Jean-Michel Basquiat

As the son of Puerto Rican-Haitian parents, Jean-Michel Basquiat is born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 22, 1960. While still in school Basquiat meets Al Diaz in 1976, with whom he sprays graffiti in prominent places in Brooklyn under the pseudonym »SAMO« (»same old shit«). The redemptive figure »SAMO« attacks the mendacity of materialistic society with pithy slogans: »SAMO as an escape clause, SAMO saves idiots. SAMO as an end to bogus pseudo intellectual. (…).« The weekly newspaper »Village Voice« is the first to draw attention to the graffiti of »SAMO«. Basquiat quickly becomes a part of the New York scene. In 1979 he breaks with Al Diaz – »SAMO is dead« Basquiat himself comments. Together with Michael Holman Basquiat now founds the Art-Noise Band »Gray«, in which he plays clarinet and synthesizer. The connection to music and film of the time (»New York Beat«, USA, 1980) remains important for his artistic work.

The contacts to the art scene in the East Village become more solid when Basquiat becomes acquainted with the artist Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. He now comes into contact with the curator for 20th Century art at MOMA, Henry Geldzahler, and participates with Jenny Holzer, Lee Quinones, Kenny Scharf, Kiki Smith in the legendary group exhibition, the »Times Square Show«. Shortly afterwards he meets Andy Warhol, with whom he remains in close contact with both as friend an as artist.

Basquiat’s works in the early 1980s correspond to painterly gestures – skeletal figures, monochrome faces or silhouettes of figures and objects – on canvas, wood or junk. His themes are oriented especially to street life (Untitled / Red Man, 1981), whereby he incorporates signs or text fragments from the earlier graffiti. His pictures now often refer to the »crowned« heroes from sports and music, who function at the same time as political symbolic figures from the Afro-American population in the USA (Cassius Clay, 1982).

In 1981 the art critic Diego Cortez encourages Basquiat to participate in the exhibition »N.Y. / New Wave«. He is now finally shown next to Warhol, Haring, Mapplethorpe and Scharf. This is followed by further shows (»Lower Manhattan Drawing Show«; »Futura 2000«; »Beyond Words«) in New York, but also the first one-man show (»SAMO«) in Modena, for which Basquiat travels to Europe for the first time. Basquiat’s pictures are now reviewed in »Artforum« and he receives increasing international notoriety. He participates in 1982 – now no longer under the short title »SAMO« – in the group exhibition »Transavantgardia« in Modena and his work is shown there, as well as at Documenta 7, in the context of new figurative tendencies in painting. In1983 Basquiat spends six months in Los Angeles, where he regularly spends his time from now on. (Hollywood Africans, 1983). The first of five works in print graphics folders (Anatomie) is created the same year he is invited to the Biennial and to the Whitney Museums of American Art in New York. Animated by the Zurich gallery-owner Bruno Bischofsberger, he, Francisco Clemente, and Andy Warhol work together on some 50 paintings. During Basquiat’s exhibition with Warhol in 1985 in the Shafrazi Gallery, both artists pose as boxers for their well-known poster, which is met with heavy criticism leading to tension between the artists.

Basquiat’s debate with African American history, which comprises a large part of his work, motivating him to travel to Polynesia and to Africa, leads him first to a confrontation with stereotypes in advertising and in everyday culture (Logo, 1984). Soon his works change – new painterly pictures with a reduced inventory of figurative and symbolic elements (Gri-Gri, 1986) emerge. In contrast to this, the Multipanel Paintings focus on the subtle combination and layering of individual elements. Basquiat places these in a complex mixture of signs and chiffres, texts and collage-like painterly elements or painted-over parts, which he also refers to as titled »facts«, a short form for cultural and historic events, self-quotations, sign-like and conceptual topoi for specific interpretational constructs. For his presentations of African American and Hispanic history, language and identity Basquiat develops new systems of reference and comparison (Icarus Esso, 1986). These refer to earlier signs used for everyday life, yet also develop new in many ways readable image language models across the cultures (EXU, 1988). In this time Basquiat also works on a variety of painted or alienated everyday objects, found objects, and material constellations (Gravestone, 1987). These also show again and again familiar constellations of signs or the »heroes« of earlier pictures. And they continually thematize »black« and »white« both formally and as the content of the objects of his art (Black, Jazz, 1986).

Jean-Michel Basquiat dies in 1988 in New York. His work encompasses ca. 100 paintings and objects and around 2,000 drawings.

Selected Literature

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Histoire d’une œuvre, The Work of a Lifetime: Ausst.-Kat. Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol, Paris 2003

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier. The Mugrabi Collection: Ausst.-Kat. Museum Würth, hg. von Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Künzelsau 2001// Marshall, Richard: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ausst.-Kat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1992

Gruen, J. u. Haring, K.: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The authorized Biography, New York 1991

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Ausst.-Kat. Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover 1986/87

Bildrechte: Calder Foundation New York / Foto Stiftung Lehmbruck Museum Foto: Tobias Roch, Hagen Bildrechte: VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2014 Bildrechte: gemeinfrei, Foto: Peter Hinschläger

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