The world has had its fair share of artists, from many genres, whose light burned bright and hot for a brief period of time before being snuffed out, forever. Jean Michel Basquiat is the perfect example of an artist whose life resembled the brightest fireworks display imaginable. He emerged as a young and talented graffiti artist, who would go on to create works of art that took on complex political, social, and spiritual issues by boiling them down to their core essence. Tragically, the same brilliant mind that was capable of those feats was also capable of turning on itself.

Jean Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York to parents with a strong creole background. His father Gerard (b 1930) was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti while his mother Matilde (1934-2008) was born in Brooklyn to parents of African and Puerto Rican descent. Jean Michel’s talents and abilities were noticeable to those in his family almost immediately.

By the age of four, Jean Michel was already able to read and write, and his early teachers had taken notice of his budding artistic talent.  As impressive as that was, Jean Michel topped that when he became a fluent reader, writer, and speaker of French, Spanish, and English by the time he was
11 years old.

Early artistic nurturing

Jean Michel’s mother Matilde was the first person to both foster her son’s artistic abilities and serve as an early inspiration for his future artistic endeavors. Matilde nurtured her son’s artistic abilities by frequently taking him to the many art museums across New York City, and she even enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

At the age of eight, Jean Michel spent time in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained when he was hit by a car while playing in the street. His mother brought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to keep him occupied while he recuperated, and in that simple gesture influenced the artistic form that would dominate his career.

Untitled, 1981 acrylic and mixed

Untitled, 1981 acrylic and mixed media on canvas. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles © 2011 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS, New York Photography credit: Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles

Father and son strife

Jean Michel’s childhood became rocky during his formative years when his parent’s split. He lived with his father for five years in Brooklyn, and two years in Puerto Rico, before having a falling out with him and striking out on his own. Jean Michel’s early career was born out of this strife with his father and hitting the streets early in life. This initial period of his career stretched from 1976 to roughly 1980, and consisted of tagging buildings across lower Manhattan with graffiti.

A start in “Graffiti art”

In those early days, Jean Michel worked on his graffiti art with Al Diaz who was himself a well-known graffiti artist in New York City. The pair became famous for their SAMO tag attached to all their work. According to Jean Michel, the duo came up with the tag SAMO one night while using marijuana. At some point it was noted that their marijuana was the “same old shit,” and the saying “same old” was shortened to SAMO for their tag.

Many critics noted that Jean Michel’s early graffiti work was impressive because it showed off his ability to take his perception of the world and boil it down to its basic, core essence. Those early graffiti works were often simple in appearance with one image attached to a single or phrase that took a complicated issue and broke it down to its simple essence.

Never receiving formal training or instruction, all of Jean Michel’s talents were inherent abilities he possessed and expressed in his own unique way. Among the core features of his artwork throughout his career was the use of angular human shapes, something he derived from his study of the Gray’s Anatomy book, as well as the use of single words or short phrases to highlight a piece.

During the 1980s Jean Michel met and collaborated with a number of different artists from various genres. Jean Michel made regular appearances on Glenn O’Brien’s public-access television show TV Party, formed the noise rock band Gray (formerly Test Pattern) with Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford and Vincent Gallo, and eventually became very close friends with Andy Warhol.

notary Notary - Jean-Michel Basquiat

Notary, 1983 (Jean-Michel Basquiat) acrylic, crayon
The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles © 2011 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS, New York

Focus on canvas art

As his artistic expression changed during the 1980s, Jean Michel turned increasingly to paintings on canvas while retaining his style. Rather than tagging buildings across New York City, Jean Michel brought his style to the canvas and slightly altered the approach to his work. While his graffiti work took the complex people, issues, and events of the world and boiled them down to their essence, his work on canvas turned inward.

Throughout the 1980s Jean Michel began to intensely scrutinize his own emotional and spiritual sense of being through is artwork. Whether he was tagging graffiti on a building or splashing paint on a canvas, Jean Michel’s work always offered intriguing composition, brilliant color at times, and a delicate balance between spontaneity and control.

As an increasing number of  art critics took note of his abilities, Jean Michel’s work began to appear in galleries throughout New York’s SoHo neighborhood and eventually around the world in galleries in Paris,
Tokyo, and Dusseldorf. At the time, his artwork fetched prices anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000. In the decades after his death, some of his work has fetched millions at auctions and galleries around the world.

An art, torment, drugs and a young death

Jean Michel was a supremely talented artist with a unique ability to take the complicated and make it simple, but with his genius came demons that would eventually lead to his death. Throughout the mid-1980s, Jean Michel developed a heroin addiction that interfered with his personal relationships and tormented him. After developing a very close friendship over the years with Andy Warhol, the 1987 death of Warhol shook Jean Michel and pushed him further into isolation.

On 12 August 1988, shortly after a trip to Maui, Hawaii to attempt to clean himself up, Jean Michel was found dead in his NoHo neighborhood art studio. Just 27 years old at the time, the official cause of death was a heroin overdose. After a little more than a decade as an active artist, Jean Michel’s brilliant flame was snuffed out.

Though he is gone from this world, Jean Michel’s artistic style is still appreciated by many in the art world. In November 2012, one of his five most famous prints (Untitled – a depiction of a lone black fisherman) was sold for $26.4 million at auction. In the summer of 2013 over 30 works of art from Jean Michel came on display at Sotheby’s in New York City before going to a private sale event.