Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat 1986 by William Coupon.jpg
Basquiat in 1986, photo by William Coupon.
Born(1960-12-22)December 22, 1960
DiedAugust 12, 1988(1988-08-12) (aged 27)
New York City, U.S.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (French: [ʒɑ̃ miʃɛl baskija]; December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an influential American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. Basquiat first achieved fame as part of SAMO, an informal graffiti duo who wrote enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 1970s, where rap, punk, and street art coalesced into early hip-hop music culture. By the 1980s, his neo-expressionist paintings were being exhibited in galleries and museums internationally; the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his art in 1992.

Basquiat's art focused on "suggestive dichotomies", such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience, he appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique.

Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings as a tool for introspection and for identifying with his experiences in the black community of his time, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism. Basquiat's visual poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle, he died of a heroin overdose at his art studio at the age of 27. On May 18, 2017, at a Sotheby's auction, a 1982 painting by Basquiat depicting a black skull with red and black rivulets (Untitled) set a new record high for any American artist at auction, selling for $110.5 million. Basquiat's art has inspired many in the hip hop music community such as Jay-Z.


Early life: 1960-1975[edit]

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 22, 1960, shortly after the death of his older brother, Max, he was the second of four children of Matilde Andrades (July 28, 1934 – November 17, 2008)[1] and Gérard Basquiat (1930 – July 7, 2013).[2][3] He had two younger sisters: Lisane, born in 1964, and Jeanine, born in 1967.[4][1]

His father, Gérard Basquiat, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother, Matilde Basquiat, who was of Puerto Rican descent, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Matilde instilled a love for art in her young son by taking him to art museums in Manhattan and enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.[3][5] Basquiat was a precocious child who learned how to read and write by the age of four and was a gifted artist, his teachers, including artist Jose Machado, noticed his artistic abilities, and his mother encouraged her son's artistic talent. By the age of 11, Basquiat was fully fluent in French, Spanish and English. In 1967, Basquiat started attending Saint Ann's, an arts-oriented exclusive private school.[6][7][8] There he met his friend Marc Prozzo; together they created a children's book, written by Basquiat and illustrated by Prozzo. Basquiat became an avid reader of Spanish, French, and English texts and a more than competent athlete, competing in track events.

In September 1968, at the age of seven, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street, his arm was broken and he suffered several internal injuries; he eventually underwent a splenectomy.[9] While he was recuperating from his injuries, his mother brought him the Gray's Anatomy book to keep him occupied; this book would prove to be influential in his future artistic outlook. His parents separated that year and he and his sisters were raised by their father;[3][10] the family resided in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, for five years, then moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1974, where Basquiat studied at Saint John's School in Condado. After two years, they returned to New York City.[11]:39

When he was 13, his mother was committed to a mental institution and thereafter spent her life in and out of institutions.[12] At 15, Basquiat ran away from home,[3][11]:37 he slept on park benches in Tompkins Square Park, and was arrested and returned to the care of his father within a week.[3][11]:39 Basquiat dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School in the 10th grade at the age of 17 and then attended City-As-School, an alternative high school in Manhattan, home to many artistic students who failed at conventional schooling. His father banished him from the household for dropping out of high school and Basquiat stayed with friends in Brooklyn, he supported himself by selling T-shirts and homemade post cards.[3]

Urban art: 1976-1980[edit]

SAMO (for "same old") marked the witty sayings of a precocious and worldly teenage mind that, even at that early juncture, saw the world in shades of gray, fearlessly juxtaposing corporate commodity structures with the social milieu he wished to enter: the predominantly white art world.

—Franklin Sirmans, In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip Hop Culture[13]

Basquiat transitioned from being homeless and unemployed to selling a single painting for up to $25,000 in a matter of several years.[14] In 1976, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz began spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan, working under the pseudonym SAMO; the designs featured inscribed messages such as "Plush safe he think.. SAMO" and "SAMO as an escape clause". In 1978, Basquiat worked for the Unique Clothing Warehouse in their art department at 718 Broadway in NoHo, and at night he began "SAMO," painting his original graffiti[15] art on neighborhood buildings. Unique's founder Harvey Russack discovered Basquiat painting a building one night, they became friends, and he offered him a day job. On December 11, 1978, The Village Voice published an article about the graffiti;[16] when Basquiat and Diaz ended their friendship, The SAMO project ended with the epitaph "SAMO IS DEAD", inscribed on the walls of SoHo buildings in 1979.[17]

SAMO color work at A's, Arleen Schloss, 1979

In 1979, Basquiat appeared on the live public-access television show TV Party hosted by Glenn O'Brien, and the two started a friendship. Basquiat made regular appearances on the show over the next few years; that same year, Basquiat formed the noise rock band Test Pattern – which was later renamed Gray – which played at Arleen Schloss's open space, "Wednesdays at A's",[18] where in October 1979 Basquiat showed, among others, his SAMO color Xerox work.

