Profile of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York artist

Vocable (All English) - - Culture - OLIVIA LAING

This month, the Louis Vuit­ton Foun­da­tion is host­ing one of the most ea­gerly awaited art events of the year: an ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brat­ing Jean-Michel Basquiat. Iconic New York un­der­ground artist who died at the height of his ca­reer at the age of twenty-seven, Basquiat helped to shape con­tem­po­rary art with his avant-garde paint­ings. His work is the most ex­pen­sive in history along­side Pi­casso. Por­trait of this iconic fig­ure.

In the spring of 1982, a ru­mour started swill­ing around New York. The gal­lerist An­nina No­sei had some kind of boy ge­nius locked in her base­ment, a black kid, wild and in­scrutable as Kas­par Hauser, mak­ing mas­ter­pieces out of nowhere to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of Ravel’s Boléro. “Oh Christ”, Jean-Michel Basquiat said when he heard. “If I was white, they would just call it an artist-in-res­i­dence.”

2. These were the kind of ru­mours he had to work against, but also the de­lib­er­ate myth he con­structed about him­self, part canny bid for star­dom, part pro­tec­tive veil. Basquiat was 22 by then, and could make up out of the whole cloth of his child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence all kinds of patch­worked, piece­meal selves, play­ing off peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions of what a grubby, dread­locked, half-Haitian, half-Puerto Ri­can young man might be ca­pa­ble of.


3. He had come to promi­nence as a graf­fiti artist, part of the duo SAMO, short for same old shit, who bombed the doors and walls of the Lower East Side with enig­matic phrases. The paint­ings started com­ing right at the moment that the East Vil­lage trans­formed from a burned-out waste­land in­hab­ited by heroin ad­dicts to the epi­cen­tre of a star­tling art boom. There was a mar­ketable glam­our to be­ing a down-and-out prodigy then, but it was an act for Basquiat.

4. He was a street kid, true, a teen run­away who had slept on benches in Tomp­kins Square Park, but he was also a hand­some priv­i­leged boy from a Park Slope brown­stone who had

gone to pri­vate school, fol­lowed by a stint at City-As-School, a des­ti­na­tion for gifted chil­dren. Though he didn’t have a for­mal art ed­u­ca­tion, he and his mother Matilde had been fre­quent­ing mu­se­ums since he was a tod­dler. As his girl­friend Suzanne Mal­louk re­called of a trip to MoMA, “Jean knew every inch of that mu­seum, every paint­ing, every room. I was as­ton­ished at his knowl­edge and in­tel­li­gence and at how twisted and un­ex­pected his ob­ser­va­tions could be.”


5. All the same, there were ruptures. His par­ents sep­a­rated when he was eight. That year, a car hit him while he was play­ing bas­ket­ball in the street. He spent a month in hospi­tal with a bro­ken arm and in­ter­nal in­juries so se­vere his spleen had to be re­moved. As a boy he made car­toons of Hitch­cock films, but in 1977 he grad­u­ated to mak­ing his mark on the skin of New York it­self.

6. A be­bop in­sur­gent, he trav­elled the noc­tur­nal city with a spray-can in his over­coat pocket, at­tack­ing in par­tic­u­lar the high art zone of Soho and the Lower East Side. “ORI­GIN OF COT­TON,” he wrote on a wall in front of a fac­tory in his dis­tinc­tively loose-jointed cap­i­tals; “SAMO AS AN AL­TER­NA­TIVE TO PLAS­TIC FOOD STANDS”. The state­ments were so to­tally poised in their as­sault on art-world inani­ties that ob­servers be­lieved they were by a dis­af­fected con­cep­tual artist, some­one al­ready fa­mous. In 1980, a boom year, he was mostly home­less and pen­ni­less, pick­ing up girls from clubs so he had some­where to spend the night. He showed his work for the first time in the scene-defin­ing Times Square Show, which also fea­tured Kenny Scharf, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith.


7. “Ev­ery­thing he did was an at­tack on racism and I loved him for this,” Mal­louk says in Widow Basquiat, the po­etic ac­count of their

shared life by Jen­nifer Cle­ment. Af­ter Basquiat, Mal­louk be­came in­volved with an­other young artist, Michael Ste­wart, who in 1983 was ar­rested and beaten into a coma by three po­lice of­fi­cers af­ter graf­fi­ti­ing a sub­way sta­tion wall. He died 13 days later. The of­fi­cers, who claimed Ste­wart had a heart at­tack, were charged with crim­i­nally neg­li­gent homi­cide, as­sault and per­jury but found not guilty by an all-white jury. “It could have been me,” Basquiat said, and set about paint­ing De­face­ment (The Death of MichaelSte­wart).

8. All the time, Basquiat was be­com­ing more suc­cess­ful, more wealthy and fa­mous. And yet he still couldn’t re­li­ably hail a cab in the street. Fine: limos in­stead. He bought ex­pen­sive wines, Ar­mani suits to paint in, like any artist who has sud­denly made it big, yet the anec­dotes about his spend­ing were passed on with a ca­sual glaze of racism, as if there was some­thing un­usu­ally re­veal­ing about his ap­petites. It was lonely, he was lonely, the only black man in the room, his prodigy sta­tus like that of a toy. “They’re just racist, most of those peo­ple,” he’s quoted as say­ing in Di­eter Buch­hart’s Now’stheTime (Prestel).


9. One of his clos­est friends in the years of his suc­cess was Andy Warhol. The first time Warhol men­tioned Basquiat in his diary, on 4 Oc­to­ber 1982, was as “one of those kids who drive me crazy”. It didn’t take long, though, be­fore they were em­broiled in a full-blown friend-ro­mance, among the most in­ti­mate and last­ing of both their lives. They col­lab­o­rated on more than 140 paint­ings (this fer­tile part­ner­ship ended in 1985, af­ter Basquiat was stung by a bad re­view of their joint show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery), worked out and went to par­ties, had man­i­cures and talked on the phone for hours.

10. There was noth­ing heroic or glamorous about Basquiat’s ad­dic­tion. It came with the usual de­tri­tus: hit­ting girl­friends, ac­cru­ing debts, fall­ing out with beloved friends. He tried to stop but couldn’t, and in the end he died in the apart­ment he rented from Warhol on Great Jones Street, of acute mixed drug in­tox­i­ca­tion. In its obit­u­ary, the New York Times ob­served that Warhol’s death the pre­ced­ing year “re­moved one of the few reins on Mr Basquiat’s mer­cu­rial be­hav­iour and ap­petite for nar­cotics”.

11. These days Basquiat is among the most ex­pen­sive artists in the world; these days his images are fran­chised, repli­cated ev­ery­where from Ur­ban De­cay blusher pots to Reebok train­ers. You could scorn the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, but isn’t it what he wanted, to colour every sur­face with his runes?

(The Times/News Syn­di­ca­tion/SIPA)

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the I.C.A. gallery ahead of his first Lon­don show, De­cem­ber 1984.

(Es­tate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Li­censed by Artes­tart, New York.)

Un­ti­tled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

(Es­tate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Li­censed by Artes­tart, New York)

Un­ti­tled (1982) by Basquiat, the most ex­pen­sive art­work by an Amer­i­can artist at auc­tion.

(Es­tate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Li­censed by Artes­tart, New York)

Un­ti­tled (Boxer) (1982) by Basquiat.

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