Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the great American artists of the late twentieth century. His work, which explored his African American heritage and social dichotomies, was often vibrantly and colourfully chaotic, infused with remnants of his early punk roots. Basquiat’s works depict the black identity in a changing America, with pieces that reflect the history of the slave trade and black culture in the 1980s.
The artist passed away in 1988 at the age of just twenty-seven, making him one of the Twenty-Seven Club.
We recently encountered his work at Casa Malca, Tulum’s art hotel. And from now until January 2018, the Barbican Art Gallery in London is hosting the first large-scale UK exhibition of Basquiat’s work. In honour of the exhibition, we’re taking a look at the artist’s life and legacy, and some of the lesser-known facts about the enigmatic man behind the work.
1. He started his career as a graffiti artist.
Jean-Michel Basquiat enjoyed a prolific career during his lifetime, with exhibits at the Whitney and the Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood. His work continues to hold the admiration and interest of the art world, decades after his death; earlier this year, his painting “Untitled” sold for $110.5 million USD, a record price for the work of an American artist. However, Basquiat’s beginnings as an artist were much scrappier than that price tag might suggest. The young artist began his career working alongside friend Al Diaz, spray-painting graffiti around downtown Manhattan. The duo operated under the pseudonym SAMO, tagging their paintings as such.
2. He dated Madonna before she was famous.
When Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna embarked on a brief but intense affair in the early 1980s, he was a well-established figure making waves in the art world…and she was a nobody. Well, almost a nobody; Madonna at that time was an aspiring performer, and Basquiat purportedly was a firm believer that she would one day become a star. One of the most powerful men in the art world, Larry Gagosian, recalls in Interview how Basquiat introduced him to the fledgling singer: “He said, ‘Her name is Madonna and she’s going to be huge…’” It seems that Basquiat had his finger on the pulse of both the art world and the music world.
Sadly, the pair would later split. Madonna revealed in an interview with Howard Stern that the break-up stemmed from the artist’s heroine addiction.
3. He loved Armani suits.
Basquiat was infamous on the New York art and fashion scene for his suave yet eccentric fashion sense; in particular, Armani suits. He appeared on the cover of The New York Times magazine in 1985 sporting an Armani suit and bare feet, but perhaps most striking of all was the fact that he would often paint in these suits and later wear them out on the town, splattered with remnants of the day’s work. Georgio Armani himself embraced this irreverence, telling The Guardian: “I loved the fact that he chose to wear Armani. And loved even more that he painted in my suits. I design clothes to be worn, for people to live in, and he certainly did!”
4. He once modeled for Comme des Garcons.
Comme des Garcons took the fashion world by storm when it burst onto the scene in 1981. The label’s founder, Rei Kawakubo, was known for recruiting the top celebrities for her fashion shows, and Basquiat walked the runway for her Spring/Summer 1987 line. By this time, the young artist was at the height of his career, and was one of New York City’s artistic elites. He appeared in the show sporting two dapper monochrome suits from the upcoming line. Sadly, he would pass away only one year later.
5. He was friends with Andy Warhol.
Basquiat met Andy Warhol, resident king of pop art and the avante garde, when he was just nineteen. The pair became fast friends. Basquiat benefitted from Warhol’s established fame, and Warhol was hungry for Basquiat’s youth and radical vision. Rumors flew of an affair, though art historians confirm only that the relationship was a meeting of the minds — two friends who had found their intellectual, professional, and spiritual equals. When Warhol passed away in February of 1987, Basquiat sank into a deep depression, never quite recovering from his grief at the loss of his friend and mentor.
6. He formed an industrial-sound band.
Basquiat was a multi-faceted artist with interests and creative outlets that went far beyond the canvas. In 1979, he and performance artist Michael Holman founded the band Test Pattern. The name was later changed to Gray, a moniker derived from Gray’s Anatomy. The medical anatomy book had a major influence on Basquiat’s work; he was given the text as a child following a serious accident in which he was hit by a vehicle. The text, which he read during his recovery, made a lasting impression on his music and artistic life.
The group performed at various nightclubs around New York City. Following Basquiat’s death, the remaining members of the band continued (and continue) to reunite on occasion for shows and recordings.