by Judith Levine
Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. It was his mother Matilde who introduced and encouraged him to begin his journey as an artist. She had taken him frequently to galleries in his native New York City and enrolling him in art classes. At age 7, while recovering after being struck by a car, she purchased a copy of Grey’s Anatomy; he eagerly dug into the book. (Basquiat was reading and writing by age four. By the age of 11, Basquiat was fully fluent in written and spoken French, Spanish and English.) The volume excited the already prolific youngster and began his lifelong interest in the human figure.
Photograph by Richard Corman June, 1984
Basquiat was self-taught. His style was a pulsing Neo-Expressionism, primitive and throbbing with his vision of Black Americans and with his life long struggle with mental illness. Yet he said,” Believe it or not, I can actually draw.” Early work often included a crown with three prongs. It remained as part of his signature even when not in the work. Fellow artist “Francesco Clemente said "Jean-Michel’s crown has three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion. Jean measured his skill against all he deemed strong, without prejudice as to their taste or age." (Biography.com Editors, April 1, 2014) Within three years of exploding onto the national scene in 1980, his work became even starker. The colours are bold, strong pure. He does little blending, as if telling us not to bleed his messages. Basquiat was always acutely aware of being a Black man in America and of the history of his people. “According to Andrea Frohne, Basquiat’s 1983 painting ‘Untitled (History of the Black People)’ “reclaims Egyptians as African and subverts the concept of ancient Egypt as the cradle of Western Civilization...At the center of the painting, Basquiat depicts an Egyptian boat being guided down the Nile River by Osiris, the Egyptian god of the Earth and vegetation.” (Jean-Michel Basquiat: Poverty and Power, Scrawled on Walls, Visual Art, Jack Eidt,11/ 2017)
Profit I – Jean Michel Basquiat, created in Italy in 1982
Untitled (History of the Black People) (1983)
“The young artist was befriended by the Pop artist Andy Warhol in 1983, and the two began to collaborate occasionally.” (Lisa S. Wainwright, Encyclopaedia Britannica) He loved to travel, going in 1986 to Abijan in the Ivory Coast for a show and then to Germany, where “...at the 25-year-old exhibited nearly 60 paintings at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, Germany — becoming the youngest artist to ever showcase his work there.”(Biography.com Editors, April 1, 2014)
Basquiat dealt with personal demons his whole very short life. His mother Matilde Basquiat, perhaps the most important person in his life, certainly in his becoming an artist, was mentally ill. Her increasing illness led to her becoming permanently institutionalized by the mid 1970’s after his parents divorced. He bounced back and forth between Puerto Rico and New York City. This eventually led to his dropping out of high school at age 17. Living intermittently on the streets, he held a series of menial jobs but at the same time began to work as a graffiti artist and then moved to canvas, working in spray paints and acrylics and other media. By the early 1980’s he was trying to deal with his own increasing mental health problems by using illicit drugs. “He became paranoid and isolated himself from the world around him for long stretches. Desperate to kick a heroin addiction, he left New York for Hawaii in 1988, returning a few months later and claiming to be sober.
Sadly, he wasn't. Basquiat died of a drug overdose on August 12, 1988, in New York City. He was 27 years old.” (Biography.com Editors, April 1, 2014) This tragic event was a huge loss to the art world, now deprived of his powerful, singular vision. It was a a loss then and still is. Had he lived more than his short tumultuous 27 years, what treasures he might have bequeathed the world? Rest in peace, Jean-Michel.