A renowned painter, draftsman, poet, musician, and graffiti artist, as well as an all-around arts icon, Jean-Michel Basquiat was at the forefront of New York’s downtown avant-garde in the late 1970s and 80s. Friend to many but known well by a very few, Basquiat’s influence on subsequent generations of artists has been immense. Basquiat was born to Afro-Caribbean immigrants in 1960, and though he grew up in New York, Basquiat spent two years living in Puerto Rico, his mother’s country of origin. At the age of 16, he dropped out of high school, moved out of his parents’ house, and befriended several artists in New York’s downtown scene.
Basquiat formed the band Gray, spread graffiti under the group alias SAMO©, made TV appearances on a local cable access show popular among that crowd, and began painting and drawing with more focused effort. After he met Andy Warhol, the two became fast friends and collaborated on several projects, and in 1980, he joined Annina Nosei Gallery, which represented several laudable graffiti artists of his generation, before later moving to Mary Boone Gallery in 1984. Throughout the 80s, Basquiat made a name for himself as one of the best among a cadre of Neo-Expressionist artists in New York. He was both lauded as a genius and seen as a standard bearer of the booming art market. Sadly, Basquiat died of an overdose of drugs in 1988. Julian Schnabel, one of Basquiat’s friends and contemporaries, made an eponymous 1996 biographical film about the artist.
Basquiat’s work is known for its primitivist motives, combining anatomical diagrams, commercial art, Black pop cultural history and figures, charged phrases and words, and representations of the body in an emotional and psychologically explosive admixture. His employment of bright colors and his vibrant line drawings brought to vibrant life on canvas his experiences in the urban landscapes. In addition to traditional canvas painting, Basquiat often painted and drew on assemblage surfaces such as wood constructions, cardboard, aluminum, punching bags, and so on. In one of his best-known works, his 1982 oil and crayon painting Cabeza, Basquiat depicts a central figure in black against a cadmium yellow and orange field. The figure is label in white crayon “AOPKHES,” a name of uncertain meaning that re-appears in many of his paintings. Tied with zigzagging cord to a larger frame, the image looks at once, and similar to most of his pieces, like a symbol, a portrait, and an object whose meaning is not fully comprehensible in translation.
Basquiat’s work is found in major collections all over the world, including the Broad Art Collection, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Daros Collection in Zurich, the Menil Collection in Houston, and the Hoffmann Collection in Berlin, among many others. His art continues to be shown in museum exhibitions around the world, including in shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and a traveling exhibition of works from the Rubell Family Collection.