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Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Neo-Expressionist Black artist who changed the face of contemporary art

Laura Marti – February 21, 2023

Feature image: Jean-Michel Basquiat | Getty Images

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a pioneering artist who used his art to explore complex issues of race, class, and identity. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1960, Basquiat was the son of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants. He grew up in a diverse and vibrant neighborhood, and his early experiences would have a profound impact on his art. After running away from his home in Brooklyn at age 15 (in 1975), the self-taught painter embraced graffiti before committing to a studio practice. In his earlier works, Basquiat was known for using a crown motif, which was his way of celebrating Black people as majestic royalty or deeming them as saints, as well as the tag SAMO (same old ish). 

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol outside the Mary Boone Gallery, New York, 3 May 1984. Photograph: The Andy Warhol Foundation | The Guardian (2019)

Basquiat rose to success during the 1980s as part of the Neo-expressionism movement. He found a mentor and friend in Andy Warhol, who helped the young artist navigate the New York art world at that time. One of the defining features of Basquiat’s art was his use of symbols and motifs. Across his body of work, Basquiat drew on his own Caribbean heritage, as well as a convergence of African American, African, and Aztec cultural histories, classical themes, and pop cultural figures including athletes and musicians. This mix of influences helped to create a unique and distinctly modern aesthetic that was both innovative and timeless. His paintings were highly symbolic in nature and often focused on what he saw as intrinsic dichotomies, such as the wealthy versus the impoverished or integration versus segregation. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat – Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983. Photograph: Allison Chipak/Collection of Nina Clemente, New York | The Guardian ( 2019)

In some of his most powerful works, Basquiat directly addressed issues of racial justice and police brutality. In his painting “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” he depicted the 1983 brutal beating of a young, Black artist, Michael Stewart, by New York City transit police. He was distraught, friends recall. “It could have been me,” Jean-Michel Basquiat would say at the mere mention of Stewart’s death. The painting, in somewhat of a departure from his typical style, was a powerful indictment of police violence and a haunting reminder of the ongoing struggle for racial justice. It was not painted on canvas, but on the dry wall of a fellow artist’s studio, and was later cut out and framed. Read more about this story here and here.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Hollywood Africans” 1983 | Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art

In addition to addressing issues of racial justice in his art, Basquiat was also an activist in his own right. He was a vocal advocate for the rights of Black artists and was involved in a number of organizations that sought to promote equality and justice. His painting “Hollywood Africans” depicts Basquiat with friends, the artists Toxic and Rammellzee. The painting represents a commentary on the stereotyping and marginalizing of African Americans in the entertainment industry, and the ways in which Black artists and performers are often excluded from mainstream culture and relegated to stereotypes. This theme led these three artists to coin the term and refer to themselves as the “Hollywood Africans.”

In 2017, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 work “Untitled” (Skull) sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million at auction — the highest sum ever paid at auction for a work of art by an American artist. It was one of a series of similar paintings he did. It was purchased by a Japanese musician and billionaire entrepreneur who planned to share it with the public. NPR (2017)

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a pioneering artist who used his art to explore issues of racial justice and inequality. His work also dealt with the broader issue of systemic racism and its impact on Black communities. His bold, vibrant style and his exploration of complex themes continue to inspire and influence artists today. His life and work are a testament to the power of creativity and the importance of speaking out against injustice. 

Despite his success and his activism, Basquiat struggled with addiction and mental health issues throughout his life. He died in 1988 at the age of 27, leaving behind a powerful and enduring body of work. Today, his art is exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, and his legacy as an artist and activist continues to inspire and influence. Although his art career was brief, Basquiat has been credited with bringing the African American and Latino experience into the elite art world.

TO SEE MORE OF BASQUIAT’S ART:

* View an online exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art from the Brant Foundation here.

* See some of his most well-known paintings in this article from Niood (2021).

SOURCES


Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.