24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Jean-Michel Basquiat - From Street Art to Fine Art

Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960- August 12, 1988) has made many outstanding contributions to the art world even though at first, he was not given the respect he was so deserving of. Countless art critics didn’t take his style seriously, as all they saw in it was cartoon characters and graffiti. But what took years for these critics of his to understand was his profound understanding of and obsession with the inner and outer workings and feelings of the human body, specifically the mind.

Jean-Michel Basquiat has become recognized as one of the best-known artists of the late 20th century, but how he got to that point may not be as familiar as his distinctive pieces. Jean-Michel was the son of two immigrants, his mother a native of Puerto Rico, and his father coming from Haiti. By his teen years, Basquiat was already fluent in three languages, French, English, and Spanish. Being a first-generation American had a vast amount of influence on Basquiat’s art as a lot of his work dealt with racial inequalities and the effects of these inequalities. A lot of his works had recurring images of a figure wearing a black hat. This figure is said to represent the chief of the Gede family spirits in Haitian Vodou. [1]

Another one of the biggest influences on Basquiat’s artwork was a book gifted to him by his mother. At the age of seven years old, Jean-Michel got hit by a car in Brooklyn and consequently he was hospitalized and had his spleen removed. During his hospitalization, Basquiat’s mom gave him a book called Gray’s Anatomy. This book was a textbook made up of illustrations of human anatomy. Crazily enough, this book ended up being one of the biggest influences on Basquiat’s artwork with all the body parts seen in his paintings and sketches. Untitled (Skull) is one of those works that seems to be inspired by the book with its depiction of the exterior and interior of a head. The book also had a big influence on his music, which consequently also had an influence on his art. Jean-Michel started a band called Gray. Music and musicians are constantly popping up in Basquiat’s artwork, specifically Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He painted images of these two musicians, but he also wrote their names out in quite a few of his paintings. Basquiat mainly focused on depictions and words having to do with jazz music and musicians. These constant references to jazz music may have to do with the African American popular culture that it comes from because he also liked to depict African American athletes as well. Even though his Haitian and Puerto Rican descent played a big role in influencing his art, Jean-Michel Basquiat did not want to be remembered as a “black artist,” he wanted to be a famous artist. A popular nickname for him at the time was the “the black Picasso” but Jean-Michel didn’t quite appreciate this nickname. Basquiat appropriated the works of many other artists as a way to put himself into the art world and in a way write himself into history.

Unlike many other famous artists, Basquiat never attended art school, he was pretty much self-taught. In fact how Jean-Michel was brought into the art world was divergent from the career path of many of his contemporaries. In high school, Basquiat was the illustrator for his school yearbook and newspaper, which is where the artistic movement he created started. This artistic movement was called SAMO, the acronym for “same ol’ shit.” Basquiat soon began writing “SAMO” all over the walls of Manhattan in marker with other phrases basically making fun of, even mocking, the modern world as well as the art world. SAMO was a way for Basquiat and friend/ partner Al Diaz to provide comments on current events in society. That was until the last message had appeared in 1979, “SAMO is dead.” A while later SAMO started appearing again, this time in the style of graffiti with figures as well as words which really started Basquiat’s art career when he was recognized by some art dealers. 

The point of graffiti style art is to get the fame and recognition. Al Diaz, whom Basquiat worked with on the SAMO art recalls that Jean-Michel wanted to be famous.  After his street art phase, but before making his paintings, he actually created postcards to sell to people and make some money. One day Basquiat met Andy Warhol in a restaurant and he actually bought some of his postcards. Basquiat was at a club one night and was approached by Diego Cortez, an artist and filmmaker, who gave him money to go buy materials to create a painting and he told him he would sell them for him which is how he ultimately got started on his career in the art world.[2] Glenn O’Brien, a writer focused on art, tells that the work Basquiat was doing with his SAMO art was much different than graffiti because it wasn’t just spray- painting his name, his work was poetry like and it was full of content. 