Gray also consisted of Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford and Vincent Gallo, and the band performed at nightclubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrah and the Mudd Club. In 1980, Basquiat starred in O'Brien's independent film Downtown 81, originally titled New York Beat; that same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol at a restaurant. Basquiat presented to Warhol samples of his work, and Warhol was stunned by Basquiat's "mystique and allure."[19] The two artists later collaborated. Downtown 81 featured some of Gray's recordings on its soundtrack.[20] Basquiat also appeared in the 1981 Blondie music video "Rapture," in a role originally intended for Grandmaster Flash,[21][22] as a nightclub disc jockey.[23]

Gallery artist: 1980-1985[edit]

The early 1980s were Basquiat's breakthrough as a solo artist. In June 1980, Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and Fashion Moda where he was noticed by various critics and curators. In particular Emilio Mazzoli, an Italian gallerist saw the exhibition and invited Basquiat to Modena (Italy) to have his world first solo show, that opened on May 23, 1981. In December 1981, René Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum magazine.[24] At this time, Basquiat painted many pieces on found objects, such as discarded doors.

In March 1982 he worked in Modena, Italy, again to work on his second Italian exhibition and from November, Basquiat worked from the ground-floor display and studio space Larry Gagosian had built below his Venice, California, home and commenced a series of paintings for a 1983 show, his second at Gagosian Gallery, then in West Hollywood,[25] he brought along his girlfriend, then-unknown aspiring singer Madonna.[26] Gagosian recalls, "Everything was going along fine. Jean-Michel was making paintings, I was selling them, and we were having a lot of fun, but then one day Jean-Michel said, 'My girlfriend is coming to stay with me.' I was a little concerned -- one too many eggs can spoil an omelet, you know? So I said, 'Well, what's she like?' And he said, 'Her name is Madonna and she's going to be huge.' I'll never forget that he said that. So Madonna came out and stayed for a few months and we all got along like one big, happy family."[27] During this time he took considerable interest in the work that Robert Rauschenberg was producing at Gemini G.E.L. in West Hollywood, visiting him on several occasions and finding inspiration in the accomplishments of the painter.[25] In the early 1980s, David Bowie became an early collector of Basquiat's work.

Basquiat lived from 1983 to 1988 at 57 Great Jones in downtown Manhattan, where he died. A plaque dedicating his life was placed on July 13, 2016, by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

In late 1981 Basquiat met Annina Nosei and had a first exhibition with her gallery in a group show in October called Public Address with Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger among others[28], he joined the Annina Nosei gallery and worked in a basement below the gallery toward his first American one-man show, which took place from March 6 to April 1, 1982[29]. At the time, Basquiat was living with his girlfriend (from 1981-1983[30]), Suzanne Mallouk, who later specifically described his sexuality in Jennifer Clement's book, Widow Basquiat, as: "... not monochromatic. It did not rely on visual stimulation, such as a pretty girl, it was a very rich multichromatic sexuality. He was attracted to people for all different reasons, they could be boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly. It was, I think, driven by intelligence, he was attracted to intelligence more than anything and to pain."[31]

In 1983, Basquiat produced a 12-inch rap single featuring hip-hop artists Rammellzee and K-Rob. Billed as Rammellzee vs. K-Rob, the single contained two versions of the same track: "Beat Bop" on side one with vocals and "Beat Bop" on side two as an instrumental;[32] the single was pressed in limited quantities on the one-off Tartown Record Company label. The single's cover featured Basquiat's artwork, making the pressing highly desirable among both record and art collectors. At the suggestion of Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol and Basquiat worked on a series of collaborative paintings between 1983 and 1985. In the case of Olympic Rings (1985), Warhol made several variations of the Olympic five-ring symbol, rendered in the original primary colors. Basquiat responded to the abstract, stylized logos with his oppositional graffiti style.[33] Basquiat often painted in expensive Armani suits; and he would even appear in public in the same paint-splattered clothes.[34][35]

Final years: 1986-1988[edit]

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

By 1986, Basquiat had left the Annina Nosei gallery and was showing at the Mary Boone gallery in SoHo. On February 10, 1985, he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature titled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist".[36] Despite his artistic success in this period, he began to use heroin frequently. Many of his peers speculated that his heroin use was a means of coping with the demands of his newfound fame, the exploitative nature of the art industry, and the pressures of being a black man in the white-dominated art world.[37]

