Jean-Michel Basquiat the genius who became the most sought-after black artist in the world

His paintings, which through “primitive” strokes present important historical events

It was 1978 and Andy Warhol, already an established star at the time, was with art critic Henry Geldzahler at a restaurant in Soho, New York.

A young black man spots them from outside and decides to approach with some postcards designed by himself in his hands. The king of pop art buys him one, his companion rejects the teenager and calls him a brat.

That daring young man of 17 years, named Jean Michel-Basquiat, just three years after the meeting would become an important figure of art in the city of skyscrapers. And in less than a decade he would be as internationally recognized as Warhol admired him.

Today, almost 30 years after his untimely death in 1988, he is the most sought-after black artist in history.

His paintings, which through “primitive” strokes present important historical events, often related to urban culture and the reality of the black and Latino community, sell for millions of dollars.

In 2018, his work “Untitled” (1982), which shows a colorful skull painted with thick lines, was auctioned by Sotheby’s for US$110.5 million, the highest figure achieved by an American artist at that time.

Basquiat, who was born on December 22, 1960 to a Haitian-American father and a mother of Puerto Rican descent, went from living on the streets to achieving success without ever formally attending art school. He didn’t even finish high school.

For some, like the director of the Pérez Museum in Miami, Franklin Sirmans, who has curated several exhibitions on the artist, he is “a genius of our time.”

«I would say that he is one of the most famous artists on the planet. His works are not only unique pieces of art, but they have the ability to translate the problems and concerns of the time in a contemporary sense, and in a very deep historical sense, “said the also writer in an interview with BBC Mundo

Basquiat was irreverent both personally and artistically, who created a style outside of any paradigm, with an enormous desire to be recognized, and who admired stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, who, due to things in life, died like him at the age of 27 because of a drug overdose.

a boy from brooklyn
Jean Michel-Basquiat began drawing on the sheets of paper that his father, Gerard, an accountant, would bring home from the office. While his mother, who also drew, constantly took him to see exhibits at places like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum.

It is well documented that she was the person who inspired him to pursue his artistic career. In 1969, for example, Basquiat was hit by a car and suffered multiple fractures. When he was admitted to the hospital, she gave him a copy of the book “Gray’s Anatomy”, which would become an inspiration for his later anatomical drawings.

«I have said that my mother gave me all the primary things. Her art comes from her”, said the artist himself about Matilde Andradas, in an interview in 1986.

But after his parents’ divorce and several moves, including a short stay in Puerto Rico, Basquiat became a rebellious young man who constantly ran away from home. And at 17 he was expelled for misconduct from New York City-As-School.

It was in this place where he met a partner, Al Díaz, with whom he started a graffiti project that they called SAMO, an acronym for Same old shit (“The same shit as always”, in Spanish).

SAMO was mostly conceptual art, in which both artists wrote philosophical poems on the walls of New York City.

“He didn’t have a gallery, so he made the subways and the walls next to the art galleries in Soho and lower Manhattan his own gallery,” says Sirmans.

the ascent
Basquiat’s notoriety in the art world began after The Village Voice newspaper reviewed SAMO’s work in 1978, although the concept would die a year later.

However, the painter began a dazzling solo career, which began when he was invited to participate in the Time Square Show (1980), an influential group show curated and managed by the same artists who exhibited there, and which included personalities like Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer.

By 1981, he already had one-man shows and his pieces were selling for thousands of dollars. At 24, Basquiat’s works occupied spaces at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and were acquired by major collectors. They also traveled to places as diverse as the Ivory Coast or Germany.

“I think his work is so popular around the world because it speaks to different classes and demographics. His life speaks to diverse people in a way that the lives of other artists, whatever their levels of auction sales, do not. They are not as interesting as human beings,” Sirmans told BBC Mundo.

His art, which encompasses hundreds of paintings, graphics and interventions on objects, is dotted with urban elements, as well as loaded with repeated symbols, such as skulls or crowns, for which historians offer multiple meanings, and which are now part of popular culture.

Basquiat’s creations appear in the work of other artists, on t-shirts, various objects and even movies. He is also referenced in songs by contemporary artists, such as Jay Z’s “BBC” or Kanye West’s “That’s My Bitch”, to name a few.

The relationship with Warhol and the cost of fame
The reviews of the time about Basquiat not only describe his enormous talent and the large sales of his creations, but also that the young artist attended the most exclusive parties and cocktails in New York and related to important figures.

He was, for example, Madonna’s partner in 1982, when the singer was just beginning her colossal career.

He also met and became a close friend of the man he met at the age of 17: Andy Warhol. They both admired and influenced each other’s work. In 1985 they opened a major joint show, marking Warhol’s return to painting after years of experimenting with other media.

“Jean-Michel made me paint differently, that’s a good thing,” Warhol wrote in his diary in 1984.

However, the collaboration received strong negative reviews in the press, something that affected their relationship and made them distance themselves.

But a 1988 New York Times note points out that the author of Campbell’s Soups was one of the people who warned Basquiat the most about his excessive use of drugs, a problem that marked his career.

In the same note Basquiat was described as a prodigy, but also as someone who constantly acted in an “erratic” way, distracted by the weight of fame.

What is certain is that he also faced the complex art world of his day, in which he was one of the few black people to have achieved such a level of “success.” Some claim that art dealers offered him drugs in exchange for his paintings and he was even called Andy Warhol’s “pet” in a review.