5 lessons we can learn from the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Updated: May 21
1. Don’t trust the education system
Basquiat, like many wonderkids was rebellious at school, an incredibly intelligent child who never cared much for the education system. Jean-Michel’s artistic talent was never picked up on as a child, he never attended an art school and says that he failed all the art courses he did take. Perhaps he saw himself set-up to be the next Van Gogh? - a genius unappreciated in his own time, a modern-day tragedy. Thankfully the art world wouldn’t allow another Van Gogh to slip through its tender fingers… so Basquiat was buried with both ears still attached.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Brooklyn with a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother.He moved between at least 5 different public schools beforeattending the City-as-School in 1976, a refuge for gifted children in New York. Where he stayed for a year before throwing a box full of shaving cream on the principal’s head, deciding that school really wasn’t for him. He left school and home at the age of 17.
Despite this, Jean-Michel didn’t give up on education altogether, and he certainly didn’t give up on art. Engulfing the breadth of knowledge within the New York museums, libraries and art galleries that surrounded him, he quickly added to his immense arsenal of imagery and ideas, which would later appear in many of his famous paintings.The painter recalled, “I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it.”
In 2017 Basquiat’s painting: Untitled. sold for whopping $110.5 million- setting a record for an American artist. This sale prompted Jeffrey Deitch, a prominent curator and dealer to say: “He’s now in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso.” Putting Basquiat up there with the greatest painters ever to live. That’s not bad for someone who failed all of his art classes at school.
2. Put your art where it can be seen
In the years leading up to Basquiat’s transformation from ‘starving artist’ to ‘art star’ he was making his name on the streets, signing cryptic messages under the tag ‘SAMO’ (meaning same old shit) with friend and fellow artist Al Diaz. These messages were witty, confusing and often poked fun at the so-called ‘establishment’. For example:
“SAMO©,,, AS AN END TO THE 9 TO 5 “I WENT TO COLLEGE” “NOT 2-NITE HONEY”,,,BLUZ’,,,THINK,,,”
“SAMO©,,, 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE”
“SAMO©,,, AS AN ALTERNATIVE 2 ‘PLAYING ART’ WITH THE ‘RADICAL CHIC’ SECTION OF DADDY’$ FUNDS,,,”
SAMO started drawing more and more attention as it the graffiti appeared on buildings throughout lower Manhattan and Brooklyn between 1977 and 1980. This gained Jean-Michelle a spot the 1980 Times Square show,showcasing the underbelly of the New York art scene. Over 100 artists were crammed intothe exhibition space including the likesofKeith Haring,Kenny Scharf and Basquiat.
Curator Diego Cortez saw Basquiat’s raw talent and potential, deciding to feature the then 20-year old artist in the New York/New Waveexhibition inNew York’s MoMA in February 1981. This exhibition saw the beginning of a star. Word spread like wildfire of the young artist, prompting gallery owner Annina Nosei to sign a contract with Basquiat, out of which he would receive not only paints and canvases but also the cellar of her gallery for the artist to use as a studio.
After moving from the street to the studio, 1982 saw his first solo exhibition in the Nosei gallery, where his paintings sold out in just one night. This was shortly followed by another successful exhibition in LA, as well as a cover story - The Radiant Childby writer and art critic Rene Ricard.From this point on the sky was the limit for Basquiat, but would any of this have happened if he hadn’t start painting SAMO on the streets?
3. Seek out your mentors
In 1979 Basquiat wasn’t much more than a NYC bum, picking up girls in nightclubs so he had a place to stay and selling his art on T-shirts and postcards in order to make ends meet. This is when he had his first encounter with his lifelong idol. It is said that Basquiat approached Andy Warhol whilst he was dining, selling him some of his postcards.However, it wasn’t until a couple of years later when art dealer Bruno Bischofberger discovered Basquiat paintings in lower Manhattan that his career really started to take off.
