In 1985, the New York Times Magazine featured a shoeless Jean-Michel Basquiat on its cover. Titled “New Art, New Money,” the piece it ran with was ostensibly about the artist, but its focus was really the vague concept of the “art star”—a celebrity who not only made a lot of money (largely unheard of), but who didn’t care if others knew how much money they made (terribly uncool). Art stars, the article said, went to the Midtown New York hotspot Mr. Chow, a trendy watering hole that doubled as a place to be seen and a place to have a drink. That made Basquiat quite unlike Jackson Pollock and his contemporaries, whose clubhouse, the West Village Cedar Tavern, was described as “grubby” and anonymous.
Often spotted beside Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, Basquiat would show up to Mr. Chow decked out in an Armani suit. He’d drink kir royale and socialize with the art-world elite. At the time of writing, he was 24. He had gone from selling drawings for $50 in 1980 to selling canvases “at a brisk pace—so brisk, some observers joked, that the paint was barely dry,” the article said. Basquiat said he worried he had become a “gallery mascot.” Not everyone knew what to make of the young Black man and his frenetic, rebellious paintings, but everyone wanted to be associated with him. Everyone still does.
Despite his outsized reputation, Basquiat’s career did not last long—he died at 27 of a heroin overdose in 1988. According to Phoebe Hoban’s book Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, the artist left behind “917 drawings, 25 sketchbooks, 85 prints, and 171 paintings.” Nevertheless, that oeuvre has become one of the defining ones of the 20th century.
In May 2016, one of his “Head” paintings sold for $57.3 million. The following year, Untitled, a Basquiat from 1982, sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, setting a record for an American artist. The dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who gave the eulogy at Basquiat’s funeral, said after the sale that the artist was now in the “same league” as Pablo Picasso, meaning—maybe—that Basquiat’s prices were buoyed by a similar alchemy: limited supply, raw talent, and a fascinating biography. And his work is getting the major surveys it deserves, too—one focused on hip-hop and his paintings is now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Basquiat was born into a middle-class family, the son of Gerard, a Haitian immigrant, and Mathilde, a Brooklyn Boricua. By his accounts, his father was physically abusive and his mother volatile. She was hospitalized for depression but made time to take him to the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum. She also gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, whose anatomical drawings had a lifelong influence. He often said he felt friendless and misunderstood. His parents separated when he was 7, and his father moved him and his two sisters from East Flatbush to Boerum Hill. He ran away from home at 17, fleeing to lead a new life in Washington Square Park and run-down hotels; he also couch-surfed. That, at least, is the backstory according to Basquiat. Some have disputed that account: family members say they were in touch constantly with Basquiat when he left home, that he was very popular in his creative arts high school, and that he and his sisters never received more than the occasional spank.
Around then, he and his friend Al Diaz started spray-painting walls around SoHo and the East Village under the pseudonym SAMO, short for “same old shit.” The pithy tags gained traction with the graffiti scene. In an interview with the Village Voice, a teenage Basquiat said anti-materialist Samo was born as “a tool for mocking bogusness” and found it hilarious that the “uptight, middle-class pseudos” in Manhattan had fallen for his ruse. “They’re doing exactly what we thought they’d do,” he said “We tried to make it sound profound and they think it actually is!”
The documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat details the formative experience of gaining “his first stable home” in 1979, according to Alexis Adler, his roommate at the time. Adler described Basquiat fishing for waste in the streets—slabs of wood or scraps of canvas, if he was lucky—which he then hauled to their East 12th Street squat. On them he illustrated city scenes and engineered an evolving set of symbols that were precursors to his later visual motifs. In one early work, he crosses out words to draw attention to it. On another, he draws attention to a copyright symbol, which was used throughout his career as an ironic nod to the public nature of SAMO. Anxious human figures, flattened like an anatomy illustration or a cave drawing, also began to appear.
In June 1980, he exhibited for the first time, in “Times Square Show,” a groundbreaking event held in a shuttered massage parlor on Seventh Avenue. The show featured painting, graffiti, and performance art; the participating artists—which included Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring, David Hammons, and Kenny Scharf—were united less by style than by the shared experience of living through New York City’s economic blight in the 1970s. Basquiat’s contribution, a mural painted on a patch of wall, was described by Art in America as “a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway paint scribbles.” The following year, 20 of his works were featured prominently in the “New York/New Wave” show at P.S. 1, a Queens art space. “The common reaction, which was mine,” Alanna Heiss, the director of P.S. 1 told Vanity Fair, “was that this was the new Rauschenberg,” adding that “by the end of the show, people were trying to find Jean-Michel to buy pictures. Things had gone a bit bananas already.” There, the gallery owner Annina Nosei met Basquiat.
Nosei, who also showed Barbara Kruger and Keith Haring, was set on representing the young artist. But other than his exhibited works, he had no paintings. So in September 1981, she set him up in her Prince Street gallery’s basement. The optics of the arrangement were unsavory—a Black man, only just out of his teen years, put to work in a white woman’s home. Even Basquiat knew as much. In an interview, he said, “That has a nasty edge to it, you know? I was never locked anywhere. If I was white, they would just say ‘artist in residence.’”
