Jean-Michel Basquiat

Annie Lee | May 17, 2024

Table of Content


Jean-Michel Basquiat (New York, December 22, 1960-ibidem, August 12, 1988) also known as SAMO, was an American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent.

First years

Jean-Michel Basquiat was the first of Matilde Andrades' three children. He had two sisters, Lisane, born in 1964, and Jeanine, born in 1967. His father was a Haitian accountant of respectable economic solvency and his mother was a Puerto Rican graphic designer of great prestige in her profession. Jean-Michel grew up in a broken family environment, his parents divorced and because of this situation he had to change schools many times. He attended a private Catholic school, then a public school and finally, at the age of 16, he entered the City-As-School, a school for gifted adolescents, from which he was expelled for rebellion a year before graduating.

Already in his youth he came into contact with the subculture of the big city, related to drug use and street gangs. In 1977, together with Al Díaz, he entered the world of graffiti, painting on subway cars and in the SoHo areas, a New York neighborhood where art galleries proliferate.

The following year he left school one year before graduating from high school and left home to live for two years on the streets, in abandoned buildings or with his friends in Low Manhattan, surviving by selling postcards and T-shirts that he decorated himself. He continued to dedicate himself to graffiti, his graffiti and writings were very poetic and philosophical, but above all satirical. The pseudonym of his alter ego shared with Al Díaz was SAMO (acronym of SAMe Old shit, that is, "the same old shit", "the same old crap"), with which both signed their tags and graffiti with cryptic messages. The use of this name was decisive in his life.

These murals bore inscriptions such as "SAMO saves idiots" or "SAMO puts an end to religious brainwashing, the politics of nothingness and false philosophy." An article about SAMO's street writing published in The Village Voice was the first indication that the art world was interested in him.

Personal life

The artist had several relationships that influenced his work, one of the most significant was with the artist Andy Warhol.

Also, in the sentimental theme, he was related to several women, one of the best known today was Madonna. Lower Manhattan was the area where they lived at that time, it was in 1982 when they began to spend more time together and to go out to parties in galleries. A theme that united them, she mentions in an interview "I was a big fan of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker".


In 1988, exhibitions are installed in Paris and New York, and in April of the same year he tries to give up his addictions and retires to his home in Hawaii. He returns to New York in June, announcing that he is free of addictions, but on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27, he dies of a heroin overdose, the most successful visual artist in the history of Afro-descendant art. He is buried in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.

Throughout his brief but intense artistic career he would hold more than 40 personal exhibitions and participate in around 100 group exhibitions. Self-promotion and publicity were priority factors for Basquiat, as they had previously been for Andy Warhol or Julian Schnabel.

Neo-Expressionism gradually prevailed over Appropriationism, partly thanks to the economic boom that raised the price of art and, especially, of painting to high levels, and partly thanks to the support of gallery owners and collectors. Critics, however, were not unanimous in their assessment, and it was common to denounce the lack of theoretical basis of the neo-expressionist discourse. It was claimed that the art practiced by the neo-expressionists lacked any political or social meaning, was only merchandise and, therefore, subject to the ups and downs and fluctuations of the market. Neo-expressionist painting was reduced to a consumer product and, as such, to a creatively disqualified and vulgar fact.


Since the late 1960s, groups of young people in the slums of Brooklyn and the Bronx began to cover the walls of public spaces (walls, billboards, platforms, tunnels and subway cars) with scribbles and graffiti. Those closest to the love generation used these public spaces to give vent to their disenchantment, their protests, their disagreements with the social, political and economic structures of a system that was absolutely adverse to them. Others, fleeing their ghettos, left their footprints or anonymous marks on urban walls with depoliticized attitudes and indifferent to the establishment, with the sole desire to assert their identity and bear witness to their existence within a system that kept them apart.

In 1979 he wrote on the walls of SoHo: SAMO is dead. Then, he hung up the graffiti, and founded the Gray, a musical group in which he played clarinet and synthesizer and with which he frequented pubs like CBGB and the Mudd Club, fashionable places where other artists gathered, but soon abandoned his incipient musical career. In the East Village, musicians and artists developed their own subculture (hip hop), shared their love of rock music, break and rap, and staged performances, underground films and graffiti.