Following his return from a trip to Hawaii in the last year of his life, Keith Haring reports meeting with Basquiat who was glad to tell Haring that he had finally "kicked" his dependence on drugs.[38] Despite the unsuccessful attempt at sobriety, he died on August 12, 1988, of a heroin overdose at his art studio on Great Jones Street in Manhattan's NoHo neighborhood,[39][40][41] he was 27 years old.[17][42]

Basquiat was interred in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, where Jeffrey Deitch made a graveside speech. Among those speaking at Basquiat's memorial held at Saint Peter's Church on November 3, 1988, were Ingrid Sischy who, as the editor of Artforum in the 1980s, got to know the artist well and commissioned a number of articles that introduced his work to the wider world.[43] Suzanne Mallouk recited sections of A. R. Penck's "Poem for Basquiat" and Fab 5 Freddy read a poem by Langston Hughes.[44] The 300 guests included musicians John Lurie and Arto Lindsay; artist Keith Haring; poet David Shapiro; Glenn O'Brien, a writer; Fab 5 Freddy; and members of the band Gray, which Basquiat led in the late 1970s.[45] In memory of the late artist, Keith Haring created Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1988).[46] In his memorial words for Basquiat, Haring stated: "He truly created a lifetime of works in ten years. Greedily, we wonder what else he might have created, what masterpieces we have been cheated out of by his death, but the fact is that he has created enough work to intrigue generations to come. Only now will people begin to understand the magnitude of his contribution".[47]


Basquiat's canon revolves around single heroic figures: athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself. In these images the head is often a central focus, topped by crowns, hats, and halos. In this way the intellect is emphasized, lifted up to notice, privileged over the body and the physicality of these figures (i.e. black men) commonly represent in the world.

—Kellie Jones, Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix[48]

According to Sirmans, Basquiat appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique.[13] Fred Hoffman hypothesizes that underlying Basquiat's self-identification as an artist was his "innate capacity to function as something like an oracle, distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and, in turn, projecting them outward through his creative acts."[49] Additionally, continuing his activities as a graffiti artist, Basquiat often incorporated words into his paintings. Before his career as a painter began, he produced punk-inspired postcards for sale on the street, and became known for the political–poetical graffiti under the name of SAMO. On one occasion Basquiat painted his girlfriend's dress with the words "Little Shit Brown", he would often draw on random objects and surfaces, including other people's property. The conjunction of various media is an integral element of Basquiat's art, his paintings are typically covered with text and codes of all kinds: words, letters, numerals, pictograms, logos, map symbols, diagrams and more.[50]

Basquiat's art focused on recurrent "suggestive dichotomies", such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience.[49] A middle period from late 1982 to 1985 featured multi-panel paintings and individual canvases with exposed stretcher bars, the surface dense with writing, collage and imagery; the years 1984–85 were also the main period of the Basquiat–Warhol collaborations, even if, in general, they were not very well received by the critics. A major reference source used by Basquiat throughout his career was the book Gray's Anatomy, which his mother had given him while he was in the hospital aged seven, it remained influential in his depictions of internal human anatomy, and in its mixture of image and text. Other major sources were Henry Dreyfuss' Symbol Sourcebook, Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, and Brentjes' African Rock Art.

Heroes and saints[edit]

A recurrent and prominent theme in the early Basquiat portrayed historical and non-historical black figures who were identified by Basquiat as black heroes and saints; these were often identified with the iconographic depiction of crowns and halos used to distinguished heroes and saints in Basquiat's specially chosen pantheon. As summarized in Art Daily concerning the Basquiat show in the Bilbao Guggenheim: "The show is divided into eight different sections on the Museum's third floor and begins in Gallery 305, where his earliest creations are displayed under two themes: “Street as Studio” and “Heroes and Saints”; the urban landscape inspired the subject matter, approach, and materials used in these pieces".[51]

Basquiat drawing of the supportive art critic Rene Ricard, Untitled (Axe/Rene), 1984


In his short career, Basquiat produced around 1500 drawings, as well as around 600 paintings and many other sculpture and mixed media works as well. Basquiat drew constantly, and often used objects around him as surfaces when paper wasn't immediately to hand.[52][53] From a very young age Basquiat would produce cartoon-inspired drawings alongside his mother, who had an interest in fashion design and sketching. Drawings became central to his work as he developed as an artist.[54] Basquiat's drawings were produced in many different mediums, most commonly ink, pencil, felt-tip or marker, and oil-stick.[55] Basquiat sometimes used Xerox copies of fragments of his drawings to paste on to the canvas of larger paintings.[56]

The first public showing of Basquiat's paintings and drawings was in 1981: New York/New Wave, at PS1 in Long Island City, brought together by Mudd Club co-founder and curator Diego Cortez, it was a group show that included pieces by William Burroughs, David Byrne, Keith Haring, Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe.[57][58] The article in Artforum magazine entitled Radiant Child written by Rene Ricard after seeing the show at PS1, brought Basquiat to the attention of the art world.[59] In 1984 Basquiat immortalised Ricard in two drawings, Untitled (Axe/Rene) and René Ricard,[60][61] representing the tension that existed between them.

