Jean-Michel Basquiat | The Life of a Legend

On the surface this story may seem like another romanticized depiction of New York City in the 1980s – artists were glorified as rock stars, people wore mohawks, they did heroin, punk collided with jazz, and ‘cool’ went underground. 

“The secret of a man who is universally interesting is that he is universally interested,” American author William Dean Howells once said.  It would be hard to find a quote more suited to late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

Basquiat was many things – an intellectual (and this is not to be confused with an academic), a noise musician, a good friend to Andy Warhol and above all, an artist whose drawings and paintings defined and shaped not only a crucial generation for art but one of the most revolutionary periods in modern America. 

“Language and history, as well as complicated race issues in America, being a black painter in a very predominantly white art world, can be felt through many of Basquiat’s paintings,” explains Nick Simunovic, director of Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong which is currently housing a collection of 16 original Basquiat paintings. It’s the first ever Basquiat exhibition in an Asian city outside of Seoul, where he has held exhibitions in the past. 

Basquiat was born in New York City to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, and endured a childhood more difficult than most people realize. After his parents divorced in 1968, his mother, with whom Basquiat was very close, was admitted to a sanitarium for a mental condition. 

In an interview with Tamra Davis and Becky Johnston later on in 1986, he was asked what he would do if he had 24 hours left to live. He replied, “I don’t know, I’d go hang out with my mother and my girlfriend, I guess.”

Following this, Basquiat dropped out of school at 15 and ran away from home that same year, sleeping on benches in Washington Square Park or couch surfing and friends’ homes, scraping what money he could by drawing and selling postcards, blond Mohawk in tow and often shoeless.

“I thought I was going to be a bum the rest of my life,” Basquiat has said, and he couldn’t have been more wrong. Little did he know that a spectacular career was around the corner.

It was in those defining years that Basquiat’s surroundings and influences came together to form his distinctive painting style. One was music, his genre of choice being be-bop; a style that breaks down melodies and harmonies in a way that had never been done before the same way Basquiat’s paintings are a collage of different elements, inspirations and ideas. 

But more than anything else, street art and graffiti were Basquiat’s heaviest influences. While living on the streets of New York he made the city his canvas, tagging buildings under his moniker SAMO to create art using words and phrases, turning graffiti into more than just guerilla art but something to provoke thought in every day people. 

It got people talking about this mysterious SAMO and ultimately became one of the elements which were quintessential Basquiat; the repetition of certain words, phrases and more curiously his crossing out of words in his paintings. 

“I cross out words so you will see them more. The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them,” Basquiat has said.

Another significant point in the development of Basquiat’s creativity and curiosity was much earlier when he was just 8 years old. While playing out on the street one day, Basquiat was struck by a car and hospitalized. The near fatal accident was so serious that it resulted in Basquiat having his spleen removed. To keep him entertained, his mother brought him a heavy textbook to keep him busy– Gray’s Anatomy – a bible of the human anatomy read by most first year med students. Why she chose such a peculiar gift, such advanced reading material, for her injured son is a mystery, but it certainly left a lasting impression on young Basquiat. 

Up until the end of his career, Basquiat continued to paint with references to his unyielding fascination with the human anatomy; from diagrams of body parts such as teeth or tongues, the scribbling of scientific names, or a depiction of the human heart with all of its ventricles and valves. He even named his noise rock band Gray, which he founded in 1979 with four other members including Vincent Gallo and Michael Holman, who is also the screenwriter of his deceased friend’s biopic, simply titled Basquiat

But despite his circumstances, by the time Basquiat was 18 he immediately found himself at the epicenter of the best music and the best art in New York City in the 80s. He was adored by those around him, who described him as “charming” and “someone who had tremendous energy”. 

Not to mention the amount of attention and respect he received for the vital role he played in the revival of painting during a period in which minimalism, conceptualism and video-based art dominated the scene.

“I thought it divided people a little bit,” Basquiat has said. “I think it alienated people from art.”

It wasn’t until 1981 that gallery owner Annina Nosei, who was known for her knack for discovering young international talent, recognized the young artist’s potential and proposed a show at her gallery. Still couch surfing at this point, Nosei provided canvases, paints and even the basement of her Prince Street gallery for him to use as a studio. Until then, Basquiat only had drawings on scrap paper and had never had a proper studio to work in. 

“He would come quite early in the morning, just after the gallery opened and he would bring often a croissant from Dean & Deluca,” remembers Nosei in the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. “And he put on music which drove me crazy; classical music. Ravel, over and over again with the Bolero Ravel. I would bang with my umbrella [on the floor] like ‘quiet down!”

Basquiat held his first solo show at Annina Nosei in March of 1982. Every single painting sold on the first night, rocketing Basquiat into his brief yet meteoric career as an artist. The world simply couldn’t get enough. Yes, he was different. Yes, he was cool and fresh and different. But not only did they look like nothing anyone had ever seen, what people found most endearing about Basquiat was the nature and the philosophy behind his works.

Despite such a troubled and turbulent upbringing, despite having no formal education, Basquiat remained aware and awake to the world. He was a veracious reader and had a sensitivity, which allowed him to empathise with the social and political issues happening around him. Some have even suggested he was somewhat of an oracle; gathering as much information as he could from the world and distilling it through his own vision before giving it back to the world in his art.