Jean-Michel Basquiat: America’s first truly important black painter

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a legendary American artist who died of an overdose at the age of 27. Thirty years after his death, he is still an eccentric figure in art history. In 2017 his painting Untitled (1982) was sold for $110.5 million at auction. The Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa revealed that he is the buyer of the “masterpiece” on an Instagram post. Basquiat became the highest-grossing American artist at auction.

©Photography by Lee Jaffe

Jean-Michel Basquiat born December 22, 1960 and died on August 12, 1988 at the age of 27. He became a member of the 27 club, the 27 club is a list of popular musicians, artists and actors who died at the age of 27. Basquiat was an American artist that started his artistic career under the name “SAMO” meaning “SAMe Old shit”. Basquiat was born in Brooklyn with a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother. 

Despite the fact that he was mixed-race, Basquiat sees himself as black and wanted to be the very first great black artist in America. Privileged enough to be born in New York he regularly visited museums and he started drawing from an early age. 

In the late 1970s Basquait along with his friend Al Diaz and under the pseudonym SAMO were making graffiti art all over the streets of New York. In 1979, Basquiat dumped the project SAMO that was created to criticise the society and the art world and two years later he became a phenomenal artist.

I wanted to build up a name for myself.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1982 Jean-Michel met Andy Warhol and immediately they became friends, Warhol took Basquiat under his wing as he became his mentor.  Andy Warhol was his idol and when he finally had the chance to meet him in a restaurant in Soho, Basquiat sold him a postcard that he had made with his friend and artist Jennifer Stein.

Warhol remembers him as:

“the kid who used the name ‘Samo’ when he used to sit on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village and paint T-shirts, and I’d give him $10 here and there and send him up to Serendipity to try to sell the T-shirts there. He was just one of those kids who drove me crazy

Together in Andy’s studio, August 15, 1983
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc

Their friendship was stronger than ever as they inspired each other creatively. Later they started a collaboration and in 1985 they made their most well known piece the  “Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper)”. Both of them were already known and successful in the art world but the collaboration brought some unexpected drama between them. The papers at the time criticised their friendship a lot that both of them were using each other for fame. They thought that Basquiat was using Warhol’s established fame and that Warhol used Basquiat to stay relevant. 

Jean Michel and Andy at The Rockefeller Center, September 19, 1985© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

After the bad reviews of their exhibition Paintings shown at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York in 1985, the tension between them was inevitable as Warhol recalls: 

I asked him if he was mad at me for that review where he got called my mascot, and he said no.

In 1987 when Warhol died of cardiac arrest suffered after gallbladder surgery, Basquiat unable to deal with the grief, he started using heroin again. One year later on August 12, 1988 he died of a heroin overdose at his studio on Great Jones Street in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood and was found by his girlfriend Kelly Inman.

Basquiat’s work changed the face of art and established the contemporary culture. Today his works are a part of the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among others.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, NEW YORK, 1985. © PHOTOGRAPH BY EVELYN HOFER/GETTY IMAGES.

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