A poet as well as an artist, words featured heavily in his drawings and paintings, with direct references to racism, slavery, the people and street scene of 1980s New York including other artists, and black historical figures, musicians and sports stars, as his notebooks and many important drawings demonstrate.[62][63] Often Basquiat's drawings were untitled, and as such to differentiate works a word written within the drawing is commonly in parentheses after Untitled, such as with Untitled (Axe/Rene). After Basquiat died of an overdose at the age of 27, his estate was controlled by his father Gérard Basquiat, who also oversaw the committee which authenticated artworks, and operated from 1993 to 2012 to review over 1000 works, the majority of which were drawings.[64]


Untitled (Scull/Skull) (1981)

Heads and skulls are seen as significant focal points of many of Basquiat's most seminal works. Two pieces, Untitled (Scull/Skull)[65] 1981 and Untitled (Head) 1982[66], held by the Broad Foundation and Maezawa Foundation, respectively, can be seen as primary examples. In reference to the potent image depicted in both pieces, Fred Hoffman writes that Basquiat was likely, "caught off guard, possibly even frightened, by the power and energy emanating from this unexpected image." [67] Further investigation by Fred Hoffman of pieces like Masonic Lodge 1983 and Untitled (1983) in his book The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat reveals a deeper interest in the artist's fascination with heads that proves an evolution in the artist's oeuvre from one of raw power to one of more refined cognizance.[68]


Like a DJ, Basquiat adeptly reworked Neo-expressionism's clichéd language of gesture, freedom, and angst and redirected Pop art's strategy of appropriation to produce a body of work that at times celebrated black culture and history but also revealed its complexity and contradictions.

—Lydia Lee[13]

According to Andrea Frohne, Basquiat's 1983 painting Untitled (History of the Black People) "reclaims Egyptians as African and subverts the concept of ancient Egypt as the cradle of Western Civilization".[69]:439–449 At the center of the painting, Basquiat depicts an Egyptian boat being guided down the Nile River by Osiris, the Egyptian god of the earth and vegetation.[69]:448 On the right panel of the painting appear the words "Esclave, Slave, Esclave". Two letters of the word "Nile" are crossed out and Frohne suggests that, "The letters that are wiped out and scribbled over perhaps reflect the acts of historians who have conveniently forgotten that Egyptians were black and blacks were enslaved."[69]:448 On the left panel of the painting Basquiat has illustrated two Nubian-style masks; the Nubians historically were darker in skin color, and were considered to be slaves by the Egyptian people.[69]:439–449 Throughout the rest of the painting, images of the Atlantic slave trade are juxtaposed alongside images of the Egyptian slave trade centuries before;[69]:439–449 the sickle in the center panel is a direct reference to the slave trade in the United States, and slave labor under the plantation system. The word "salt" that appears on the right panel of the work refers to the Atlantic slave trade, as salt was another important commodity traded at that time.[69]:439–449

Another of Basquiat's pieces, Irony of Negro Policeman (1981), is intended to illustrate how he believes African-Americans have been controlled by a predominantly Caucasian society. Basquiat sought to portray that African-Americans have become complicit with the "institutionalized forms of whiteness and corrupt white regimes of power" years after the Jim Crow era had ended.[69]:439–449 Basquiat found the concept of a "Negro policeman" utterly ironic. According to him the policeman should sympathize with his black friends, family, and ancestors, yet instead he was there to enforce the rules designed by "white society." The Negro policeman had "black skin but wore a white mask". In the painting, Basquiat depicted the policeman as large in order to suggest an "excessive and totalizing power", but made the policeman's body fragmented and broken.[70]

The hat that frames the head of the Negro policeman resembles a cage, and represents what Basquiat believes are the constrained independent perceptions of African Americans at the time, and how constrained the policeman's own perceptions were within white society. Basquiat drew upon his Haitian heritage by painting a hat that resembles the top hat associated with the gede family of loa, who embody the powers of death in Vodou.[70]:183 However, Kellie Jones, in her essay Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix, posits that Basquiat's "mischievous, complex, and neologistic side, with regard to the fashioning of modernity and the influence and effluence of black culture" are often elided by critics and viewers, and thus "lost in translation."[48] The art historian Olivier Berggruen situates in Basquiat's anatomical screen prints, titled Anatomy, an assertion of vulnerability, one which "creates an aesthetic of the body as damaged, scarred, fragmented, incomplete, or torn apart, once the organic whole has disappeared. Paradoxically, it is the very act of creating these representations that conjures a positive corporeal valence between the artist and his sense of self or identity."[71]

