Today would have been the 51st birthday of one of the most renowned artists of the last half century. And even if you’ve never seen his art, you’ve probably heard his name.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat’s, Warhol’s, servin as my muses ” -Jay-Z.

Red on the wall, Basquiat when I paint” -Rick Ross.

Promised Land. I picture Porsches. Basquiat Portraits“-Nas

She said I care more about them Baquiones, Basquiat’s“-Kanye West.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) went from a rebellious, homeless teenager to art icon and inspiration to a generation of hip hop stars and contemporary artists. His journey from the Brooklyn streets to the MoMA is a real-life narrative about discovering your passion and pursuing it at all costs. It’s both an inspirational story and cautionary tale. An account of how fame can build you up to unimaginable heights and just as quickly drag down to depths from which you can’t escape.

Basquiats “Self Potrait As A Heel”, 1982

To truly understand the American culture of the 1980’s, you have to understand the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was the era of Madonna, Run DMC, and Gordan Gekko. The genius of Basquiat was that he was able to seemlessly incoporate the essence of pop art, hip hop, and the tragedies of Reaganomics into his paintings. It was this uncanny ability to capture the zietgeist that led critics like New York Times writer, Roberta Smith to deem Basquiat’s work as, “one of the singular achievements of the ’80s,” and it’s what made him one of the first African-American painters to achieve international acclaim. His early death at age 27, as a result of a heroin overdose, was also an unforunate personification of the decadence and overdulgence of the Booming 80’s.

In just a eight year period, Basquiat had created thousands of paintings, drawings, and sketches. His career as a professional began with his first public exhibition in the “Times Square Show” in 1980 which earned him rave reviews.  Before his death, his work had shown in galleries in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Montreal, Abidjan, and Hannover. He became the youngest artist to ever be included in Germany’s Documenta, the prestigious international survey of contemporary art, and the first black artist to show at the Whitney Biennial in New York.

Basquiats “Untitled”, 1982

Critics of Basquait often pointed out his lack of formal art training which became evident in the fact that he wasn’t a master of color and composition. But it’s the raw street asthetic that has elevated Basquiat as an early icon of Hip Hop. Like the art of sampling that is prevelant in rap music, Basquiat took seperate elements and combined them to create a new, unique piece of work. Drawing from influences like Picasso’s Guernica and the medical textbook, Gray’s Anatomy, Basquiat’s techinque was centered on integrating words and phrases, various objects, shapes, and symbols that set off vibrations when the seemingly unrelated elements were viewed as whole.

Basquiat’s pieces often focused on events and prominent figures from Haitian, Puerto Rican, African, and African-American history. His examination of the effects of European colonism on the black disapora was  a constant theme in his work, as well as addressing issues of faith and religion. The urban environment of his birthplace was also an inspiration to his artistic vision.

Basquiats “Untitled”, 1981

Basquiat was born on December 22 in Brooklyn, New York to a Haitian  father and Puerto Rican mother. With the encouragement of his mother, Matilde, Basquiat started drawing cartoons at the age of four. Matilde also regularly exposed Basquiat to art exhibits in local venues like the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1968, when Basquiat was 8 years old, his parents divorced and he and his sisters went to live with his father. About two years later his mother was committed to a mental facility, and spent the next several years going in and out of institutions. It’s around this time that Basquiat began to rebel in school, and by the age of 17, he dropped out completely and ran away from his father’s home, forcing him to crash with friends and sell handmade postcards and t-shirts for money.

SAMO graffiti

There was another major occurence taking place in Basquiat’s life in the early 1970’s. The mysterious grafitti tag, “Taki 183” began to pop up on subway cars throughout New York City. Basquiat became fascinated with this new underground art and developed his own graf moniker, “SAMO©” (Same Old Sh*t). He started fraternizing in New York counter-culture clubs like Diego Cortez’s MUDD club, where he met other artists, collectors and art dealers. By 1979, “SAMO” had gained the attention of publications like the Village Voice and the New York cable show “TV Party“.  Basquiat befriended the show’s host, Glenn O’Brien, who casts Basquiat in his film, New York Beat, an ode to the downtown music scene. O’Brien also introduced Basquiat to the trendy visual art movement and it’s leading figure, Andy Warhol.

Warhol & Basquiat

Basquiat embraced Warhol as a mentor. The two became close friends and eventually artistic collaborators, cultimating in their critically-panned 1985 exhibition  shown at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York.  Not only was the art the two produced criticized, but their connection in general faced substanial denunciation, mostly centering on the perceived patronization of black art by the white elite. Basquiat was the new “It Boy” of the art world, and the issue of “selling out” began to enter the conversation about his emergence.

By 1984 Basquiat’s lifestyle had changed drasticly. His art was selling for upwards of $25,000 a piece, and he began throwing elaborate parties and dressing in Armani suits that he purposely ruined by painting in them. As Basquiat’s fame and wealth grew his dependence on cocaine and heroin grew as well, leading friends to become concerned with his unkempt appearance and constant battles with paranoia. His work started to fall out of favor with art critics and eventually he went on a hiatus from public exhibitions for several years.

Basquiat at Grand Street Studio, NY, 1987

Basquiat hit rock bottom in 1987 when Warhol died unexpectedly from routine gallbladder operation. Basquiat and Warhol’s relationship had become estranged after their failed joint exhibition three years earlier, but Basquiat still greatly admired and respected the man who coined the phrase, “15 minutes of fame.” Soon afterwards Basquiat fell into a deep depression and became increasingly reclusive. Eventually, Basquiat escaped to Hawaii to try and break free from his drug addiction and re-focus on his art. He returned to New York in August of 1988, and within days was dead after a drug binge.

Examining Basquiat’s life makes it easier to understand why hip hop superstars like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Common, and Swiss Beatz see aspects of their own triumphs and struggles in the young artist. They can relate to his extraordinary rise from being a self-reliant black male trying to survive in America to being a celebrated figure that still has to overcome the new demons that come along with being young, rich, and famous. They have to reconcile the brutal personal battle between maintaining artistic integrity and chasing that dream of reaching the status of the exalted greats who make it into history. In this current age  of “luxury rap”, Basquiat is a reminder that despite the exceptional talent you possess and the level of success you reach, there are always forces (internal and external) working to dim your light and bring you back down from the clouds. Like he said in his piece, Charles the First, dedicated to jazz legend Charlie Parker – “Most Young Kings Get Thier[sic] Head Cut Off”.

Basquiats “Charles the First”, 1982

“Since I was 17. I thought I might be a star, ” Basquiat is quoted saying in the  New York Times Magazine. “I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix….I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous.”

Basquiats “Untitled (fallen angel)”, 1981

Basquiat has reached a level of fame few others can attain (in 2007, his Untitled (fallen angel) sold at auction for a record $11.2 million). Basquiat’s legacy now resides in the same category as other exceptional talents like James Dean, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur. Amazing artists whose lives were taken too soon and whose full potential was never reached. His work will live on forever, but you can’t help but to wonder what else could the world have gained if the phenom himself could have lived just a little while longer?

Watch footage of Jean-Michel Basquiat:

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