The ‘suffering artist’ is a well-known axiom around the world, and Jean-Michel Basquiat is the epitome of it. From an early age, this immensely talented artist led a life that was fraught with all kinds of disaster. Perhaps some of his pain was translated into the vibrant, passionate and intricate works he produced. It is not often that a street-smart downtown graffiti artist crosses over to gallery stardom, but in his brief life, Basquiat certainly did, and he had an unforgettable impact on the world of contemporary art.
Basquiat said, “If you wanna talk about influence, man, then you’ve got to realise that influence is not influence. It’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.” And yet his graffiti tag (and pseudonym) became tremendously influential. Basquiat used the acronym ‘SAMO’ to sign his public works which covered a range of topics including his Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage, pop-culture icons, Biblical verses and political issues. SAMO is shorthand for ‘Same Old Shit’. It was also a concise way to shout out against religion, politics and the establishment. Was SAMO the artist’s true sentiment? That would not be surprising – considering everything he had to go through in his life.
Surgery, Abuse and Punk Rock
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born to a middle-class family in Brooklyn New York. His father was an accountant originally from Haiti, and his mother was of Puerto Rican descent. Born in 1960, Basquiat was the second of four children, but his older brother died not long before he was born. Basquiat was introduced to the art world by his mother who took him to exhibitions from a very young age and encouraged him to paint and draw.
While his childhood was rich and colorful it certainly wasn’t peaceful. When he was eight years old he was hit by a car and had to undergo surgery to remove his spleen. While recuperating in hospital he received a copy of Gray’s Anatomy from his mother. Young Basquiat was enthralled by the medical textbook. He read it from cover to cover and studied every sketch in it. The influence of the medical book’s illustrations is evident in his artwork. During the same year of the accident his parents separated and since his mother was declared an unfit parent because of mental instability, he and his sisters lived with their father. The family moved to Puerto Rico for a time and then returned to New York.
When Basquiat was 13 his mother’s mental state deteriorated and she was hospitalized. She never fully recovered and continued to spend large portions of her adult life in mental institutions. At the age of 15 Basquiat ran away from home. After a few days of sleeping in the streets he was arrested and returned to his home, but when he was 17 he left home once more, this time for good. He dropped out of school and moved in with a friend’s family. He resumed his education at an alternative high school in Manhattan called City-As-School and supported himself by selling hand-painted postcards and T-shirts, and also dealing drugs. During this time, he frequented punk rock clubs and took his art to the walls of New York.
SAMO’s street art didn’t go unnoticed. He caught the attention of fellow street artist Keith Haring, pop art legend Andy Warhol and neo-expressionist Julian Schnabel, among others. Once he was noticed, the path to fame was short. Basquiat’s art burst onto the scene and almost instantly found its way to the most prestigious walls of New York’s contemporary art galleries and museums.
Warhol took him under his wing, he was featured in several underground and high-end art magazines and celebrated as a fresh and powerful voice. He showed his work at some of the most prominent galleries, dated Madonna and was known to hand out $100 bills to panhandlers as he drove by in his limousine.
Unfortunately, this all came to an abrupt end in yet another devastating chapter of the artist’s life. Just as quickly as he rose to fame, the artist dropped back to earth – a victim of drug abuse, which eventually lead to his early death. Aged only 27 Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at his studio in Manhattan.
Jean-Michel Basquiat has been posthumously honored at the Brooklyn Museum as well as the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has also been the subject of several documentaries and biographies. A Basquiat painting can set you back over $100 million. When looking at a piece by Basquiat one can see not only the raw self-expression of graffiti art but also a deep understanding of art history and culture which was instilled in him at a very young age.