Reception, exhibitions and art market[edit]


Traditionally, the value given to Basquiat's works at the visual level comes from the ambivalent emotional tone of what they represent: The figures in his paintings, as stated by Stephen Metcalf, "are shown frontally, with little or no depth of field, and nerves and organs are exposed, as in an anatomy textbook. Are these creatures dead and being clinically dissected, one wonders, or alive and in immense pain?"[72] In particular, Jordana Moore Saggese states the action of painting in Basquiat has been refereed as a tribute to jazz indicataing that, "Parker, Gillespie, and the other musicians of the bebop era infamously appropriated both the harmonic structures of jazz standards, using them as a structure for their own songs, and repeated similar note patterns across several improvisations."[73]

A second recurrent reference to Basquiat's aesthetics comes from the role of the artist as a person sharing, in the words of Niru Ratnum, a "highly individualistic, expressive view of the world".[74] David Bowie stated that "He seemed to digest the frenetic flow of passing image and experience, put them through some kind of internal reorganization and dress the canvas with this resultant network of chance."[75] Basquiat seems to invite us to in the words of Luis Alberto Mejia Clavijo, "paint like a child, don't paint what is on the surface but what you are re-creating inside. Finally every energy you drop is marking a territory, is a traffic sign, is directing and feeding spirits. What seems like a mess for some of us in the Cartesian logic, it is maybe a clear spiritual route for some others."[76] Fred Hoffman stated that a painting from Basquiat typically "shows the artist's vitality and energy being continually challenged by life-draining organisms."[77] Reviews about his work have been written on the direct relation of painting and graffiti as stated by Olivia Laing: "Words jumped out at him, from the back of cereal boxes or subway ads, and he stayed alert to their subversive properties, their double and hidden meaning."[78]

In the words of the Marc Mayer essay "Basquiat in History", "Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador. We can read his pictures without strenuous effort—the words, the images, the colors and the construction—but we cannot quite fathom the point they belabor. Keeping us in this state of half-knowing, of mystery-within-familiarity, had been the core technique of his brand of communication since his adolescent days as the graffiti poet SAMO. To enjoy them, we are not meant to analyze the pictures too carefully. Quantifying the encyclopedic breadth of his research certainly results in an interesting inventory, but the sum cannot adequately explain his pictures, which requires an effort outside the purview of iconography ... he painted a calculated incoherence, calibrating the mystery of what such apparently meaning-laden pictures might ultimately mean."[79]


Basquiat's first public exhibition was in the group effort The Times Square Show (with David Hammons, Jenny Holzer, Lee Quiñones, Kenny Scharf and Kiki Smith among others), held in a vacant building at 41st Street and Seventh Avenue, New York. In late 1981, Basquiat joined the Annina Nosei gallery in SoHo; his first one-person exhibition was in 1982 at that gallery.[80] By then, he was showing regularly alongside other Neo-expressionist artists including Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, he was represented in Los Angeles by the Gagosian gallery and throughout Europe by Bruno Bischofberger.

Major exhibitions of Basquiat's work have included Jean-Michel Basquiat: Paintings 1981–1984 at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (1984), which traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, in 1985); the Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover (1987, 1989); the first retrospective to be held of his work was the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 1992 to February 1993. It subsequently traveled to the Menil Collection, Houston; the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama, from 1993 to 1994; the catalog for this exhibition,[81] edited by Richard Marshall and including several essays of differing styles. Another exhibition, Basquiat, was mounted by the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2005, and traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.[33][82] From October 2006 to January 2007, the first Basquiat exhibition in Puerto Rico took place at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR), produced by ArtPremium, Corinne Timsit and Eric Bonici.

