Amongst the cluster of stars that have shone briefly but ever so bright, Jean-Michel Basquiat was an icon of the New York art world in the 1980s
Renowned during a career that barely stretched a decade, Basquiat drew on a multitude of sources, from Greek, Roman, and African art to jazz, popular culture along with his artistic contemporaries, most notably his close friend and collaborator Andy Warhol. A native New Yorker, Basquiat made graffiti under the tag “SAMO” as a teenager and produced postcards and t-shirts, before establishing his studio practice: finding fame at the age of 20.
His disparate influences are often juxtaposed in single pieces of works, combining text and image in a collision of visual styles that serve as reminder to all that the street and gallery can well and truly meet – a huge influence to subsequent generations of artists. Self-taught, Basquiat began drawing at an early age on sheets of paper his father, an accountant, brought home from the office. As he delved deeper into his creative side, his mother strongly encouraged to pursue an artistic path.
In 1977, Basquiat quit high school a year before he was due to graduate. Also a poet and musician, he honed his signature style of painting and obsessive scribbling, made up of elusive symbols and diagrams, mask-and-skull imagery. His subjects were mostly inspired from his own Caribbean heritage—his father a Haitian and his mother of Puerto Rican descent. In just eight years, he amassed 1,000 pieces of art in his inimitable style and showed in galleries from New York City to Tokyo. “I don’t think about art while I work,” he once said. “I think about life.”
As his popularity soared, so did problems in his personal life. By the mid-1980s, his excessive drug started to take a toll. He became paranoid and isolated himself from the world around him for long periods at a time. Deeply affected by the passing of Andy Warhol and desperate to kick a heroin addiction, he left New York for Hawaii in 1988, returning a few months later and claiming to be clean. Sadly, he died of a drug overdose on August 12, 1988.
Read more about the man behind the magic, with special thanks to Rachel Goss.