Painting activity

But it was in 1980, while he was still a vagabond, that he began to devote himself mainly to painting. J.M. Basquiat possessed a certain intellectual curiosity and felt a real fascination for abstract expressionism, for the gestural strokes of Franz Kline, for the early works of Jackson Pollock, for the figure paintings of De Kooning and for the calligraphies of Cy Twombly, all of which, together with his Haitian and Puerto Rican roots, led him to have a great mastery of expressive gestural graphics. Interested also in the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut, as well as in popular culture, his graffiti acquired a plastic and expressive quality increasingly close to that of recent American painting, to the point that, a few years later, Jeffrey Deitch defined his work as a "shocking combination of De Kooning's art and the spray-painted doodles in the New York subway".

From an early age he had received an appreciable informal art education; his mother took him to visit museums (he was a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum at age six), also introduced him to reading poetic literature, and later encouraged him to write his own. The name of his group became another chapter in the myth when Basquiat claimed that he was inspired by the author of a book on anatomy that had accompanied his convalescence after being hit, at age six, by a car. Basquiat himself would repeat several times that this book was an early reference for his work. He completed his self-taught training as a listener at the School of Visual Arts, where he came into contact with the painter and graffiti artist Keith Haring.

In Basquiat's short but intense pictorial activity, three stages can be distinguished:

As he himself stated on more than one occasion, his work was closer to painting, a painting halfway between gestural and warm abstraction and post-pop figuration than to graffiti ("My work has nothing to do with graffiti. It is part of painting. I have always painted").


Critic Roberto Hughes in a review recalls, "She kept him locked in the basement of her gallery painting pictures (now labeled 'early Basquiat,' to distinguish them from the less appreciated 'late Basquiat,' painted three years later) that she sold before they were dry and sometimes before they were finished." Hughes argues that Basquiat never had much luck with his marchands: "His social introducer was Henry 'Frebbie' Geldzhaler, who had earlier failed as a writer, museum curator and historian, but still had considerable influence as an informant, at least among new collectors."

Nossei was followed by Tony Shafrazi, who before becoming a gallery owner specializing in graffiti-art, had vandalized Pablo Picasso's Guernica when it was on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA). Later, the implacable Mary Boone, a celebrity in the New York art circuit for her firm hand in the management of her artists, took charge of his works.


His first participation in an art exhibition was in 1980 at the Times Square Show, a kind of fashion and alternative art gallery presented in an abandoned warehouse in the Bronx. In a way, it was the first time that the expression of graffiti art ceased to be exclusively a marginal manifestation, since a series of artists, disconnected in principle from the mainstream, i.e. curatorial

Basquiat exhibited a mural where he gathered some of SAMO's graffiti. And despite the bad reviews that described the exhibition as crude, irreverent, rebellious, an example of bad taste and lacking any hint of artistry, from then on graffiti artists were progressively recognized and integrated into the art system. Some Soho galleries, such as White Columns and Fashion Moda, gave up their spaces for graffiti artists to hang their works.

In 1981, Basquiat exhibits his works at the P.S.1 of the Institute of Art and Urban Resources in New York, in an exhibition entitled New York.

In December 1981 the first important article "The Radian Child" by Rene Ricard appears in Artforum (no. 24, pp. 24-43), considered the most important art magazine of the time. That same year (1981) his graffiti were exhibited at Documenta in Kassel. His passion for music was such that in the most intense period of his career, in the midst of important exhibitions such as Transvanguardia Italia, he was able to show his work at the Documenta in Kassel.

Solo exhibitions

In 1982 Basquiat's path to success began: his solo and group exhibitions multiplied. In 1982 he is included in the exhibition Transvanguardia: Italia

That same year (1983) the exhibition Post-Graffiti, prepared by the prestigious gallerist Sidney Janis and presented in the gallery that bears his name -the Sidney Janis Gallery- confronted the work of those artists who had already fully integrated into the system with that of the "ghetto artists". Of course, Jean-Michel Basquiat appeared alongside the former as a major standout among others like Haring or Scharf. In 1983, he participated in solo exhibitions in prestigious New York galleries such as Gagosian and Annina Nosei. In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art in the same city (New York), which had initially been reluctant to neo-expressionism, presented the important exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture, where, along with a selection of one hundred and seventy artists, Basquiat also participated.