"Basquait and the Bayou," a 2014 show presented by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, focused on the artist's works with themes of the American South.[83] Brooklyn Museum exhibited Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks in April–August 2015.[84] In 2017, the Barbican Centre in London exhibited Basquiat: Boom for Real. Basquiat remains an important source of inspiration for a younger generation of contemporary artists all over the world such as Rita Ackermann and Kader Attia, as shown, for example, at the exhibition Street and Studio: From Basquiat to Séripop co-curated by Cathérine Hug and Thomas Mießgang and previously exhibited at Kunsthalle Wien (Austria) in 2010.[85]

The Brant Foundation in its Art Study Center from March 6th to May 15th, 2019 hosted an extensive exhibit of Basquiat's works with free admission, where all tickets were claimed for its full six weeks in advance of the opening of the exhibit.[86][87] In June 2019, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presents Basquiat's “Defacement”: The Untold Story[88]


In a review for The Telegraph, critic Hilton Kramer begins his first paragraph by stating that Basquiat had no idea what the word "quality" meant; the praises to follow are in the lines of "talentless hustler" and "street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant" arguing that art dealers of the time were "as ignorant about art as Basquiat himself." In saying that Jean-Michel's work never rose above "that lowly artistic station" of graffiti "even when his paintings were fetching enormous prices," Kramer argued that graffiti art "acquired a cult status in certain New York art circles." Kramer further opined that "As a result of the campaign waged by these art-world entrepreneurs on Basquiat's behalf—and their own, of course—there was never any doubt that the museums, the collectors and the media would fall into line" when talking about the marketization of Basquiat's name.[89]

According to Sirmans, Basquiat's visual poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle;[13] as reviewed by Hoffman, Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings as a "springboard to deeper truths about the individual".[49] Art critic Bonnie Rosenberg compares Basquiat's work to the emergence of American Hip Hop during the same era, she also mentions how Basquiat experienced a good taste of fame in his last years when he was a "critically embraced and popularly celebrated artistic phenomenon." Rosenberg remarked that some people focused on the "superficial exoticism of his work" missing the fact that it "held important connections to expressive precursors."[90] Shortly after his death, The New York Times indicated that Basquiat was "the most famous of only a small number of young black artists who have achieved national recognition."[91]

Art market[edit]

Notable private collectors of Basquiat's work include David Bowie, Mera and Donald Rubell,[92] Lars Ulrich,[93] Steven A. Cohen,[92] Laurence Graff,[92] John McEnroe,[92] Madonna,[92] Debbie Harry, Leonardo DiCaprio,[94] Swizz Beatz,[95] Jay-Z,[96] and Johnny Depp.[97] Basquiat sold his first painting in 1981, and by 1982, spurred by the Neo-Expressionist art boom, his work was in great demand. In 1985, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in connection with an article on the newly exuberant international art market; this was unprecedented for an African-American artist, and for an artist so young.[98] Since Basquiat's death in 1988, his market has developed steadily—in line with overall art market trends—with a dramatic peak in 2007 when, at the height of the art market boom, the global auction volume for his work was over $115 million. Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of Christie's, is quoted describing Basquiat's market as "two-tiered. ... The most coveted material is rare, generally dating from the best period, 1981–83."[99]

In 2001 New York artist and con-artist Alfredo Martinez was charged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with attempting to deceive two art dealers by selling them $185,000 worth of fake drawings put forth as being the work of Basquiat;[100] the charges against Martinez, which landed him in Manhattan's Metropolitan Correction Center on June 19, 2002, involved an alleged scheme to sell fake Basquiat drawings, accompanied by forged certificates of authenticity.[101] Until 2002, the highest amount paid for an original work of Basquiat's was US$3,302,500, set on November 12, 1998, at Christie's. In 2002, Basquiat's Profit I (1982), a large piece measuring 86.5 by 157.5 inches (220 by 400 cm), was set for auction again at Christie's by drummer Lars Ulrich of the heavy metal band Metallica. It sold for US$5,509,500;[102] the proceedings of the auction are documented in the film Some Kind of Monster.

A record price for a Basquiat painting was made in 2007, when an untitled Basquiat work from 1981 sold at Sotheby's in New York for US$14.6 million.[103] In 2008, at another auction at Christie's, Ulrich sold a 1982 Basquiat piece, Untitled (Boxer), for US$13,522,500 to an anonymous telephone bidder. In 2012, for the second year running, Basquiat was the most coveted contemporary (i.e. born after 1945) artist at auction, with €80 million in overall sales.[104] That year, his Untitled (1981), a painting of a haloed, black-headed man with a bright red skeletal body, depicted amid the artist's signature scrawls, was sold by Robert Lehrman for $16.3 million, well above its $12 million high estimate.[105] A similar untitled piece, also undertaken in 1981 and formerly owned by the Israel Museum, sold for £12.92 million at Christie's London, setting a world auction record for Basquiat's work.[106]

In 2013, Basquiat's piece Dustheads sold for $48.8 million at Christie's. In 2016 an untitled piece sold at Christie's for $57.3 million to a Japanese businessman and collector, Yusaku Maezawa.[107][108] In 2017, Yusaku purchased Basquiat's Untitled (1982), a powerful depiction of a black skull with red and black rivulets, at auction for a record-setting US$110,487,500—the most ever paid for an American artwork[109][110][111] and the sixth most expensive artwork sold at an auction,[111] surpassing Andy Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) which sold in 2013 for $105 million.[112] Maezawa's two purchases of Basquiat artworks in 2016 and 2017 currently reach a total approaching $170M USD.

