Jean-Michel Basquiat, from street graffiti to a millionaire skull

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Skull - Jean-Michel Basquiat | Date: 1981 | Style: Neo-Expressionism | Genre: figurative | Media: acrylic, crayon, canvas Location: Broad, Los Angeles, CA, US Dimensions: 207 x 175.9 cm

Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of the most famous and successful African-American visual artists in the modern art scene. His mother was a Puerto Rican graphic designer, his parents divorced while he was a child and he had to change schools several times. Since he was a child he received an informal art education. His mother took him to visit museums, initiated him in reading poetic literature, and encouraged him to write his own. He completed his self-taught training as a listener at the School of Visual Arts, where he came into contact with the painter and graffiti writer Keith Haring.

He was in touch with the subculture of the great city of New York from a very young age. In 1977, together with Al Díaz, he entered the world of graffiti, painting in the subway wagons of the SoHo area. In 1978 he left high school a year before graduating, left his home too, and lived on the streets for two years. He occupied abandoned buildings in Lower Manhattan, surviving by selling postcards and T-shirts he made himself. It was from 1980 onwards, while still a vagabond, that he began to devote himself mainly to painting. 

His paintings and writings were very poetic, philosophical, and satirical. The pseudonym of his alter-ego shared with Al Díaz was SAMO, an acronym for “SAMe Old shit”. With which both signed their graffiti and the use of this name was decisive in his life. These murals had inscriptions like “SAMO saves idiots” or “SAMO puts an end to religious brainwashing, politics out of hand and false philosophy”. An article about SAMO’s street writing in “The Village Voice” was the first indication that the art world was interested in him.

Jean-Michel possessed a great intellectual curiosity and was truly fascinated by abstract expressionism. He was strongly attracted to the early works of Jackson Pollock, the figure paintings of De Kooning and Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly’s large-format works, based on freely drawn strokes, calligraphy and graffiti on solid fields. In his work, he managed to capture these tendencies mixed with his Haitian and Puerto Rican roots. He was also interested in Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combine Paintings”, and Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut, as well as the “Pop Culture” of his time. 

His work in New York in the 1980s marked the transition from graffiti on city walls and subways to canvas and art galleries. Very little institutional attention has been paid to the pioneers of graffiti art considering their enormous influence not only on street art but on the contemporary art of the 1980s and its advancement. Post-graffiti is one of the most generative but overlooked movements in contemporary American art. 

In 1988, exhibitions were held in Paris and New York, and in April of that same year, he tried to abandon his addictions and retired to his home in Hawaii. But He returns to New York in June, and on August 12, 1988, he dies of a heroin overdose, at the age of 27, becoming the most successful visual artist in the history of African-American art. Throughout his brief but intense artistic career, he held more than 40 personal exhibitions and participated in around 100 collective ones. As they had been for Andy Warhol or Julian Schnabel, self-promotion and publicity were priority factors for Basquiat.

In 2017 a painting by Basquiat was auctioned as the most expensive by an American artist. A Japanese billionaire bought it for $110.5 million, the highest price ever paid at an auction for a work by an American artist. This painting had a spectacular increase in value since the previous time this untitled painting was bought, in 1984, for $19,000. This piece was created in 1981 when Basquiat was only twenty years old and is an example of Basquiat’s first canvas work. It’s an untitled piece that was presented in his first solo exhibition at a gallery in New York, although this painting is often called “Skull”. While most of his artwork is completed in a few days, Basquiat worked on this painting for months. 

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