Jean-Michel Basquiat’s bristling, ugly-elegant, stream-of-consciousness art still looks damn good. The body of work, produced during a truncated but astoundingly prolific career, has the almost too classic prerequisites of greatness: an indelible yet infinitely flexible visual style that cannibalizes and extends the past, reflects its own time and stays fresh and relevant as it moves into the future.
Last year, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting Dustheads, depicting two figures stoned on the hallucinogenic drug PCP, was offered for sale at Christie’s in New York. It was given an estimated sales tag of $25–35 million. In the end, the hammer came down at $48.8 million.
Basquiat began as a teen-age graffiti artist, SAMO, who scrawled cryptic sayings on public buildings around Manhattan. Eventually he scavenged and recycled television images, comic-book heroes, fragments from the Bible, slogans; he appropriated everything into his work. His meteoric rise and fall coincided with the emergence of other artists, like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, who were producing vast quantities of work very quickly to satisfy the inflated art market of the 1980’s.
Basquiat, who flamed to the center of that overheated 1980’s art scene with his first shows in 1981 and ’82, was born in Brooklyn in 1960. His father was Haitian, his mother, Puerto Rican; he had a comfortably middle-class upbringing and determined early that he wanted to be famous.
He painted and drew from childhood, and was riveted by Gray’s Anatomy, which his mother gave him when he was 7 and injured in a car accident. Later he would make visual references to that book in his paintings, as well as to his accident, and he would also refer to another favorite book, Junky, by William Burroughs.
He turned first to poetry; his initial artistic forays consisted of spray-painting buildings around SoHo and the Lower East Side with cryptic poems and aphorisms signed “SAMO©” (a compression of “same old, same old”). At 15, he ran away from home and lived in Washington Square Park, tripping on LSD and other drugs. To support himself, he sold painted T-shirts and handmade postcards on West Broadway, and he made friends with other struggling young artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. The three became part of the graffiti movement that flourished in the East Village in the late 1970’s and was part of an energizing street culture, achieving an underground celebrity status.
Everybody loved Samo. Nobody could ignore him. He wore a green trench coat and a blond Mohawk. His feet were bare. He was smart and funny and charming, and he had phenomenal energy.
He soon took to painting on scavenged surfaces: doors, windows, old boxes, football helmets. Then his first big break came in a 1981 show in which his work created a stir: 15 pieces on found lumber and foam rubber — childlike drawings, cars, cartoon characters, ”kind of smeared, and everything was very violent and frenetic,” in the words of one viewer. The paintings sold immediately, and the demand for Basquiats began. Everyone wanted to buy one. They sold faster than he could paint them, at $5,000 to $10,000 apiece. He seemed to be living his paintings. He slept on them, walked over them, ate on them, scribbled phone numbers on them, made lists. There would be a mound of cocaine on a table near his paint buckets. The smell of marijuana was in the air. Collectors would come and gawk. Basquiat quickly became a commodity, and he worked like a demon for the next seven years.
In March 1982 he had a sold-out show that garnered much attention from the news media. He was immediately tapped by Larry Gagosian, the first of a series of powerful art dealers who wheeled and dealed for him. Meanwhile, Basquiat’s output was phenomenal, and he continued to produce, fueled by drugs. Sometimes he would complete up to eight paintings a week. But he would fly into rages about being pressured to paint; sometimes he slashed his canvases to bits. Compounding the problem, heroin and cocaine were making him alternately euphoric and paranoid.
Gagosian arranged for him to have a show in Los Angeles in April 1982. Every painting was sold in a matter of minutes. By November, he had another show at the Fun Gallery in New York, some of the best paintings he ever did. There were portraits of his heroes — Charlie Parker, Jackie Robinson, St. Joe Louis, surrounded by snakes.
Basquiat secretly hid some of his best work so it could not be sold. The canvases were found after his death, in a warehouse in Washington Heights.
Then came Basquiat’s collaboration with Andy Warhol, which was orchestrated by Bruno Bischofberger, the quintessential art dealer of the 1980’s, who handled Basquiat’s work worldwide. He was a master of hype and buying art in bulk, and organized shows for Basquiat in Tokyo, Paris and Madrid. Bischofberger persuaded Warhol to work with Basquiat. Warhol was inspired by Basquiat’s energy and youth. Basquiat idolized Warhol — the artist who more than any other seemed to embody contemporary culture. He desperately needed and wanted Warhol’s approval. The two became inseparable, working and partying together for months. Warhol never took drugs; he was appalled and fascinated by Basquiat’s excesses.
Their joint show at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery in September 1985 was a glittering media event, followed by a wild, noisy party at the Palladium, but the show itself drew universal pans. “Everything . . . is infused with banality,” one critic wrote. “The real question is, who is using whom here?”
The end of the friendship came about because Warhol could not deal with Basquiat’s drug addiction.
Basquiat himself maintained that all he wanted was to be famous. He could learn to draw later, he said. He got his wish, of course, but his dream of fame turned into a nightmare. In both life and death he became a symbol of the 1980’s accelerated cycle of success, excess and burnout.
On Friday, August 12, 1988 Basquiat’s friend Kevin Bray phoned to confirm plans to go to a Run-D.M.C concert later that evening.
Basquiat’s girlfriend Kelle answered, and went to the bedroom to deliver the message, finding Jean-Michel stretched on the floor, his head on his arm, a small pool of vomit forming near his chin.
Kelle panicked. She had never seen anyone die, although Basquiat’s drug binges had made the scenario a constant fear. Now it seemed like the worst had happened.
“When I got there,” recalls Bray, “Kelle said she had called an ambulance. She took me upstairs. Jean-Michel looked like he was comfortably out cold. He was on the floor, lying against the wall, as if he had fallen down and didn’t have the strength to get up, and was just taking a nap. There was a lot of clear liquid coming out of his mouth. We picked him up and turned him over. We shook him, and we just kept trying to revive him. It took a long time for the ambulance to arrive. But for a while, after the guys from the Emergency Medical Service came, we thought he was going to be okay. They were giving him shocks and IV treatment. Victor had to hold Jean-Michel up like this so the IV’s would drain,” says Bray, stretching his arms out in a cruciform.
“It was almost like it was some sort of business transaction,” Bray continued. “They put a tube in his throat and they brought him downstairs. They wouldn’t tell us whether he was dead or alive and they took him outside. He had this bubbling red-white foam coming out of his mouth.”
“We all hoped some miracle would happen.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat died that day, aged 27.