The Soulful Artistry
Born in 1960 to a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father, Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn, quickly immersed in the world of art. His mother encouraged him in this path, regularly taking him on museum visits. Even before he turned 10, young Basquiat was fascinated by anatomy.
His early creations reveal a surprisingly strong interest of a young man in death, a central element of his work. The violence of his stroke, which would later become his signature, was quickly apparent. The colors are vivid, yet often subdued by dark and somber backgrounds.
1. “Dusthead”, 1982
Beneath the Surface
Intrigued by death but fascinated by bodies, Jean-Michel Basquiat received the prestigious medical manual "Grey's Anatomy" from his mother. At just 7 years old, he was hit by a car on the street. This experience led to long hospital stays, during which he occupied himself with the precious gift from his mother. Painful as it was, this experience eventually guided him towards a more comprehensive study of the human body.
Beyond the concept of life, the artist delved into a more scientific and meticulous analysis. He often played with the dichotomy between inner and outer aspects, presenting both the exterior of a ravaged face and the interior of a skull, the hardness of bones, and the skeletal appearance. Unlike "Dusthead," the backgrounds here are colored in unique shades of blue, and the darkness resides primarily within the semi-living figures.
2. “Untitled Skull”, 1981
3. “Untitled Skull”, 1982
This 1.83m x 1.73m canvas set an auction record in 2017 at Sotheby's New York. It was sold for $110.5 million after more than ten minutes of bidding, initially estimated at $57 million!
Messenger of the Black Community
African culture is a recurring and prominent theme in Basquiat's art. A proud Afro-American, he drew inspiration from his heritage to infuse certain works with a often denouncing and political character. In addition to proudly embracing his Creole identity, he also highlighted historical and legendary Black figures, such as Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), an exceptional African-American boxer who greatly influenced the young artist. Characters like Sugar Ray Robinson and Malcolm X are also portrayed by Basquiat. He adorns these invincible figures with crowns to sanctify them, a signature touch that he has undoubtedly made his own.
Basquiat relentlessly denounced the oppression faced by the Black community. Witness to the prevailing racism, he emerged stronger from this struggle, and his rapid success attests to the lasting impact of his art. These Black heroes, whether athletes, musicians, or citizens, are elevated to the status of inspiring giants.
4. “Irony of a Negro Policeman”, 1981
5. “Untitled (boxer)”, 1982
6. “Hollywood Africans”, 1983
7. “In Italian”, 1983
8. “King Alphonso”, 1983
An Extraordinary Collaboration with Warhol
One cannot speak of Jean-Michel Basquiat without mentioning his lifelong friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. A dynamic friendship and a pinnacle of artistic collaboration between these two figures resulted in over a hundred artworks created together. Both drew inspiration from their respective works. Their partnership is uncommon, as it brings together two contrasting worlds and styles, thus giving birth to the uniqueness of their collaboration.
However, their friendship faced criticism, with Warhol even being accused of using the young Basquiat for his own fame. Their genuine friendship eventually fractured. Warhol passed away in 1987 due to a heart attack, deeply affecting Basquiat. Basquiat himself died a year later at the age of 27 from an overdose. His final year was marked by darker, more melancholic paintings, and he experimented with techniques and styles previously unexplored.