Bischofberger introduced the two artists in 1982. Basquiat decided to take this opportunity to impress his idolby leaving the lunch, only to return a couple of hours later with a painting, still wet, of Warhol and Basquiat together entitled “Dos Cabezas”. This painting sparked a friendship between the two which would soon to become the artworld’s most notorious bromance.
As their relationship developed, they started to spend a lot of time together painting, going to parties, e.c.t. Warhol taught Basquiat everything he knew about the artworld (which was a hell of a lot) - inevitably they got very close. “I’d never seen Andy so close with anyone, and I’d never seen Jean so close with anyone—these guys really loved each other,” recalled dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch.
Due to their almost 30-year age gap, some speculated their relationship to be Basquiat’s attempt to make up for his lack of a father figure since running away from home at the age of 17. Whereas some saw their relationship as nothing more than a scheme for fame and money. People speculated that Warhol was using Basquiat to stay relevant, while Basquiat was supposedly clinging onto Warhol’s established fame.
Despite the criticism I find it very hard to believe their friendship was little more than a publicity ploy. By looking at the vast amounts of memories in their photographs together or at Warhol’s diary entries where he often praises his young companion saying in a 1984 entry: “I think he’s the best, I really do.”
They decided to create a number of pieces together juxtaposing Warhol’s recognisable pop art technique with Basquiat’s raw and impulsive approach to create some interesting art. Although, their 1985 exhibition was a major disappointed, leading to the sale of only 1 piece and attracting criticism from numerous art critics, consequently creating a friction between the two artists. A friction that would never be resolved.
In February 1987 their relationship took a tragic turn, Warhol went into cardiac arrest and was declared dead after an unsuccessful gall bladder surgery. Warhol had been an idol, a mentor and a friend to Basquiat - who now had a hole in his life, in the shape of a slender framed man in a wig.
Following Warhol’s death, Basquiat’s work noticeably started showing a depressed and alone state of mind. Tending to portray dark and violent messages he became openly critical about society. Subsequently he turned to heroin as his cure, which would eventually be his downfall. Basquiat died of a drug overdose, in 1988, at the age of 27. Despite this, both artists have an incredible body of work which is shown together across the world, keeping their friendship alive forever.
4. Break the mould
Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the leading figures of Neo-expressionism, alongside the likes of Julian Schnabel and Kenny Scarf. A movement which is said to reassert the primacy of the human figure in contemporary art.
On first glance his painting style isn’t incomparable to that of a child. But when looking deeper into his work we see him both acknowledging and challenging the history of Western art.Crudely drawn faces and random scribblings that draw on contradictions within mainstream society as well as fusing historical elements with popular culture through an expressionist confidence – was something the art world had never seen before or since. He painted black figures, including athletes, musicians and writers, immortalising these historically marginalised people through his art. Basquiat’s iconic 3-pointed crown symbol is littered across his paintings, raising the subjects of his work to Royal stature – celebrating black power.
He broke the mould of the white-male dominated art world of the 80s. Being the first artist to bring Afro and Latin-American culture into an elitist art world, but when questioned about being a ‘black artist’ he replied, ‘I use all colours, not just black.’He wasthe first black artists, who wasn’t a black artist, but at the same time never stopped being a black artist – making himself untouchable.
5. Inspiration can come from anywhere
Basquiat’s vast collection of art is testimony that inspiration can come from anywhere and anything. Throughout his career he would often paint with the TV on, with a book open and music blaring away. He would use words and quotes from billboards, receipts, menus, you name it, applying anything he found interesting to his paintings.
His artistic style is often referred to as a creolization of ideas or a collage of cultures that he encountered during his life. Some of his inspiration can be cited to his native Hattian background, Burroughs’s cut-up technique, Leonardo da Vinci, grays anatomy, mythology, the bible, punk, postpunk, no wave, hip-hop, Jazz, bebop, Muhammad Ali, Herman Melville and Jack Kerouac to name but a few.
The variety of his inspirations gives the viewer an intimate understanding of the artists life, thoughts and feelings, as Basquiat once said ‘I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life.’