Authentication Committee[edit]

The Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat was formed by the gallery that was assigned to handle the artist's estate.[113] Between 1994 and 2012, it reviewed over 2,000 works of art; the cost of the committee's opinion was $100;[113] the committee was headed by Gérard Basquiat. Members and advisers varied depending on who was available at the time when a piece was being authenticated, but they have included the curators and gallerists Diego Cortez, Jeffrey Deitch, John Cheim, Richard Marshall, Fred Hoffman and Annina Nosei (the artist's first art dealer).[114]

In 2008 the authentication committee was sued by collector Gerard De Geer, who claimed the committee breached its contract by refusing to offer an opinion on the authenticity of the painting Fuego Flores (1983);[115] after the lawsuit was dismissed, the committee ruled the work genuine.[116] In early 2012, the committee announced that it would dissolve in September of that year and no longer consider applications.


Basquiat's legacy has had influences upon literature, film, music and fashion. For example, Basquiat's work has been used by clothing companies such as SPRZ NY of Uniqlo,[117] Urban Outfitters, and Redbubble.


In 1991, poet Kevin Young produced a book, To Repel Ghosts, a compendium of 117 poems relating to Basquiat's life, individual paintings, and social themes found in the artist's work, he published a "remix" of the book in 2005.[118] In 2005, poet M. K. Asante published the poem "SAMO", dedicated to Basquiat, in his book Beautiful. And Ugly Too. In 1995, writer Jennifer Clement wrote the biography Widow Basquiat, based on the narratives reconstructions told to her by Suzanne Mallouk. In 2017, the biography Radiant Child told Basquiat's life from the perspective of a young prodigy and it won the Caldecott Medal.[119] In 2019, illustrator Paolo Parisi wrote the graphic novel Basquiat: A Graphic Novel, following Basquiat's journey from street-art legend SAMO to international art-scene darling, up until his sudden death.[120]


Basquiat starred in Downtown 81, a vérité movie written by Glenn O'Brien and shot by Edo Bertoglio in 1981, but not released until 1998.[98] In 1996, eight years after the artist's death, a biographical film titled Basquiat was released, directed by Julian Schnabel, with actor Jeffrey Wright playing Basquiat. David Bowie played the part of Andy Warhol. Schnabel was interviewed during the film's script development as a personal acquaintance of Basquiat. Schnabel then purchased the rights to the project, believing that he could make a better film.[121]

In 2006 the Equality Forum featured Jean-Michel Basquiat during LGBT history month.[122] A 2009 documentary film, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, directed by Tamra Davis, was first screened as part of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was shown on the PBS series Independent Lens in 2011.[55] Tamra Davis discussed her friendship with Basquiat in a Sotheby's video, "Basquiat: Through the Eyes of a Friend"; the American Public Broadcast Service broadcast a 90-minute documentary about Basquiat in the American Masters series, entitled Basquiat:Rage to Riches, on 14 September 2018.[22]


Shortly after Basquiat's death, guitarist Vernon Reid of New York City funk metal band Living Colour wrote a song called "Desperate People", released on their album Vivid; the song primarily addresses the drug scene of New York at that time. Vernon states that Basquiat's death inspired him to write the song after receiving a phone call from Greg Tate informing Vernon of Basquiat's death.[123] In the world of jazz, clarinetist Don Byron composed and performed the tune "Basquiat" on his 2000 album A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder.

Basquiat is referenced in Jay-Z and Frank Ocean's song "Oceans": "I hope my black skin don't dirt this white tuxedo before the Basquiat show" in the 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Both Jay-Z and Kanye West made reference to Basquiat on their 2011 collaborative album Watch the Throne. In "Illest Motherfucker Alive", Jay-Z raps "Basquiats, Warhols serving as my muses" and in "That's My Bitch", West raps "Basquiat she learning a new word, it's yacht". In 2011, Swizz Beats released a line of Basquiat inspired sneakers through Reebok. Jay-Z also mentioned him on his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail when he says "Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner go 'head, lean on that shit Blue, you own it". In his verse on Lil Wayne's song "John", Rick Ross raps "Red on the wall, Basquiat when I paint". Vince Staples's song "SAMO" in his album Big Fish Theory is in reference to Basquiat as well. Jay-Z purchased an art piece from the late Basquiat titled “Mecca” for $4.5 Million. Jay-Z even dressed as Basquiat for Halloween. A new age conscious rapper/producer and Jay-Z student Revelation 13:18 on August 12, 2014 the day of his death in remembrance of Basquiat released a rap single Old School feat. Jean-Michel Basquiat gaining attention from Jay-Z. [124] [125]

