Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of America’s brightest, most talented and original artists. His works currently command some of the highest prices at auction around the world.
Early Life and Education
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn on December 22, 1960. Basquiat had two younger sisters. His older brother died shortly before Basquiat was born. His father, Gerard Basquiat, was born in Haiti and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of twenty, where he became a successful accountant, providing his family with four-story brownstone in Boerum Hill, just a few blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
His mother, Matilde Basquiat, of Puerto Rican descent, was born in Brooklyn. She recognized Basquiat’s artistic talent and cultivated it by taking him to museums and getting him a junior membership at the Brooklyn Museum. Basquiat attended Saint Ann’s, a private elementary school that focused on the arts. Basquiat was not just a talented young artist, he was also fluent in speaking and reading French, English and Spanish and excelled at track events.
When he was seven years old, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street. He suffered a broken arm, and internal injuries that required surgery to remove his spleen. While recovering from his injuries, his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which turned out to have a profound influence on his art. That same year, his parents separated. Basquiat and his sisters remained with their father. Basquiat’s mother suffered from mental illness and spent much of her adult life in and out of psychiatric facilities.
Basquiat attended City-as-School, an alternative high school in Manhattan, for students who don’t do well in traditional schools. He finally dropped out of school altogether when he was seventeen, just one year short of graduation. His father gave him some money, threw him out of their home and wished him luck. Basquiat stayed with friends, and became part of the New York graffiti arts scene.
Basquiat made some money by selling hand-painted postcards and t-shirts. He and his high school friend, Al Diaz, began painting graffiti around the city, using the tag, SAMO, meaning same old, same old. Their work was mentioned in an article about graffiti in the Village Voice, which gave Basquiat enough recognition to enter the Manhattan club and art scene.
The friendship between Basquiat and Diaz ended in 1979, and SAMO ended as well. Basquiat became a familiar presence at clubs, on public access television and, in 1979, started a band called Gray (named for Gray’s Anatomy). During the same period he sold paintings and drawings in Washington Square Park and in front of the Museum of Modern Art.
Basquiat had his first exhibit in the Times Square Show in 1980, organized by an artist-run group. His work was well received and he soon had his first solo exhibit in 1981, followed by a story of his work in Artforum magazine, which brought him critical acclaim. His friends included Keith Haring and, in 1982 he dated Madonna, who was also part of the Manhattan club scene. Andy Warhol became one of Basquiat’s closest friends. They collaborated on over 140 paintings. It was Warhol who rented Basquiat a studio…the same studio in which he died, in 1988…of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-seven.
Basquiat’s paintings style was a combination of cartoon-like figures, often combined with words. His paintings focused on themes of racism, fame and wealth. His 1982 work Untitled was sold to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa last September for a record-breaking $110.5 million at auction — the highest sum ever paid at auction for a U.S.-produced artwork.
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