Most of Basquiat’s images of heads in paintings are torn apart ones whereas in his piece Untitled (Skull) the head is held together by stitches. The left side of the painting depicts the face gazing out in despair with downcast eyes and broken teeth. The left side shows the physical pain of this skull and the right side shows the internal or mental pain. Basquiat’s decision to depict the interior pain and the exterior pain is important because it is showing that the pain inside is just as important and painful as the pain on the outside. In another one of Basquiat’s works Riding With Death he also depicts a skull, one of the symbols of his art; he yet again compares the interior and exterior of the body, but neither side has any expression, you can’t see its pain. Maybe the juxtaposition of these skulls relates to Basquiat’s life, where sometimes you could see his pain, he made it visible, and other times he hid the pain he faced. Maybe it could be a comment on how he learned to hide the pain through art and things like drugs and sex, as it is well known that he faced an extreme addiction to cocaine and heroin. Perhaps the work is comparing and contrasting the idea of strength and suffering and life and death. 

The majority of Basquiat’s works reflect the struggles he faced throughout his life. He did not have a great relationship with his mother, as she was always beating him and even attempting to kill Jean-Michel’s father.  His parents’ relationship was always so rocky, it made him feel as if his family and just life in general was unstable. To make matters worse, the racial divide at his school was pretty high and Basquiat was often angry and had outbreaks, but art was a way for him to channel the extreme emotions he was feeling into something good. Jean-Michel spent the beginning of his career homeless, sleeping from place to place. His source of income was looking for dropped money on the ground. He would go days without sleeping. Many would describe Basquiat’s work as “obscene”[3] which ultimately may be due to all the struggles and adversity he faced in his short lifetime. Obscene meaning that it shows the “obverse side of the scene”, that his art shows something in a different, even opposite, way than it is normally presented. The content of Basquiat’s works brings the viewer an anxiety they haven’t felt before because of the “obscenity” of the images and how raw they are, pouring in emotion. The anxiety that fills the viewer may be due to the pain that is so conspicuous with the bold, harsh brush strokes in Untitled (Skull). The juxtaposition of the interior and exterior pain earlier mentioned is just more than enough to make the viewer feel very strong emotions toward the figure, whether it be empathetically or sympathetically.

After Basquiat’s death in 1988, caused by an overdose, people were quick to assume that he didn’t actually have artistic talent, that all the work he produced was only so interesting because of his addiction. They assumed that he wouldn’t create this great art if it hadn’t been for his addiction, basically saying that his addiction was the artist, totally undermining Basquiat’s artistic ability and creativity. What people didn’t know is that just before his death, Basquiat had conversations with Ouattara, an artist from the Ivory Coast, about his plans to get clean and fight his addiction, but he overdosed before he got the chance. People are so quick to judge others when it comes to drug or alcohol addictions, claiming that the user should just quit, but the thing they don’t seem to understand is that addiction is a disease. There is no “just stopping”, it is a slow and long treatment and recovery. Basquiat’s addiction is no reason to think any less of his art or of him as a painter if anything his struggle with addiction influenced his art.

Overall, Basquiat had a very unique start into the art world which may account for why his work is so idolized. Because of his upbringing, he was able to bring a raw emotional vibe into his art which allowed for the viewer to feel what the depicted figures were feeling. Basquiat has many recurring themes in his work, which he probably feels like he needs to bring forth these themes because of his upbringing and his own personal experiences growing up as a mixed first-generation American artist. He also has much different influences on his artwork than most other contemporary artists, again this is probably to do the different upbringing he had as a child. Basquiat made the work he felt like making, not that he didn’t care what other people thought because that isn’t true. Basquiat wanted to be famous so he obviously made art he thought would get him fame, but that’s what he wanted to do.

[1] “JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT.” Embassy of Haiti, www.haiti.org/dt_team/jean-michel-basquiat/.
[2] Ross, Lucinda. “ Gold Griot: Jean-Michel Basquiat Telling (His) Story in Art.” University of Plymouth, 2018, Gold Griot: Jean-Michel Basquiat Telling (His) Story in Art. https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10026.1/11135/2018Ross10462960PhDpdf.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[3] Kaushik, Rajiv. “The Obscene and the Corpse: Reflections on the Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat.” Janus Head, Brock University, www.janushead.org/kaushik.pdf.

This page has paths:

This page references: