American painter, sculptor and draughtsman. He showed an early interest in drawing, and he was encouraged by his mother’s interest in fashion design and sketching and by his father’s gifts of paper brought home from his office. From as early as 1965 Basquiat’s mother took him to the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA, and from 1966 he was a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum. Early influences on Basquiat’s art include his avid reading of French, Spanish and English texts, his interest in cartoon drawings, Alfred Hitchcock films, cars and comic books, such as MAD magazine and its main character, created by Alfred E. Neuman. While attending the City-as-School (1976–8), an alternative high school, he encountered the Upper West Side Drama Group and the Family Life Theatre and invented ‘Samo’ (Same Old Shit), a fictional character who earns a living selling ‘fake’ religion. He also met, collaborated with and became a close friend of Al Diaz, a graffiti artist from the Jacob Riis Projects on the Lower East Side. Basquiat and Diaz generated much interest in their Graffiti art, which took the form of spray-painted aphorisms that were targeted at the ‘D’ train of the ‘IND’ line and around Lower Manhattan. Samo appeared in these graffiti: in 1978 a favourable article about Samo was printed in the Village Voice, and when the collaboration ended in 1979, ‘Samo is dead’ could be read on walls in SoHo.
In the late 1970s Basquiat’s socializing in clubs frequented by artists and musicians resulted in his introduction into the art world of collectors and dealers through the artist and film maker Diego Cortez. During this period Basquiat was making T-shirts, postcards, drawings and collages that developed from his earlier graffiti art and his interest in painting. He focused on such events as the Kennedy assassination or took such motifs as baseball players and the American confectionery called Pez. Basquiat’s first public exhibition was in the group The Times Square Show (with David Hammons, Jenny Holzer, Lee Quinones, Kenny Scharf and Kiki Smith among others), held in a vacant building at 41st Street and Seventh Avenue, New York. His first one-person exhibition was in 1982 at the Annina Nosei Gallery, New York.
Basquiat’s use of drawn and painted references includes imagery and symbolism from African, Aztec, Greek and Roman cultures, as well as that of his own Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage and Black and Hispanic cultures. His childhood influences remained evident throughout his work and can be seen in early paintings, for example Cadillac Man (acrylic and crayon on canvas, 1980–81; Zurich, Gal. Bruno Bischofberger): in this work his iconography includes cars, television, the letter ‘A’, circles and chains holding up cars; it is painted in a direct, childlike and unhindered manner. In such works as Untitled (Rinso) (acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas with exposed wood supports, 1982; artist’s estate), in which a drawing on a black ground of a man lifting a small weight is accompanied by the words ‘NO SUH, NO SUH’, ‘THEM SHOVELS, WHITEWASHING ACTION’, ‘GREATEST DEVELOPMENT IN SOAP HISTORY’, Basquiat made biting commentary, stemming from his identification with historical and contemporary Black figures and events, cartoons and graffiti art. He brought a bicultural perspective to the new figuration of the 1980s, atypical for including Black culture and popular street-based imagery. In 1983 Basquiat met Andy Warhol, with whom he became a close friend, sometimes collaborating on work with him; Warhol’s untimely death deeply disturbed Basquiat, who also died prematurely.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press