyCheim & Read New YorkSolo
2005BasquiatBrooklyn Museum Los AngelesSolo
2003Jean-Michel Basquiat: histoire d'une Å“uvreMusée Maillol à ParisSolo
2001Jean-Michel Basquiat - The Mugrabi CollectionMuseum Würth KünzelsauSolo
1997Jean-Michel Basquiat: Å“uvres sur papierMusée Maillol à  ParisSolo
1997Jean-Michel BasquiatKaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts TaichungSolo
1996Jean-Michel BasquiatSerpentine Gallery LondonSolo
1994Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Blue Ribbon PaintingsNewport Harbor Museum CaliforniaSolo
1992Jean-Michel BasquiatWhitney Museum New YorkSolo
1988Untitled posters exhibitionGalerie Yvon Lambert ParisSolo
1988UnknownHans Mayer Gallery DüsseldorfUnknown
1988Jean-Michel Basquiat: Peintures 1982 - 1987Galerie Beaubourg ParisSolo
1988UnknownMichael Haas Gallery BerlinUnknown
1988UnknownVrej Baghoomian New YorkUnknown
1987Jean-Michel BasquiatDaniel Templon ParisSolo
1987Jean-Michel Basquiat: New WorksAkira Ikeda Gallery TokyoSolo
1987UnknownPS Gallery TokyoUnknown
1987UnknownTony Shafrazi Gallery New YorkUnknown
1986Jean-Michel-Basquiat: To Repel GhostsKestner-Gesellschaft HannoverSolo
1986UnknownLarry Gagosian Gallery Los AngelesUnknown
1986Jean-Michel Basquiat: DrawingsGalerie Bruno Bischofberger ZürichSolo
1986UnknownGalerie Thaddaeus Ropac SalzburgUnknown
1986UnknownCentre Culturel Français AbidjanUnknown
1986Collaborations: Basquiat and WarholGalerie Bruno Bischofberger ZürichUnknown
1986UnknownKestner-Gesellschaft HannoverUnknown
1986UnknownGalerie Michael Werner KölnUnknown
1985UnknownGalerie Bruno Bischofberger ZürichUnknown
1985UnknownBoymans-van Beuninge Museum RotterdamUnknown
1985UnknownMary Boone / Michael Werner Gallery New YorkUnknown
1985UnknownTony Shafrazi Gallery New YorkUnknown
1984Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings 1981-1984The Fruitmarket Gallery EdinburghSolo
1984International Survey of Painting and SculptureNew YorkGroup
1984Jean-Michel BasquiatMary Boone GaIIery New YorkSolo
1984Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings 1981 - 1984The Fruitmarket Gallery EdinburghSolo
1984Collaborations: Basquiat, Clemente, WarholGalerie Bruno Bischofberger ZürichGroup
1983Whitney BiennialWhitney Museum of American Art New YorkGroup
1983New Paintings by Jean-Michel BasquiatLarry Gagosian GalIery Los AngelesSolo
1983UnknownGalerie Bruno Bischofberger ZürichUnknown
1983Jean-Michel BasquiatGalerie Akira Ikeda TokyoSolo
1983UnknownWest Beach Café VeniceUnknown
1982Documenta 7KasselGroup
1982Avanguardia e Transavanguardia '68 - '77Modena ItalyGroup
1982Jean-Michel BasquiatAnnina Nosei GaIlery New YorkSolo
1982Jean-Michel Basquiat: PaintingsLarry Gagosian Gallery Los AngelesSolo
1982UnknownGalleria Mario Diacono RomeUnknown
1982Jean-Michel BasquiatGalerie Bruno Bischofberger ZürichSolo
1982Jean-Michel BasquiatFun Gallery New YorkSolo
1982Jean-Michel BasquiatGalerie Delta RotterdamSolo
1981New York/New WaveInstitute for Art and Urban Resources Long Island CityGroup
1981SAMOGalleria Emilio Mazzoli ModenaSolo
1980The Time Square ShowColab and Fashion Moda New YorkGroup