Basquiat’s art focused on “suggestive dichotomies,” such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing and painting, and married text and image, abstraction and figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, born in Brooklyn, New York, was the second of four children of Matilda Andrades (July 28, 1934 – November 17, 2008) and Gerard Basquiat (born 1930). He had two younger sisters: Lisane, born in 1964, and Jeanine, born in 1967.
His father, Gerard Basquiat, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother, Matilde Basquiat, of Afro-Puerto Rican descent, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Matilde instilled a love for art in her young son by taking him to art museums in Manhattan and enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Basquiat was a precocious child who learned how to read and write by age four and was a gifted artist. His teachers noticed his artistic abilities, and his mother encouraged her son’s artistic talent. By the age of 11, Basquiat could fluently speak, read and write French, Spanish, and English.
In September 1968, when Basquiat was about 8, he was hit by a car while playing in the street. His arm was broken and he suffered several internal injuries, and he eventually underwent a splenectomy. While he was recuperating from his injuries, his mother brought him the Gray’s Anatomy book to keep him occupied. This book would prove to be influential in his future artistic outlook. His parents separated that year and he and his sisters were raised by their father. The family resided in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, for five years, then moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1974. After two years, they returned to New York City.
When he was 11, his mother was committed to a mental institution and thereafter spent time in and out of institutions. At 15, Basquiat ran away from home. He slept on park benches inWashington Square Park, and was arrested and returned to the care of his father within a week.
Basquiat dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School in the tenth grade. His father banished him from the household and Basquiat stayed with friends in Brooklyn. He supported himself by selling T-shirts and homemade post cards.
In 1976, Basquiat and friend Al Diaz began spray-painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan, working under the pseudonym SAMO. The designs featured inscribed messages such as “Plush safe he think.. SAMO” and “SAMO as an escape clause”. In 1978, Basquiat worked for the world famous Unique Clothing Warehouse, in their art department, at 718 Broadway in NoHo and at night he became “SAMO” painting his original graffiti art on neighborhood buildings. Harvey discovered Basquiat painting a building one night, they became friends, and Harvey offered him a day job. On December 11, 1978, the Village Voicepublished an article about the graffiti. When Basquiat & Diaz ended their friendship, The SAMO project ended with the epitaph “SAMO IS DEAD,” inscribed on the walls of SoHo buildings in 1979.
In 1979, Basquiat appeared on the live public-access television cable TV show TV Party hosted by Glenn O'Brien, and the two started a friendship. Basquiat made regular appearances on the show over the next few years. That same year, Basquiat formed the noise rock band Test Pattern – which was later renamed Gray – which played at Arleen Schloss´s open space, “Wednesdays at A`s”, where in October 1979 Basquiat showed, among others, his SAMO color Xerox work.
Gray also consisted of Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford and Vincent Gallo, and the band performed at nightclubs such asMax’s Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrah, and the Mudd Club. In 1980, Basquiat starred in O'Brien's independent filmDowntown 81, originally titled New York Beat. That same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol at a restaurant. Basquiat presented to Warhol samples of his work, and Warhol was stunned by Basquiat’s genius and allure. The men later collaborated. Downtown 81 featured some of Gray’s recordings on its soundtrack. Basquiat also appeared in the Blondie music video “Rapture” as a nightclub disc jockey.
The early 1980s were Basquiat’s breakthrough as a solo artist. In June 1980, Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and Fashion Moda. In September of the same year, Basquiat joined the Annina Nosei gallery and worked in a basement below the gallery toward his first one-man show, which took place in March 1981 with great success (helping him prepare the show was Joe La Placa, who soon became a partner with Guillaume Gallozzi in the Gallozzi-La Placa Gallery, a promoter of Basquiat and other graffiti luminaries). In late 1981, Rene Ricard published “The Radiant Child” in Artforum magazine, which brought Basquiat to the attention of the art world.
From November 1982, Basquiat worked from the ground-floor display and studio space Larry Gagosian had built below his Venice home and commenced a series of paintings for a 1983 show, his second at Gagosian Gallery, then in West Hollywood. During this time he took considerable interest in the work thatRobert Rauschenberg was producing at Gemini G.E.L. in West Hollywood, visiting him on several occasions and finding inspiration in the accomplishments of the painter. In 1982, Basquiat also worked briefly with musician and artist David Bowie.
In 1983, Basquiat produced a 12"rap single featuring hip-hop artists Rammellzee and K-Rob. Billed as Rammellzee vs. K-Rob, the single contained two versions of the same track: “Beat Bop” on side one with vocals and “Beat Bop” on side two as an instrumental. The single was pressed in limited quantities on the one-off Tartown Record Company label. The single’s cover featured Basquiat’s artwork, making the pressing highly desirable among both record and art collectors.
At the suggestion of Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol and Basquiat worked on a series of collaborative paintings between 1983 and 1985. In the case of Olympic Rings (1985), Warhol made several variations of the Olympic five-ring symbol, rendered in the original primary colors. Basquiat responded to the abstract, stylized logos with his oppositional graffiti style.
Basquiat often painted in expensive Armani suits and would even appear in public in the same paint-splattered suits.
By 1986, Basquiat had left the Annina Nosei gallery, and was showing in the famous Mary Boone gallery in SoHo. On February 10, 1985, he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazinein a feature entitled “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist”. He was a successful artist in this period, but his growing heroin addiction began to interfere with his personal relationships.
When Andy Warhol died on February 22, 1987, Basquiat became increasingly isolated, and his heroin addiction and depression grew more severe. Despite an attempt at sobriety during a trip to Maui, Hawaii, Basquiat died on August 12, 1988, of a heroin overdose at his art studio in Great Jones Street in New York City's NoHo neighborhood. He was 27.