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Jean-Michel Basquiat: understanding an artist

Jean-Michel Basquiat was 15 years old when his Haitian father caught him smoking pot in his room and in the scuffle, stabbed his son in the ass with a knife.

It was then — Basquiat would later say — that he knew he had to leave.

Haley Alvarez-Lauto | Senior Graphic Artist

He left his parents’ house and spent the next few years living with friends or in homeless shelters, regularly spray-painting poetry around Brooklyn. His tag was SAMOshort for “same old sh—.” 

His poetry was direct, simple and profound for those of us who merely tolerate civilization.

He also painted on de-framed doors and cardboard boxes because he couldn’t afford canvases. On the street, he sold decorated postcards and sweatshirts.

Meanwhile, the underground arts scene turned SAMO into a legend. 

After a falling out with his graffiti partner Al Diaz, he began to write “SAMO is dead” around Brooklyn. At this time, he began painting on canvases in preparation for his first gallery in New York at the “New York/New Wave” exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art. 

The gallery was a tremendous success. Soon after, art curator, Annina Nosei, invited him to work in her basement studio. There, Basquiat would arrive at 9 a.m., smoke joints and work until 5. For source material, he kept the television on and laid out textbooks — drawing phrases and images to include in his work.

The view of critics on Basquiat’s workspace was negative. They saw Basquiat as a savage — locked in her basement, as he was forced to paint. 

In 1982, art critic Jeffrey Deitch wrote, “Basquiat is likened to the wild boy raised by wolves, corralled into Annina’s basement and given nice clean canvases to work on instead of anonymous walls… But Basquiat is hardly primitive. He’s more like a rock star.”

Almost everything written about Basquiat had a racist edge to it. 

I say “had” because now that he’s dead, there’s just his art — no longer the person with black skin attached to it — so the reviews are glowing. Throughout his career, he was always portrayed as a “wild other,” something his white friends and fellow artists Keith Haring and Kenny Sharf were hardly subjected to, even though they also emerged from the graffiti scene of the late ‘70s.

However, Basquiat continued to rise — fueled by his originality and dedication. He worked all the time. In 1982 alone, he created 200 paintings, most of which sold for millions. 

In 1984, he began a collaboration and close friendship with Andy Warhol. Basquiat liked that Warhol was part of the artistic aristocracy he wanted to join. Warhol liked that Basquiat was an untamable, creative genius of the new generation.

When their collaborative paintings premiered, reviews burned Warhol for using the young star. Now distrustful of Warhol, Basquiat severed their relationship and sank deeper into drug addiction. 

Three years later, he died of a heroin overdose. In 2017, his painting “Untitled: Skull” sold for $110.5 million. 

It’s true, what poet Charles Bukowski says, “the better a man gets the more he is envied and, in turn, hated.”






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