In the song "Ten Thousand Hours", Macklemore raps: "I observed Escher, I love Basquiat", and on his song "Victory Lap" raps: "unorthodox, like Basquiat with a pencil". In his song "Die Like a Rockstar", about overdosing, Danny Brown raps "Basquiat freestyle" to hype himself up. Canadian artist The Weeknd has stated in interviews that his trademark haircut was inspired by Basquiat. ASAP Rocky mentions Basquiat in his song "Phoenix", rapping "Painting vivid pictures/call me Basquiat, Picasso". Rapper Robb Bank$ has a song titled "Look Like Basquiat". Korean rapper Jazzy Ivy released the single/album "Jean & Andy" inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. "Rich Niggaz" on J. Cole's second album Born Sinner he raps: "It's like Sony signed Basquiat". Referencing his parent label, Sony, he compares Basquiat to himself in the change in their works after signing to a major label. On his song "Untitled", Killer Mike compares himself to Basquiat and 2Pac, saying "This is Basquiat with a passion like Pac". On the track Moments by Kidz in the Hall from their Semester Abroad mixtape Naledge says "look inside myself I think I see a masterpiece, a little Basquiat mix a little Master P". Apollo Brown and Skyzoo released a song titled "Basquiat On The Draw" in the collaboration album The Easy Truth.

Korean rapper T.O.P references Basquiat in his 2013 single "DOOM DADA", when he says "MIC-reul jwin shindeullin, rap Basquiat", which translates as: "A god-given rap Basquiat with a mic." On his mixtape Black Hystori Project, Cyhi the Prynce features a song called "Basquiat". Nicki Minaj mentioned Basquiat on her single "Lookin Ass", featured on the Young Money collaborative album Rise of an Empire. In Riff Raff's "Gucci Jacuzzi", Lil' Flip says "You know I'm makin' guap, and my painting in my kitchen was made by Basquiat". Madonna references Basquiat in the song "Graffiti Heart" from the super deluxe edition of her album Rebel Heart; the band Fall Out Boy used the Basquiat crown as a part of their logo in 2013. It is still being used. Robb Bank$ compares himself thoroughly to Basquiat in his song "Look like Basquiat". Basquiat was referenced in the Gym Class Heroes song, "To Bob Ross with Love". Hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey released a song dedicated to Basquiat, titled "Basquiat Ghostwriter". Bey says he was inspired by the paintings and writings of the artist.

In 2017, $uicide Boy$ reference Basquiat in their song 'you are now tuning into 66.6 FM with DJ Rapture' "who am I? I am god, I am Basquiat”. In 2018, Jon Batiste released an album named after Basquiat's painting, Hollywood Africans.[126]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Buchhart, Dieter, Glenn O'Brien, Jean-Louis Prat, Susanne Reichling. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hatje Cantz, 2010. ISBN 978-3-7757-2593-4
  • Buchhart, Dieter, and Eleanor Nairne. Basquiat: Boom for Real. (Catalogue for 2017 Exhibition at the Barbican Centre.) London: Prestel Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9783791356365
  • Clement, Jennifer: Widow Basquiat, Broadway Books, 2014. ISBN 978-0553419917
  • Deitch J., D. Cortez, and Glen O'Brien. Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981: the Studio of the Street, Charta, 2007. ISBN 978-88-8158-625-7
  • Fretz, Eric. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography. Greenwood, 2010. ISBN 978-0-313-38056-3
  • Hoban, Phoebe. Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (2nd edn), Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Hoffman, Fred. "Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection", Rizzoli/Acquavella Galleries, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8478-4447-0
  • Hoffman, Fred. "The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works," in Basquiat / Merrell Publishers / Brooklyn Museum, 2005, p. 13)
  • Hoffman, Fred. "The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat", Gallerie Enrico Navarra / 2017 ISBN 978-2911596537
  • Marenzi, Luca. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Charta, 1999. ISBN 978-88-8158-239-6
  • Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Abrams / Whitney Museum of American Art. Hardcover 1992, paperback 1995. (Catalog for 1992 Whitney retrospective, out of print).
  • Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat: In World Only. Cheim & Read, 2005. (out of print).
  • Mayer, Marc, Fred Hoffman, et al. Basquiat, Merrell Publishers / Brooklyn Museum, 2005.
  • Tate, Greg. Flyboy in the Buttermilk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. ISBN 978-0-671-72965-3

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