When asked to describe his art, Jean-Michel Basquiat responded with customary aplomb: “royalty, heroism, and the streets.” A high school dropout, Basquiat found his true calling hanging out in the streets and inserting himself in the bustling urban milieu, ultimately becoming an influential figure in New York City’s Downtown, especially the East Village club scene. He was a regular among a group of filmmakers, artists, and musicians who made the Mudd Club, Club 57, and CBGB their stomping ground. Basquiat achieved his breakthrough in the early 1980s, developing a unique vocabulary characterized by repetitive images, human heads with open mouths as if in speech, a variety of marks, and xeroxed collage. In his paintings, the patches of intense color, created with acrylic, oil stick, and graphite, keyed into the excitement of New York’s subculture.

Words mattered to Basquiat. He used them in a range of ways, either for their implicit meaning or to scar the surfaces of canvas or paper. Graffiti marks appear throughout his compositions as invocations or unfathomable musical notes. Cultural references such as “same old, same old” or “same old shit” are compressed into a convenient one-liner, “SAMO,” which was Basquiat’s moniker when he was a graffiti artist in the late 1970s, and later became his signature. Sunken, skull-like human faces with bulbous eyes, silted noses, and visible teeth—as well as anatomical sketches, diagrams, and medical terminology—recurred prominently in his work. They recall the months the artist spent convalescing in the hospital after he was struck by a car when he was eight years old, in May 1968. The accident cost him his spleen. To keep his mind off his injury during his time in the hospital, his mother bought him a copy of the British surgeon Henry Gray’s Gray’s Anatomy, a book that would later have a profound influence on his art.

The names of famous Black male cultural figures—music and sports stars including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Floyd Patterson, and Cassius Clay (Mohammad Ali)—are etched on his canvases as affirming cultural signifiers for Basquiat’s art on his way to stardom. He had a predilection for crossing out words or phrases in order to activate rather than obscure them. As he once explained to a friend, “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”

The years 1981 to 1986 was a rollercoaster period of creativity for Basquiat, who became a bona fide art-world star. His large canvases, vibrating with color, marks, form, and text, more than made up for his noticeable reticence and awkwardness in the limelight. His animating art, charismatic personality, and premature death from a heroin overdose at 27 years, in 1988, inscribed his enduring celebrity.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021

Wikipedia entry
Introduction
Jean-Michel Basquiat (French: [ʒɑ̃ miʃɛl baskja]; December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was an American artist who rose to success during the 1980s as part of the Neo-expressionism movement. Basquiat first achieved fame as part of SAMO, a graffiti duo who wrote enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 1970s, where rap, punk, and street art coalesced into early hip-hop music culture. By the early 1980s, his paintings were being exhibited in galleries and museums internationally. At 21, Basquiat became the youngest artist to ever take part in documenta in Kassel. At 22, he was the youngest to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his art work in 1992. Basquiat's art focused on dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. He used social commentary in his paintings as a tool for introspection and for identifying with his experiences in the Black community of his time, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism. His visual poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle. Since Basquiat's death at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose in 1988, his work has steadily increased in value. At a Sotheby's auction in May 2017, Untitled, a 1982 painting by Basquiat depicting a black skull with red and yellow rivulets, sold for $110.5 million, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever purchased. It also set a new record high for an American artist at auction.
Wikidata
Q155407
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Introduction
American painter and draftsman rapidly rose to fame in the 1980s with his graffiti and more conventional paintings on canvas and paper. While still unknown, he would spray paint cryptic phrases on buildings under the name 'Samo'. Basquiat's paintings and drawings were influenced by commercial art and popular imagery. He frequently used textual elements in his work that provided social commentary based on stereotypical black images and events. In 1983 he met Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated. Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988. American artist.
Nationalities
American, African American, Austrian
Gender
Male
Roles
Artist, Graffiti Artist, Cartoonist, Muralist, Musician, Collagist, Illustrator, Installation Artist, Painter, Sculptor
Names
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Samo, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jean-Michael Basquiat, SAMO
Ulan
500093239
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License
Licensing

If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit https://www.moma.org/research-and-learning/circulating-film.

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].

Feedback

This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].