In 1984 Warhol introduced him to Swiss gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger, who made his work known in Europe and with whom he collaborated closely until his death. From this year on, Basquiat's friends began to worry about his addictions. They often found him almost comatose and very paranoid with ideas of persecution. Basquiat's paranoia, however, was motivated by the very real threats of people stealing paintings from his studio or gallery owners taking unfinished works to exhibit or sell.

At this time Basquiat, among a few others, came to use the couché pages of general information and fashion magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and Vogue, not for his painting, but for his "high society" life and his presence at parties and in fashionable clubs, such as the New York Palladium. He frequented Madonna and other stars of show business and music. On February 10, 1985 Basquiat appears on the cover of the Sunday magazine The New York Times, becoming the first black artist to appear on the front page. A curious thing, because at that time the white racist stereotype considered blacks to be good athletes, good dancers or good musicians, but not in fields such as the visual arts. The article accompanying the photo, written by Cathleen McGuigan, is entitled "New art, new money: The marketing of American artist".

In March of that year, 1984, a new solo exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, another of the most important galleries of the time. Robert Farris Thomson, in the catalog of that exhibition, defines Basquiat's art as part of an "Afro-Atlantic tradition" and it is catalogued in that context. In 1985 Basquiat collaborated with Francesco Clemente and Andy Warhol, although the works produced did not arouse a positive response from the critics. This collaboration resulted in several large canvases with suggestive color combinations, collages that combine painting, screen printing, graffiti and advertising language. Between 1984 and 1985 the canvases traveled from one studio to another; usually Warhol started them, Clemente perfected them and Basquiat finished them off. However, Warhol and Basquiat got along particularly well. Warhol wrote in his diary, "Jean-Michel Basquiat has gotten me to paint in a very different way, and that's very good." The idea of painting together was considered enriching for both of them because Warhol, who at the time only used techniques such as silkscreen printing, picked up the brush again, and Basquiat began to learn about mechanical techniques applied to painting. The black cultural establishment would criticize Warhol's patronage of a black artist.

In 1986, Basquiat travels to Africa and exhibits in Abidjan (Ivory Coast). In November of the same year he holds a major exhibition (more than 80 works) at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Museum in Hannover, becoming, at the age of 25, the youngest artist to exhibit at that museum.

Its importance in the history of art

His concern to convey in his painting the problematic of dual belonging to ethnic minorities, the Afro-descendant and the Latino, although a recurrent element of his pictorial narrative, was never subjected to conditioning messaging intentions. British critic Edward Lucie Smith argues: "The most celebrated black artist of the eighties, Jean-Michel Basquiat, frequently uses 'black' imagery, but at the same time always demonstrates his anxiety to subject it to clear accents of universality". He also specifies that "his intention was not so much to build yet another little chapel for African-American culture, but to compete on equal terms with his mentor Andy Warhol." For his part, German theorist Klaus Honnef states, "Whether by chance or not, if one overlooks the significant allusions to the social existence of blacks in the United States and the considerable fury of his paintings, one might come to the conclusion that Basquiat's paintings and drawings are rooted in French aesthetics, not New York graffiti."

For his part, Irving Sandler argues that Basquiat, who from 1980 until his death achieved uncommon success and notoriety, just as his "godfather" Andy Warhol had done a few years earlier, became the prototype of the romantic, attractive, rebellious, hip and wild genius and, at the same time, the professional eager for celebrity and money, the last of the stars of Andy Warhol's glittering universe.

The legend of the wild child, after his death, will be touched and retouched to the point of making it almost impossible to distinguish between reality and fabulation. For example, the eagerness to be the first to discover, perhaps invent, the new pictorial genius of the decade, transforms Diego Cortez into an improvised and inspired promoter of the mythical story of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Cortez praises his primitivism, almost archaic purity, expressive vigor and various other clichés of the predictable repertoire when it comes to African-American artists, especially with graffiti.

