1960 – 1988
Every line means something — Basquiat about his work
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Gerard Basquiat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and his mother, Matilde was born in Brooklyn of Puerto Rican parents.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s productive career spanned just one short decade, yet he is considered one of the best-known artists of his generation and one of only a small number of Hispanic-African-American artists to have achieved international recognition. Graduating from subway walls to canvas and from the streets of New York to the galleries of SoHo, the artist and his work will forever remain a mystery to those who seek explanation.
Jean-Michel’s early years were spent with his middle class Haitian father, Gerard, who was unable to fulfill his son’s need for nurturing and recognition. To fill the void, Jean-Michel hit the streets of New York at a young age where art became an outlet for his anger and empty childhood. Also known by the tag “SAMO,” Jean-Michel’s unique brand of graffiti was found throughout Manhattan as early as 1976. “His work from the first consisted of conceptual, enigmatic combinations of words and symbols, executed with the curt simplicity of a late Roman inscription”, according to Henry Geldzahler, longtime curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jean-Michel was 18 when he approached Geldzahler and Andy Warhol in a SoHo restaurant. He sold Andy a postcard for one dollar but was dismissed by Geldzahler as “too young.” Less than three years later (1981) he was invited by artist and filmmaker, Diego Cortez, to participate in the P.S. 1 show, (Institute for Art and Urban Resources), alongside more than twenty artists including Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kenny Sharf and Andy Warhol.
In early 1982 Jean-Michel took the art world by storm with his rampageous one-man show at Annina Nosei’s gallery. This momentum propelled him to the forefront of the Neo-Expressionist movement which was characterized by intense subjectivity of feeling and aggressively raw handling of materials. Jean-Michel, accustomed to pushing the envelope in all aspects of his life, had something special to offer the neo-expressionist admirer: “I cross out words so you will see them more – the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
By the age of 24 Jean-Michel would be a veteran of one-man shows under the guidance of such notable art dealers as Nosei, Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone and Bruno Bischofberger. Bischofberger introduced Jean-Michel’s art overseas as well as orchestrated the joint collaboration of Warhol and Basquiat in 1985 which involved some 60 works.
Jean-Michel preferred drugs and women (including Madonna) over galleries, art dealers, collectors, and money (although one would be hard pressed to determine which he had more of). Lacking the fatherly support and acknowledgment he so desperately sought, Jean-Michel was unable to balance fame and fortune with his personal demons. His candle burned out on August 12th 1988, the result of a drug overdose. “Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jim Hendrix . . . I had romantic feeling of how people had become famous,” reminisced Jean-Michel before his death.
It has been written of Basquiat that he “embodies the myth of a modern Icarus who rose too quickly and burnt himself in the heat of the sun.” However, Robert Damiani, (Deputy Mayor and Councilor for Cultural Affairs, New York) brings us to a more profound conclusion: “I believe that, as an expression of a time that is tragic like no other in the history of the world, he consciously aimed his flight in the opposite direction, toward the infernos that are unexplored even by the outcasts of humanity who live out their brief earthly existence in the sinister roar of the subway, no longer on the road, but underground, irresistibly attracted by the disturbing profundity of the abyss.”