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Basquiat: Who was he? And why was he good?

Maàn Jalal

I recently met a successful and well-known graffiti artist who’d never heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat. This bothered me. I don’t expect people who aren’t familiar with the art world to know him, but if you’re a fan of or interested in hip-hop, graffiti, design and social change then you should definitely know the name Basquiat. Whether you know it or not, his work and style have been a major source of inspiration in art, design, advertising, music and fashion.

I often refer to Basquiat as the first hipster. Basquiat was the first superstar of modern art who became influential in other disciplines as well. Initially, it was his art that made him famous. Then through his art he befriended many other famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Madonna and Francis Celement. Then, he become famous for being famous. His personality, style, and collaborations became part of his allure. Basquiat turned into a commercial brand of everything that was cool and in within the art scene. And even his death, from a heroin overdoes at 27, added mystery to his infamous life and short career where in which he created a magnanimous amount of work.

At first glance Basquiat’s paintings appear, raw, simple, unplanned, energetic, alive. His works are all those things, but they are also sophisticated, intelligent, ingenious and ground-breaking. But why was he such a phenomenon?

SAMO

SAMO 1

“Stop The Train of Thought.”

Basquiat understood the power of creating a buzz. Self-promotion if you like. He emerged from the “Punk” scene in New York as a gritty, street-smart graffiti artist at 21 where he was initially known as SAMO, a graffiti collaboration/persona with his friend Al Diaz. SAMO, which stood for “Same Old Shit”, were different than other graffiti artists. Their work, which was seen around the streets of Manhattan, wasn’t painterly or aesthetically pleasing in the way other graffiti was. It was raw poetic content. Basquiat wanted to be famous and used SAMO to gain massive attention from other artists, critics and dealers in Manhattan before showing his own work.

Neo-expressionism

B 1

“I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”

Basquiat combined graffiti like imagery, poetry, calligraphy, painting, abstract and conceptual images all on one canvas. From vibrant colours to expressive brushstrokes as well as layering and dripping techniques, Basquiat’s skillfully and purposefully brought together a range of very different traditions, practices, and styles to create a unique kind of visual language. This artistic style was influenced by his urban origins and his African-Caribbean heritage. He’s often associated to the style called Neo-expressionism.

Innovation

B 2

“I have done only two portraits: one of the artist Francesco Clemente and another of Andy Warhol.”

Basquiat’s figures were reduced to their most basic forms. They are childlike and symbolic and universally understood as ideas by anyone who views them. This was ground breaking because at the time, there had been a lot of focus on Abstract Expressionist artwork. Basically, art that didn’t depict the human figure, art which to a degree relied on your emotive senses and instincts to be understood and art that in some cases had to be explained to you. Representing the human figure was seen as a trivial way to express real emotions and universal ideas. Basquiat completely disregarded that idea by depicting the human figure in a new and interesting way. He took a leap from the traditional concept of portraiture by creating figures that are almost like characters, made up of African masks, graffiti and other symbols. His work forced the art world to pay attention outside of their immediate environment and he was critically embraced for it. If it weren’t for him the rise of modern street art would never have happened.

Street to Gallery

B 3

“The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.”

Basquiat’s fame corresponded with the rise of hip-hop. His work explored similar themes and subjects. At the time, there were no black artists that were seen as contemporary or modern. Basquiat’s work made comments about some of the social issues facing African Americans and ones that touched him growing up. These issues to do with wealth, poverty, racial segregation, the corruption of power, racism, politics in general, were never seen in galleries from the perspective of a black man in the style that Basquiat was created. Let’s take one of his famous paintings as an example (below).

 

The Irony of the Negro Policeman

B 4

“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.”

Basquiat’s 1981 painting The Irony of the Negro Policeman echoed the messages of hip-hop groups NWA and Public Enemy that were telling the story of the urban black community and calling into question how black people were represented and treated. Basquiat’s The Irony of the Negro Policeman is a blatant criticism on members of his own race as well as the greater infrastructure of society. By depicting an African-American policeman, Basquiat’s is making a conscious statement on how African-Americans are controlled by the white majority in America. He found it incredibly bizarre that any African-American would choose to be a policeman, where the greater system they enforce continues to segregate, penalise and enslave people of colour. The figure in the painting is a black man, dressed in a conceptual idea of a uniform, with a mask skeleton like face and a hat resembling a cage. At the bottom right of the panting is the word “Pawn,” which clearly describes Basquiat’s opinion on how a black policeman is in fact being used.

Thank Basquiat

B 5

“I’m not a real person. I’m a legend.”

Basquiat was one of the first artists to bring graffiti into the mainstream, to put “street art” in pristine galleries. I get embarrassed for galleries who don’t see the artistic value of graffiti and I get equally embarrassed for graffiti artist who aren’t familiar with the work of Basquiat. They both owe a lot to him. Today it’s easier than ever before for graffiti artists to make a living off their work and to delve into commercial fields. Thank Basquiat. Similarly, Basquiat’s work opened the prospects for galleries to include “works of art” outside of the norm and attracted a new sect and generation of people who never would have stepped into a gallery if it wasn’t for art they understood and saw on the streets of their neighbourhoods. Again, thank Basquiat.

 

Basquiat Facts

B 6

“I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” 

  • Basquiat didn’t only paint on canvas, he liked to work on whatever was in front of him. From refrigerators to lab coats, shipping crates to typewriters, he even liked to work in an Armani suit – when finished, he would go out, still dressed in the paint-splattered clothing.
  • Basquiat was part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene in the mid-1980s. The two held an exhibition of their collaborative work in 1985.
  • Although Basquiat filled his work with a lot of recurring symbols, his crown is the most recognisable and has become his signature. It floats over figures whom he respected or admired.
  • Basquiat had an affair with Madonna and the two eventually dated.
  • In the early 80s, he didn’t have a bank account. He kept his money around his loft on Crosby Street under rugs, in books, and under the couch.
  • Debbie Harry from Blondie bought Jean-Michel’s first painting for $200. It would be worth a lot more than that now!
  • If you want to learn more about Basquiat, you can either watch a film about his life Basquiat (David Bowie plays Andy Warhol and he’s brilliant!) or the 2010 documentary The Radiant Child.