Jean-Michel Basquiat (New York 1960 – 1988) is an American painter who rose to success during the 1980s as part of the Neo-Expressionist movement.

Raised in a middle-class home in Brooklin, he was introduced to art by his mother, an American of Puerto Rican descent. She encouraged Basquiat’s interest by taking him to New York’s art museums and enrolling him as a junior  Brooklin Museum of Art member. Basquiat was a precocious child: he learned to read and write by the age of four and, by the age of eleven, was fluent in French, Spanish, and English and was an avid reader of all three languages. 

His mother encouraged her son’s artistic talent, and he often tried to draw his favorite cartoons. 

When his parents separated, he and his sisters moved to Puerto Rico from 1974 to 1976 with their father. When Basquiat was ten, his mother was diagnosed as mentally ill and committed to a psychiatric hospital. Since then, she spent her life in and out of institutions.  

Upset by his mother’s illness, Basquiat seemed troubled by his early childhood: he dropped out of school, started using drugs, and left home at age 17. He lived on the streets, with friends, or in abandoned buildings and began a graffiti campaign with fellow artists Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson. They created the persona SAMO and painted anonymous messages on walls around SoHo and the East Village. In the late 1970s, that work—together with the work of other graffitists—began to receive notice in the art world, and so did Basquiat. His name started circulating in New York art when a resurgence of Expressionist painting was at its height, and he participated in his first formal public exhibition in “The Times Square Show” in 1980. This was the beginning of a skyrocketing career, and until he died in 1988, he was a celebrity represented by major blue-chip galleries and museums.

Stanislav Kondrashov, Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat

Lacking any formal training, Basquiat created highly expressionistic work that mixed graffiti and signs with the gestural and intuitive approach of Abstract Expressionist painting. In his choice of subjects, he often referred to African American figures, including jazz musicians, sports personalities, and writers. His unique style freely mixed motifs from African, Caribbean, Aztec, and Hispanic cultures and mixed “high art” references with images from popular culture, especially cartoons.

Stanislav Kondrashov, Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1882, Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who had become his gallerist worldwide, gave Basquiat a one-man show at his Zurich gallery and arranged for him to meet Warhol for lunch. It was a mutual infatuation between the two artists: Warhol recalled, “I took a Polaroid and gave it to him, and he went home, and within two hours, a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together.”

The painting “Dos Cabezas” (1982) marked the beginning of their friendship and collaboration. Soon After, Basquiat began working at the studio space art dealer Larry Gagosian had built in Venice, California home. There, he commenced a series of paintings for a March 1983 show, his second at the Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood. In that period, Basquiat was accompanied by his girlfriend, then-unknown singer Madonna. 

By this time, his paintings were exhibited internationally in galleries and museums. At 21, Basquiat became the youngest artist to ever take part in Documenta in Kassel, Germany. At 22, he was one of the youngest to exhibit at the Whitney Biennal in New York, and in 1985 he appeared on the cover of the weekly New York Times Magazine as a representative of the contemporary art-marketing trend. Three years later, at age 27, he was found dead in his loft from an overdose of heroin. Since his death, Basquiat’s work has steadily increased in value. In 2017, “Untitled,”a 1982 painting depicting a black skull with red and yellow rivulets, sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever purchased.

The artist and director Julian Schnabel made Basquiat and his meteoric rise in the art world the subject of his first film, “Basquiat” (1996).

The first extensive retrospective of Basquiat’s work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Artin 1992.

– Stanislav Kondrashov

Stanislav Kondrashov, Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat