Jean-Michel Basquiat: downtown stray to international star

Published 11 September 2017

As a retrospective of the 1980s icon opens at the Barbican, art historian Morgan Falconer traces how the artist cracked the New York art scene and chased his wildest dreams.

  • From the Autumn 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    We know precisely when Jean-Michel Basquiat felt he made his breakthrough because he went to his father’s house in Brooklyn at 6am and told him, “Papa, I’ve made it!” It was 16 February 1981, and the night before had seen the opening of New York/New Wave, a show now regarded as a prescient herald of new talent, and one in which Basquiat had a place.

    His father probably wasn’t surprised: in his teens, Jean-Michel had been an occasional runaway, but he had also been an inventive live wire who mooned over fame and adulation. The moment was predestined. But what is a breakthrough? Is it a moment with art itself, a clarity when form and idea collide? Or is it just the night when you get past the velvet rope? Basquiat-sceptics – and they are legion – would say that he couldn’t tell the difference.

    The Basquiat legend has him as a downtown stray; ferocious naif in art, precocious in life. True, he dropped out of school and never attended art school, but he was no vagrant. His father, an accountant from Haiti, gave him grit and ambition; his mother seeded a love of art. So when he and a school friend, Al Diaz, started to tag the walls of downtown Manhattan with nonsense aphorisms, and the label SAMO (“same old shit”), Basquiat saw beyond the delinquency. He wondered if it might be a stepping stone, and took care to tag walls near galleries.

  • , Jean-Michel Basquiat on the film set of Downtown 81 in 1981

    Jean-Michel Basquiat on the film set of Downtown 81 in 1981

    © New York Beat Film LLC / By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / Photo: Edo Bertoglio.

  • It worked. As SAMO, Basquiat was invited to exhibit in renowned surveys like The Times Square Show in 1980, and then gave up walls for canvas. And it was at this point that the figures in his images morphed into masks or huge, quasi-skeletal heads. His style coalesced from several sources, bona fide and art historical (Pollock, Dubuffet and Twombly) but also from the pages of Gray’s Anatomy. His mother had bought him a copy when he was convalescing after being hit by a car when he was a boy, and its arrangements of illustrations and texts became his primer in composition. This autumn a retrospective at London’s Barbican shows that, at their best, his works are electric arrangements of flat colour and jittering motifs, evoking a frenzied, hip and cultivated urban life.

    In 1982 came breakthroughs in fame, with shows in New York, Los Angeles (at Larry Gagosian’s early gallery) and Europe. At times, Basquiat seemed lordly in triumph: one friend remembered arriving one afternoon to wake the artist, who uncorked some vintage wine and cooked omelettes and caviar; jazz was played, a girl surfaced from bed. But he could also be paranoid, refusing to open a bank account and squirelling money around his apartment.

    Would it last? Basquiat lived faster and harder while he ran from that question, and when it doubled him over he might call – of all people – Andy Warhol, who would counsel calm. In the end, he died of an overdose on 12 August 1988. Basquiat feared he would be found out: his sceptics would say he had much to fear, others that even the greatest experience doubt.

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