The manager, art critic and poet Rene Ricard predicts: "I will make a star out of you". And he prophesies, "No one will want to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh." The artist possesses some traits, which we have already mentioned, that constitute an excellent platform when it comes to letting exuberant imaginations take off: young, poor (at least for some years and by his own choice), black and of Latin descent, presumably linked to the world of gangs, with a recent past as a frenetic and contentious graffiti artist, coming from an unnamed and pathetic area of Brooklyn.

The market will raise his name as a proudly anti-intellectual counterpoint to Keith Haring, a post-pop artist with graffiti roots, although with a solid artistic background. Basquiat only fleetingly passed through a few art schools, a behavior often considered a virtue.

His early death will mark the definitive consecration of the myth. Somehow Basquiat decided on the brevity of his life. "I know that someday I'm going to turn the corner and I'm going to be ready for that," he said one of the few times he spoke about himself, about his existence. "It" was a death sought since adolescence, an idea he somehow never abandoned, through an obsessively self-destructive character. "I never know too well if I'm alive. I'm not too worried about it anyway: I think I'm immortal," he told one of his partners, Jennifer Goode. The idea of his immortality reappeared as a pretext whenever a paternal Warhol reproached him for drug abuse: "Don't worry, I'm immortal".

The Chicano artist Benny Dalmau and the Italian transvanguardist Francesco Clemente agree in affirming that only when Basquiat painted did he seem animated by a vitality as irrepressible as it was unexpected.

The legend

The legend continued to grow, now underpinned by the vigilance of a market that was finding an excellent and fruitful product. Ricard, again, takes up a 1981 prophecy and proclaims: "We have found the radiant child of the century". He is compared, after European acceptance, to Rimbaud.

His followers affirm that in his works shines an intuitive sensibility that surely would have curdled into a formidable talent, shines the primary beginnings of a tremendously scarce gift: genius. The strength, the lyricism, the melancholy, the violence, the playful grace, the chromatic carefree, the unpredictable fusions are there, as testimonies that always communicate the sensation of unfinished fermentality. There is also the singular and subtle appropriation of Rauschenberg, of Jasper Johns. Above all, the "savaging" of the graphic-texts used by his admired Cy Twombly. What in Twombly is lightness and refinement in Basquiat becomes exasperated gestures, cartographies of an affectivity in perpetual and unconformable disconcert.

In 2015, a work by Basquiat valued at more than US$11 million was stolen, and two years later, Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa acquired a work by him at auction for US$110.5 million to exhibit at the Contemporary Art Foundation, which he chairs.

In 1996 the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat was brought to the big screen, after 6 years of filming, by his friend and colleague Julian Schnabel. Singer David Bowie played Andy Warhol.

In 2000, the film Downtown 81, directed by the director and photographer Edo Bertoglio, was made, where the artist is placed at the age of 19 in New York City before his fame.


  1. Jean-Michel Basquiat
  2. Jean-Michel Basquiat
  3. ^ Dwyer, Colin (May 19, 2017). "At $110.5 Million, Basquiat Painting Becomes Priciest Work Ever Sold By A U.S. Artist". NPR. Retrieved September 6, 2023.
  4. «Jean-Michel Basquiat». HA!. Consultado el 30 de enero de 2020.
  5. Sam Keller (Hrsg.): Basquiat. Katalog zur Beyeler-Retrospektive. Hatje Cantz Verlag, S. XXIX.
  6. Dieter Buchhart in: Sam Keller (Hrsg.): Basquiat. Katalog zur Beyeler-Retrospektive. Hatje Cantz Verlag, S. X.
  7. Biography (Memento vom 12. Juli 2011 im Internet Archive) (PDF-Datei)
  8. Prononciation en français nord-américain (français haïtien) retranscrite selon la norme API.
  9. (en) « Jean-Michel Basquiat | American artist », sur Encyclopedia Britannica (consulté le 30 juillet 2019).
  10. a et b (en-US) « Jean-michel Basquiat | », sur (consulté le 30 juillet 2019).
  11. (en) Jena Gaines, Haitian Immigration, Mason Crest Publishers, 2004, p. 90
  12. (en-GB) « Jean-Michel Basquiat: The life and work behind the legend », sur (consulté le 30 juillet 2019).

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