I chose to write my bibliography on Jean-Michel Basquiat, a black American artist born on December 22, 1960. Though his career - and life - was short lived, his impact on society and contemporary art continues to be felt today. His unique use of multiple medias, including text, drawing and painting, results in a rare, but effective means to express concerns artistically, and raise awareness of societal issues, many of which plagued minority groups. Lastly, his collaborations with the famed Andy Warhol, allow for the study of relationships between artists, as well as the contrasting styles of the time.
Basquiat began his career as part of the graffiti collaboration “SAMO” with Al Diaz in the 1970s. The two men graffitied the surfaces of buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Basquiat, who was homeless in New York City after dropping out of high school and leaving his middle-class childhood in Queens, notes that SAMO got its name as the result of a nickname for marijuana: “the same old shit.”1 SAMO graffiti featured inscribed messages that implied that the drug could solve all problems; for example, the image featured here reads “SAMO. another way 2 kill some time.”2 Although Basquiat looked back on SAMO graffiti as “just teenage stuff,” the intelligence of the works, with discrete, but important lessons that would be seen in Basquiat’s later solo paintings, did not go unnoticed.3 Basquiat claimed that there was no purpose to SAMO, but his focus on lower Manhattan- near the School of Visual Arts and several Soho galleries- indicates that he used the graffiti as a form of self-promotion: Basquiat had every intention of using the attention that SAMO received, as an ‘in’ to the gallery world.4
In 1979, Basquiat and Diaz had a falling out. Basquiat subsequently graffitied “SAMO IS DEAD” all over SoHo, and quickly shifted his attention to painting.5 Basquiat increasingly gained public recognition and respect, partly due to René Ricard’s article, “The Radiant Child” in Artforum. In the 1980s, Basquiat’s solo talent was fully realized; in 1980, he signed with the Annina Nosei gallery, and in 1982 and 1983, Gagosian Gallery held two exhibitions of his work.6
Basquiat’s paintings are classified as neo-expressionist, as they portray recognizable objects and figures in a violent, emotional, and colorful manner.7 Across Basquiat’s art, ‘suggestive dichotomies’ are present: these include themes of wealth versus poverty, inner versus outer, and integration versus segregation.8 Basquiat uniquely uses his canvases as a tool for social commentary, attacking the persisting racism, poverty, and unjust social hierarchies. For example, Basquiat’s Irony of Negro Policeman, 1981, is a critique of race relations in America. By depicting a black policeman, Basquiat intends to stress how African Americans are controlled by whites. The word ‘pawn’ on the bottom right of the work points to the deep irony of having a black police man working and fighting to reinforce laws that were put in place by a white majority, which in turn end up enslaving people of his very same race.9 The policeman’s hat resembles a cage, perhaps alluding to both the metaphorical cage and a prison cell that blacks in America are contained in due to persisting racism. Additionally, the policeman’s body is fragmented, possibly suggesting that the puzzle pieces do not fit, that a black man should not be fighting for the rules of a white society. Irony of Negro Policeman also exhibits the use of multiple mediums, representative of Basquiat’s work. The presence of text refers to Basquiat’s graffiti past. Though Basquiat’s work seems compulsive and spontaneous, his use of several modes in one work indicates a youthful fascination with art and creating.10
In the early 1980s, Basquiat met Andy Warhol at a restaurant. Shortly after, Basquiat showed the celebrated artist some of his work, which greatly impressed Warhol. Warhol and Basquiat later collaborated, due to the suggestion of the Swiss art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger. These collaborations worked well: Warhol was reinvigorated by Basquiat’s new, exciting persona, and Basquiat desperately wanted Warhol’s fame. They continued partnering until Warhol’s death in 1987.11 The process of making would begin with Warhol painting a recognizable symbol, as is typical of his work, and Basquiat then adding his own touch by painting over parts of Warhol’s work, resulting in a harmonious collaborative painting. An example of such is Olympic Rings, 1984-5: Warhol’s mastery of color and shape, evident in the Olympic rings, and Basquiat’s deranged images of faces with creepy grins painted over the rings work to create an image that is characteristic of both Warhol and Basquiat.12 Though Warhol’s stylized logos and Basquiat’s free graffiti style are clear opposites, they compliment each other to create a powerful series of collaborative works.
Though Basquiat’s fame was exponentially increasing as the 1980s progressed, his heroin addiction was worsening, which naturally began to interfere with both his business and personal relationships. After Warhol’s death in 1987, Basquiat became increasingly isolated and depressed. One year later, at the age of 27, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in his studio. Though his life was taken too soon, Basquiat’s legacy lives on in film, in music, and of course, in art. His highly valued paintings are exhibited in galleries and museums across the world, including The Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1992 retrospective exhibition of Basquiat’s career.13
- Faflick, Philip. “The SAMO Graffiti.. Boosh Wah or CIA?” Village Voice, December 11, 1978.
- Flynt, Henry. “The SAMO© Graffiti” http://www.henryflynt.org/overviews/samo.htm
- Basquiat, Jean-Michel. JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT- An Interview (ART / New York No. 30A) video. 1998. 34 mins. Interview by Marc Miller.
- Deitch J, Cortez D, and O’Brien, G. (eds.) Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981: the Studio of the Street, Charta, 2007.
- Haden-Guest, Anthony. True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.
- Fred Hoffman (March 13, 2005), Basquiat's L.A. – How an '80s interlude became a catalyst for an artist's evolution
- Chilvers, Ian and John Glaves-Smith. A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. Oxford University Press (2009), p. 503
- Hoffman, Fred. (2005) The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works from the book Basquiat. Mayer, Marc (ed.). Merrell Publishers in association with the Brooklyn Museum, pp. 129–139.
- Frohne, Andrea (1999). "Representing Jean-Michel Basquiat". In The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities (1st ed.). Bloomington, Indiana
- Davis, Tamra. "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.” Independent Lens. PBS.
- Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol: Olympic Rings, June 19 – August 11, 2012 Gagosian Gallery, London.
- Parry, Megan. “The Good and Bad Andy Warhol and Jean-Michael Basquiat Collaboration.” http://artistsinspireartists.com/painting/good-bad-andy-warhol-jean-michael-basquiat-collaboration
- Marshall, Richard. Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York: Abrams / Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992.