On December 22, Jean-Michel Basquiat would have been 53 years old. Of all the super famous artists of the 70s and 80s, Basquiat is my favorite. And the most enigmatic. He left over 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings and produced very little prints. Most of Basquiat’s works are in private hands and lucky those who were able to spot his extraordinary talent early so that they don’t have to pay $49M at auction to get one his canvases. What I love about Basquiat the most and why I think his work connects so well with me and with people of past and present generations is that he told us through his art the hints and clues that depict the complexities of our society: race, gender, music, diversity, high, low, street, sheltered, rich, poor. One of his greatest talents was to feel the energy of the streets of NYC and capture it in his pieces as raw and intense as it actually is.
JMB is still the most important black artist of all times. He is a pioneer of neo-expressionism and pictorials – putting words in the paintings was so important to him. And then he would cross them over, because according to him, people looked at those words even more. And he was so right. Basquiat was a genius artist and a brilliant marketer. He understood how to position himself: the edgy and experimental music, the East Village scene, the exuberant fashion from the 1980s and the “right” crowd - the same people that built him up and later tore him down.
I have talked to lot of people who knew Basquiat personally. I’m not quoting the sources because they have asked me to not divulge their names but many of them coincide in that JMB was very angry and tortured by his own demons, most of which had turned him paranoid about his immediate circle. Others told me that in his last three years of life, he surrounded himself with "leeches" who undermined even more what was left of his poor self-esteem. He felt so lonely and got so deeply involved with hardcore drugs because of his insecurities which stemmed in part from his race, in part from never having felt loved by his father and from feeling that he didn't have a genuine friend in the last years of his life. Finally, the critical failure of the paintings that he did in collaboration with Andy Warhol and his subsequent death, depressed Jean-Michel until he overdosed in the summer of 1988.
He died being one of the most famous artists of his generation; with an enormous amount of money and left an unprecedented legacy in the art world whose ripple effect expanded to fashion, music, film, theatre, performance and more.
10 Facts About Basquiat that You May Not Know About Him
- At the age of 18, he started selling his collages in Washington Square to support himself.
- Debbie Harry bought one of his first paintings for $200
- His first real show was in Times Square and he came invited by Kenny Scharf (Keith Haring also participated).
- His favorite art piece was Picasso’s “Guernica”.
- Annina Nosei offered him his first solo show in 1981 and gave him a studio to work. He would play Ravel’s Bolero over and over and drive Annina crazy. The show sold out on opening night and Basquiat went home with $200,000.
- His paintings went from averaging $5,000 to $30,000 in two years.
- In 1982 He moved from Annina’s basement to a 5,000 sq. ft. loft on Crosby Street, started wearing Armani suits and throwing big parties with champagne and gourmet foods.
- He had an affair with Madonna at the same time he was dating Suzanne Mallouk. In 1984 Suzanne saw Madonna and Basquiat at The Roxy in NYC and she physically attacked and pulled Madonna’s hair and scratched her face. Basquiat documented that episode of his life in one of his paintings which he called “A Panel of Experts” where he painted a cat fight and in the upper corner he wrote the name “Venus” as he used to refer to Suzanne and under it he crossed the word “Madonna”.
- When he started making money he got a chauffeur to drive him around - however, he always had a hard time getting cabs in NYC; he blamed this to the fact that he was black.
- His last solo show was with Iranian dealer Vrej Baghoomian in a gallery located at 611 Broadway (the same building where Crate and Barrel occupies the commercial space on the corner with Lafayette) and the work was dark, cryptic and it pretty much predicted his death.