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Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Controversial Art Prodigy

Written by  //  April 25, 2011  //  Art Category  //  No comments


Jean- Michel Basquiat: The Controversial Art Prodigy

Jean-Michel Basquiat did everything against the grain. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, however he wanted and no one could change that. This quality defined his artwork making it incredibly original; but unfortunately this characteristic also defined his destructive behaviors, eventually leading him to an untimely death.Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. on December 22, 1960. He was the first of three children of Matilde Andrades, of Puerto Rican descent, and Gerard Basquiat, of Haitian descent. Basquiat was a child prodigy in several areas, by the age of four, he was a gifted artist and could read and write. By the age of 11 he could fluently speak, read and write English, French and Spanish. He was inspired by cartoons and he would draw on his father’s accounting papers that he brought home from work. His mother, who had a passion for fashion design and sketching, encouraged his talents throughout his life and played a large roll in the development of his passion for art. His parents split up when he was seven years old and he and his siblings lived with their father, moving to Haiti and back to N.Y. The separation and frequent moving that occurred because of it greatly affected the young boy.

As an adolescent Basquiat rebelled against any and all authority. He ran away from home several times, frequently got into trouble at school and dropped out of City-As-School, an alternative public school. Before dropping out of school altogether, on a dare Basquiat ran up to the podium and poured shaving cream all over his principal as she spoke at a graduation ceremony.

While enrolled at City-As-School, he met Al Diaz, who became a close friend and frequent artistic collaborator. In 1977, the pair began spray-painting cryptically poetic sayings on the walls of subway trains and across lower Manhattan and signing them under the alias  “SAMO” (Same Old Sh**). The project made the pair notorious in the area and contributed highly to Basquiat’s widespread recognition for his future solo work.

Many believe that Basquiat had an obsession with drawing. He would draw on anything that he could get his hands on, from refrigerators to clothing and even doors. 

In his late teens and early 20s, Basquiat collaborated with legendary artists like Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente and David Salle. In 1983, he formed a deep friendship and art collaboration with Renown Artist Andy Warhol, which sparked criticism claiming that their partnership promoted white patronization of black art. Basquiat was never one to let criticism affect him though, he is known for saying:

“I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”

The pair collaborated on numerous works until Warhol died in 1987. Warhol’s death caused the young artist to spiral into a deep depression.

Basquiat’s unique style reflected his graffiti talents and included Afrocentric themes, bright colors, abstract figures and symbolic words that usually had social, racial or political significance. His artwork represented the underdogs, the under-privileged and those who couldn’t stand up for themselves.

On Basquiat’s official website Art Critic Jeffery Deitch explains why the young artist was so influential:

“Basquiat’s great strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting.”

His innovativeness made him popular, but success brought a lot of pressure on him. With his fame came multiple drug addictions and a large appetite for expensive restaurants, clothes and vacations. He was also infamous for running into constant problems with numerous girlfriends and drug dealers. The fact that his paintings were growing in popularity, showing in international galleries and selling for thousands of dollars each, gave Basquiat more money to use on his destructive habits.

The young artist died at age 28 in 1988 of a drug overdose. Basquiat’s artwork gained even more notoriety after his death. He was highly acclaimed for being an influential artist who never had any formal training. Until 2002, the highest money paid for an original work of Basquiat’s was $3,302,500, but this price was surpassed several times years later. The record price for a Basquiat painting was made on May 15, 2007, when one of his untitled works from 1981 was sold in New York for $14.6 million.

“Jean-Michel lived like a flame. He burned really bright. Then the fire went out. But the embers are still hot.” –Former Graffiti Artist Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Braithewaite-

-Morgan King

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