He described a large space lit by a skylight and assistants who restocked his supplies. He blasted hip-hop while he finished one or two paintings a day. It was a time of rapid growth for his practice, which adopted a more confident Neo-Expressionist style. His paintings were populated with an ever-growing vocabulary of symbols that spanned dollar signs, logos, dinosaurs.
Race explicitly entered his work for the first time, reflecting a growing consciousness of his own position within the New York art world. Created during that period, Irony of Negro Policeman offers a biting critique of those who serve the powers that oppress and exploit them. In the work, the officer wears a hat that resembles both a cage and a top hat associated with Baron Samedi, a Haitian Vodou spirit of death. His eyes are rendered as wide, frantic pools. In the righthand corner, Basquiat scrawled the word “Pawn.” Two years later, he would create his most enduring statement about police brutality: the painting The Death of Michael Stewart, also known as Defacement, which commemorates the killing of the young Black artist Michael Stewart by New York City Transit Police. The works was the center of the Guggenheim Museum’s acclaimed 2019 show “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” which was curated by art historian Chaédria LaBouvier.
Throughout these paintings and his others, there was a desire to depict the Black community in unprecedented ways. In a late interview, Basquiat said, “Black people are never really portrayed realistically…. I mean, not even portrayed in modern art enough.”
In October 1981, Nosei filled the entire backroom of her gallery with his work. Every piece sold for $2,500 apiece. She gave him a studio and a loft on Crosby Street. He was the heart of a market engine that was heating up, and by every account, the pressure did him little good. He developed a severe cocaine addiction. Some acquaintances remember him spending tens of thousands of dollars at a time on drugs. Expensive electronics littered the floor, and luxury catered food, slowly rotting, packed the fridge. Haring later described his excessive spending as a “way of sticking your nose up at people who were looking down on you.” The studio became a popular halfway house for celebrities, artists, and hangers-on. If a visiting collector wondered aloud about whether his paintings would match their decor, Basquiat chased them away.
In March 1982, Basquiat exhibited showed at Nosei’s gallery for the first time under the name Basquiat. Many of his works featured a single anguished head drawn in heavy oil stick marks. Some have considered these heads a form of self-portraiture.
Nosei’s show sold out on opening night, and wildly popular openings at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich soon followed. He was flown to Italy after, but he needed more paintings to exhibit. Waiting in the airplane hangar in Modena were a series of blank, monumental canvases, ready for his Italian opening. “They set it up for me so I’d have to make eight paintings in a week,” he told the New York Times Magazine. He called it a sick factory, but got to work. His collaging had grown more sophisticated. He layered canvas with photocopies which he painted over, and he even silk-screened images à la Warhol. Some historians have said the process also reflected a growing interest with Robert Rauschenberg, whose studio Basquiat later visited in Los Angeles.
Bischofberger reportedly said upon seeing the works that Basquiat had ruined his “intuitive primitivism.” Later that year, Basquiat returned to Nosei’s basement with a box cutter and slashed 10 of his canvases. He splashed the ruins with white paint.
Toward the end of Basquiat’s life, his works were selling around $25,000 to the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, though neither had given him an exhibition. The dealer Leo Castelli showed his friend Haring, but never Basquiat. The experience was embittering. “They still call me a graffiti artist,” he told Vanity Fair at the time. “They don’t call Keith or Kenny graffiti artists anymore.”
Basquiat’s most iconic works today are big and busy. Dustheads (1982), one of Basquiat’s most ambitious pieces, is a seven-foot-tall canvas featuring two vibrantly colored, chaotic figures against a black background. The artist also did a group of collaborative works with Warhol, who some accused of leeching off an emerging talent to remain relevant. Among the most famous works from that series is the sculptural painting Ten Punching Bags, in which the titular bags bear an image of Jesus and are marked with the “Judge.”
Feelings of dread also underpin many of these works. In Riding with Death, painted in 1988, months before his overdose, a Black figure rides a skeleton. The background is brown and textured, free of symbols. The skeleton crawls on all fours. It faces the viewer, while the rider’s face is obscured by a fury of scribbles with the exception of a single eye.
Warhol died in 1987, and friends said Basquiat took the loss hard; the older artist was among the few who found success in dissuading Basquiat from using drugs. Basquiat went to Hawaii to detox and returned to New York, claiming to be clean. He made plans to travel to the Ivory Coast, where Senoufo villagers were to impart on him a cure for heroin addiction. Ten days before his departure, Basquiat was found dead in an apartment he rented from Warhol’s estate.
Around 300 people attended his funeral at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. That August, Haring was commissioned by Vogue to write an obituary for his friend. Haring was aware that he’d likely die soon too, from AIDS-related causes. It was a fitting time to contemplate both of their legacies. “He truly created a lifetime of works in ten years,” Haring wrote. “Greedily, we wonder what else he might have created, what masterpieces we have been cheated out of by his death, but the fact is that he has created enough work to intrigue generations to come.”