Enigmatic American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was part of a new generation of pop artists coming from the streets of Brooklyn to the institutional art scene in the 1980s. The former street artist's neo-expressionist paintings and drawings with incorporated textual elements provide biting social commentary and critique on issues of race, class, and identity.Read More
Born in 1960 to a Haitian father and mother of Puerto Rican heritage, Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn, making art and mischief in equal measure. Although he never attended art school, he drew upon the influences of New York's public galleries, comics, cartoons, music—namely jazz, punk, and hip hop as it emerged—religious imagery, and a medical encyclopedia his mother bought for him while he recuperated from being hit by a car at age seven.
Before his expressionistic drawings and paintings propelled him to international fame, Jean-Michel Basquiat was part of the graffiti duo SAMO along with his childhood friend Al Diaz. They were responsible for cryptic symbols and phrases spray-painted on buildings across Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Through strategic self-promotion, including leaving his SAMO mark—later revealed at the opportune moment to be his doing—close to galleries around SoHo, and selling postcards of his work, Jean-Michel Basquiat drew attention from the art world.
Making his first major debut at the Time Square Show (1980) run by Collaborative Projects Incorporated and Fashion Moda, Jean-Michel Basquiat attracted the attention of Italian gallerist Emilio Mazzoli. Holding his first solo show at Galleria d'Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena, Italy in 1981, Basquiat joined the ranks of other artists such as Futura 2000 and Keith Haring, who were bringing street style into the galleries in the 1980s.
Remaining consistent through his career—apart from changes to his material and working attire attributable to his rising fortunes—Jean-Michel Basquiat's characteristic style was frenetic, shouting at the viewer through countless layers of expressive lines, images, and text.
He painted with an intense, free-flowing energy compulsively scattering the source materials on his mind across several works, all while donning paint-splattered designer suits. His materials were oil sticks, crayons, spray paint, and pencil on discarded wood scraps and, later, canvas.
Jean-Michel Basquiat drew inspiration from a diverse library of thought, encompassing the art historical canon, experiences of contemporary society, poetry, music, pop culture, and books. His themes bring together discussions of history with expressions of contemporary racial oppression and conflict in the United States.
As he worked, the artist pulled quotes from menus, comic books, and textbooks scattered across his studio, which he recontextualised in Cy Twombly-like fashion, superimposing imagery in a disjointed manner.
In 1983, Basquiat met famed pop artist Andy Warhol, who he collaborated with for several years; Warhol reproducing popular imagery and familiar symbols in his characteristic style, which the younger artist then added to, his imagery and marks concealing the original work.
Over the course of his meteoric rise to art-world fame, Basquiat's work featured in group and solo exhibitions in galleries and art institutions across the globe. This and his music and poetry garnered celebrity status.
His explosive career, tragically cut short at the age of 27 by drug overdose in 1988, has been the subject of numerous retrospectives, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992, the Brooklyn Museum in 2005, and the Brandt Foundation in 2019. His work has soared in commercial and cultural value in the decades since his passing.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2020
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