Jean-Michel Basquiat


Jean Michel Basquiat

Jean Michel Basquiat was one of America’s most creative and unique artists. His 1982 painting Made in Japan l sold for $15 million at Art Basel Miami Beach this week, he highest price paid for any work at the fair, so far.


Early Life and Education

Jean Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960. His father was an accountant from from Haiti, his mother, who encouraged Basquiat to pursue his art career, was from Puerto Rico.


Basquiat was a bright, talented child, who was able to read by the age of four and spoke French and Spanish as well as English. His mother took him to museums, enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum and sent him to St. Ann’s, an art-oriented private school, when he was seven.


In 1968, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street. He suffered a broken arm and ruptured spleen and had to be hospitalized. While in the hospital, his mother brought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which had a profound influence on his drawings and paintings, and even on his music. He formed a band called Gray in 1979.


After his parents’ separation, his mother suffered from depression and, in 1970, Basquiat and his two younger sisters lived with their father. Basquiat left St. Ann’s and attended a number of public schools until 1974, when his father got a job promotion and relocated the family to Puerto Rico, where Basquiat attended an Episcopalian school. The family returned to Brooklyn and, in 1976, Basquiat settled into the City-as-School program, designed for gifted high school students who find traditional education programs difficult.


It was at City-as-School where Basquiat met Al Diaz, a graffiti artist, with whom he collaborated, using the tag SAMO (same old, same old) as their tag. During this time, Basquiat ran away from home and he and Diaz, although popular in school, got into a lot of trouble. “Jean-Michel, for some reason, liked to give the impression that he grew up in the ghetto,” Basquiat’s father, Gérard, said in a Vanity Fair interview, “I was driving a Mercedes-Benz.” They lived in a four-story brownstone that the family owned in Boerum Hill, just a few of blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


At Diaz’s graduation from City-as-School, Basquiat, on a dare, ran up onto the stage while the principal was speaking and dumped a box of shaving cream on his head. Though he had just a year left until his own graduation, Basquiat did not return to school.



Basquiat left home for good when he was about eighteen, with some money from his father and dreams of becoming famous. He stayed at the home of friends, painted on his friend’s walls, refrigerators and any available surface and partied at clubs in Manhattan. He sold t-shirts, postcards and drawings in Washington Square Park, in SoHo and in front of MoMA. Through friends in the club scene, Basquiat met Henry Geldzahler, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who became an early collector of Basquiat’s work.


In 1980, Basquiat had his first exhibit in The Times Square Show, alongside other young artists. It was the year that Basquiat met Andy Warhol, who became his mentor and collaborator. Basquiat had exhibits in New York and in Europe and his work was well received by both critics and the public.


In 1983, Basquiat began to produce prints and had shows on both the East and West Coasts. His works, which had focused on social issues, began to reflect his infatuation with stardom. He moved to 57 Great Jones Street, a building he rented from its owner, Andy Warhol.


The following year, at Christie’s auction of contemporary paintings, the 23-year-old Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull) painting sold for a record $19,000. Basquiat, Warhol and Francesco Clemente collaborated on paintings that were shown at the Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich. It was about this time that friends and family became concerned about his excessive drug use. He was partying hard and had a lot of ‘hangers-on’ coming in and out of his life and his studio.


In 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine section, which questioned the media-hype and marketing of young artists in the 1980s. Basquiat was devastated by the death of Andy Warhol in 1987, and painted Gravestone to honor his friend. His own drug use increased and he was found dead in his studio on August 12, 1988 at age 27. The cause of death was listed as, “acute mixed drug intoxication (opiates-cocaine).”



The Whitney held a retrospective of Basquiat’s work in 1992. Sotheby’s of London auctioned David Bowie’s art collection in November 2016, including Basquiat’s Air Power, which sold for approximately $8.8 million. Its pre-auction estimate was $3.3 million. Bowie’s initial purchase price, in 1995, was $120,000. (Bowie appeared in the 1996 film Basquiat in the role of Andy Warhol).


Basquiat’s work continues to be  exhibited around the world and is part of the permanent collections of many galleries and museums.


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