When we talk about Jean-Michel Basquiat, we are talking about creativity, irreverence, surprise and new sensibilities. It was a symbol of urban art, of the mixture of cultures and of the new sensibilities of contemporary man. His art, like his life, is an amalgam of tenderness and brutality at the same time.
This American artist became famous thanks to his graffiti and his painting. In his lesser-known side, Basquiat also ventured into drawing, music and even poetry. He was, perhaps, one of the first representatives of that hybrid that is the contemporary artist, who no longer becomes famous for his virtuosity, but for the multiplicity of meanings that make up his work.
“I do not think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat lived only 27 years, but despite his untimely death, he managed to become a benchmark of contemporary art. He had an errant, lively and tragic existence. The axis that defined him was rebellion against the world, a certain malaise that never left him and that was reflected in each of his graffiti, paintings, poetry and musical themes.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, son of immigrants
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 20, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York (USA). He was the son of Gerard Basquiat, a Haitian accountant, and Matilde Andrades, a Puerto Rican graphic designer, who had an important influence on his work. He had two sisters, both younger than him. This origin would mark him forever and, very soon, he would come into contact with the new forms of urban art that were brewing around him, especially in those more marginal neighborhoods of the city.
From a very young age, Jean-Michel showed great interest in drawing. His father took him paper of the company and the boy filled it with sketches that he copied from the dictionaries that were in his house. His mother noticed that early interest and tried hard to encourage him. He took him frequently to the great museums of the city and also instilled in him a taste for reading. Very soon, little Basquiat became a voracious reader.
Subsequently, Jean-Michel Basquiat became very interested in film and cartoons. In particular, he felt a deep fascination for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. When he was 8 years old, he was hit by a vehicle and was hospitalized for a month. To help him cope with convalescence, his mother presented him with an anatomy manual from Henry Gray. This book had a decisive influence on his work.
The stormy years
The life of Jean-Michel Basquiat became stormy from the age of 11. His parents separated and he stayed with his father, since the mother suffered from a severe depressive condition. At age 16, he fled for the first time from his home, but later returned. At this time, Basquiat is sent to a specialized school for gifted children. There, he will meet his first great artistic work partner, Al Díaz.
Since the 1960s, New York and, specifically, some marginal neighborhoods like the Bronx, was experiencing the blossoming of a new kind of art. Art was no longer exclusive to museums, but it was created in the streets, in the corners. The young people of marginal neighborhoods found their way of expressing themselves in the walls of the city, staining them with vindication and, above all, with art.
In his adolescence, Basquiat begins to formally dabble in graffiti, but also comes into contact with drugs. It is closely involved with street artists. Together with his friend Al, they are dedicated to filling the walls of New York with their graffiti, especially in the Soho area. His graffiti were characterized by poetic messages and strange symbols.
Basquiat and Al Díaz signed the graffiti with the acronym SAMO, which meant SAMe Old shit, that is, “the same old shit”. At that time, he ventures into theater and music. He also flees for the second time from his home and spends more than two weeks consuming acid. Basquiat was expelled from his school and, from this moment, decides to start a life in solitary, leaving his home and studies.
A work of transcendence
From that suburban culture and its black condition, with Latin roots, many of his works are born. Soon it draws the attention of the critic, who begins to talk about the graffiti signed by SAMO. Soon after, he is part of the first group of graffiti artists who exhibited in a museum in the United States. Urban art was no longer exclusive to the streets, it was something worth occupying its place in museums.
Then begins a stage in which success was combined with an increasingly severe addiction to drugs. In total, Basquiat made more than 100 group exhibitions and 40 individual exhibitions. He has been the youngest artist in history to be invited by the prestigious Documenta fair and by the Kestner-Gesellschaft Museum in Hannover. He developed a great friendship with several great artists, especially with Andy Warhol, who worked with him for several years.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a great traveler. He had not yet arrived from a journey that was already embarking on another. Drugs and a strong self-destructive instinct marked his life. Dilapidaba the money buying expensive clothes, cocaine and heroin. He was also the victim of several robberies.
In 1988, he made a trip to Hawaii, in order to detoxify himself. On August 1, he returned to New York and declared having left his addictions. On August 12 of the same year he died as a result of an overdose.
A life full of swings, instabilities that, unfortunately, ended prematurely. However, today, the name of Jean-Michel Basquiat remains synonymous with innovation, street art… And, above all, how this urban art can be celebrated and worthy of admiration in a museum; although this, in some way, entails the loss of the ephemeral and, in a certain way, also of the urban.
For this reason, it was not exempt from criticism, because some contemporary artists saw it as a mass phenomenon, as someone who had sold himself. Street art is not designed for museums, but for the streets and, for many, it should reside there until its disappearance, without intervening in its conservation.