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Urban Pop Icon - Jean-Michel Baquiat


Jean-Michel Basquiat is arguably the most famous African-American artist of all time. Although I have a style that is very distinct from his and shares almost no visual iconography (less the crown I use as a tribute to him in works you all have yet to see) he is one of my favorite artists. Basquiat was a Neo-Expressionist painter who found his fame and untimely death in the 80's. He emerged during a time that has been romanticized for it's artistic output and demonized for it's treatment of art as nothing more than a commodity. I have little personal opinion of either argument as I was too young and too far away to have a voice in the argument.

What I can tell you is that the music I grew up on which included early rap like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow, KRS-One, Blondie, Talking Heads, The Police and other bands that emerged from the New York scene infused me with a spirit that made me curious about all things (art, music, artists, etc.) from New York in the 80's. I can also add that reading the Warhol Diaries, and seeing the work of Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Stephen Sprouse and others endeared me with a kind of spiritual kinship with that place and time that lives inside me to this day. I still paint with primarily an 80's playlist pumping in the background (though I do drop in some Kanye, Lil Wayne, Duffy, Britney, Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry from time to time).

But more than any of these things and any of these people it is the art and life of Jean-Michel Basqiat that speaks volumes to me about the risk and reward of a career as an artist. We are very different men from very different times, but his art and life still informs my work and my life to this day.


From Wikipedia

Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an American artist. He gained popularity first as a graffiti artist in New York City, and then as a successful 1980s-era Neo-expressionist artist. Basquiat's paintings continue to influence modern-day artists and command high prices.

Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York. His mother, Matilde, was Puerto Rican and his father, Gerard Basquiat is of Haitian origin and a former Haitian Minister of the Interior. Because of his parents' nationalities, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish, and English and often read Symbolist poetry, mythology, history and medical texts, particularly Gray's Anatomy in those languages. At an early age, Basquiat displayed an aptitude for art and was encouraged by his mother to draw, paint and to participate in other art-related activities. In 1977, when he was 17, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz started spray-painting graffiti art on slum buildings in lower Manhattan, adding the infamous signature of "SAMO" or "SAMO shit" (i.e., "same ol' shit"). The graphics were pithy messages such as "Plush safe he think; SAMO" and "SAMO is an escape clause". In December 1978, the Village Voice published an article about the writings. The SAMO project ended with the epitaph SAMO IS DEAD written on the walls of SoHo buildings.


Basquiat attended high school in New York at "City as A School", the same place where he was friends with Al Diaz (of Liquid Liquid) and Shanon Dawson (of Konk). In 1978, Basquiat dropped out of high school and left home, a year before graduating. He moved into the city and lived with friends, surviving by selling T-shirts and postcards on the street, and working in the Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway. By 1979, however, Basquiat had gained a certain celebrity status amidst the thriving art scene of Manhattan's East Village through his regular appearances on Glenn O'Brien's live public-access cable show, TV Party. In the late 1970s, Basquiat formed a band called Gray, with Michael Holman, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford & Shannon Dawson. Gray played at clubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrahs, and the Mudd Club. Basquiat worked in a film Downtown 81 (a.k.a New York Beat Movie) which featured some of Gray's rare recordings on its soundtrack. He also appeared in Blondie's video "Rapture" as a replacement for DJ Grandmaster Flash when he was a no-show.

Basquiat first started to gain recognition as an artist in June 1980, when he participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition, sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab). In 1981, poet, art critic and cultural provocateur Rene Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum magazine, helping to launch Basquiat's career to an international stage. During the next few years, he continued exhibiting his works around New York alongside artists such as Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger, as well as internationally, promoted by such gallery owners and patrons as Annina Nosei, Vrej Baghoomian, Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone and Bruno Bischofberger.

By 1982, Basquiat was showing regularly alongside Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, thus becoming part of a loose-knit group that art-writers, curators, and collectors would soon be calling the Neo-expressionist movement. He started dating an aspiring and then-unknown performer named Madonna in the fall of 1982. That same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated extensively, eventually forging a close, if strained, friendship. He was also briefly involved with artist David Bowes.


By 1984, many of Basquiat's friends were concerned about his excessive drug use and increasingly erratic behavior, including signs of paranoia. Basquiat had developed a frequent heroin habit by this point, which started from his early years living among the junkies and street artists in New York's underground. On February 10, 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist". As Basquiat's international success heightened, his works were shown in solo exhibitions across major European capitals.

Basquiat died accidentally of mixed-drug toxicity (he had been combining cocaine and heroin, known as "speedballing") at his 57 Great Jones Street loft/studio in 1988 several days before what would have been Basquiat's second trip to the Côte d'Ivoire. In 1996, seven years after his death, a film biography titled Basquiat was released, directed by Julian Schnabel, with actor Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat.


Artistic activities

Basquiat's art career is known for his three broad, though overlapping styles. In the earliest period, from 1980 to late 1982, Basquiat used painterly gestures on canvas, often depicting skeletal figures and mask-like faces that expressed his obsession with mortality. Other frequently depicted imagery such as automobiles, buildings, police, children's sidewalk games, and graffiti came from his experience painting on the city streets. A middle period from late 1982 to 1985 featured multipanel paintings and individual canvases with exposed stretcher bars, the surface dense with writing, collage and seemingly unrelated imagery.

These works reveal a strong interest in Basquiat's black identity and his identification with historical and contemporary black figures and events. On one occasion Basquiat painted his girlfriend's dress, with his words, a "Little Shit Brown". The final period, from about 1986 to Basquiat's death in 1988, displays a new type of figurative depiction, in a new style with different symbols and content from new sources. This period seems to have also had a profound impact on the styles of artists who admired Basquiat's work. Basquiat's lasting creative influence is immediately recognizable in the work of subsequent and self-taught generational artists such as Mark Gonzales, Kelly D. Williams and Raymond Morris.

In 1982, Basquiat became friends with pop artist Andy Warhol and the two made a number of collaborative works. They also painted together, influencing each others' work. Some speculated that Andy Warhol was merely using Basquiat for some of his techniques and insight. Their relationship continued until Warhol's death in 1987. Warhol's death was very distressing for Basquiat, and it is speculated by Phoebe Hoban, in Basquiat, her 1998 biography on the artist, that Warhol's death was a turning point for Basquiat, and that afterwards his drug addiction and depression began to spiral.

Up until 2002, the highest mark that was paid for an original work of Basquiat's was $3,302,500 (set on 12 November 1998). On 14 May 2002, Basquiat's "Profit I" (a large piece of art measuring 86.5" by 157.5"), owned by heavy metal band Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, was put up for auction at Christie's. It was there that the highest mark for a work of Basquiat's was set when "Profit I" sold for $5,509,500. The proceedings of the auction are documented in the film Some Kind of Monster. On 15 May 2007, an untitled Basquiat work from 1981 smashed his previous record, selling at Sotheby's in New York for $14.6 million. On November 12, 2008 his piece Untitled(Boxer)(1982) was sold by Lars Ulrich of the band Metallica for $13,522,500 (estimate upon request in the region of $12 million) to a telephone bidder.



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