Jean-Michel Basquiat





The art of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a cross between a mad scientist’s notebook and a children’s drawing on acid. Utilizing numbers, words, bold colors, and abstract interpretations, Basquiat created social commentary about the experience of black bodies, power structures, and class disparity. His work is introspective and critical, searing and jarring, and goes for $50 to $100 million dollars.  Circulating as a part of the “30 American’s” exhibit, three of his works stand, finally, alongside the nation’s greatest black artists. He can be described as a genius. Enigmatic. An addict gone too soon.

Following the death of his older brother, Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, the second of four, to Haitian father Gérard Basquiat and Puerto Rican mother Matilde Basquiat. While recovering from being hit by a car at age six, his mother, who remained supportive of his interest in art throughout his teen years, gave him a copy of Grey’s Anatomy, a work that would prove to be influential on him. His mother’s mental illness and family unrest led Basquiat to run away as a teenager, only to be arrested, returned, and then banished from his father’s home for dropping out of high school. Staying with friends, he supported himself by selling homemade postcards and t-shirts. 

It was at this time that he and friend Al Diaz began the SAMO© project. In spray paint on buildings in lower Manhattan they inscribed cryptic messages. Some were inside jokes, some were commentary, but all together they began to attract the attention of the Warhol crowd. When Diaz and Basquiat had a falling out, they ended the project with SAMO IS DEAD, and Basquiat began painting on his own. His Wikipedia page mentions his television appearances, his musical project, the quick acclaim his work achieved, but not the addiction he began flirting with as a troubled teen sleeping on park benches. It simply states that he died at age 27 of a heroin overdose.

Basquiat was the first black American artist to command such attention and fortune, and he faced exploitation as such. He graced the cover of magazines, sold paintings before he could clean off his brush, and was an art darling of Andy Warhol and the Factory, a scene where his prolific drug use was normalized but still a cause for concern to close friends and lovers. Prior to his death, Basquiat claimed to do up to one hundred bags of heroin a day. The financial windfall his artistic acclaim brought him enabled him to drop tens of thousands of dollars on drugs regularly. 

Thirty one years after his death, Basquiat has left behind more questions than answers. Neither fame, brilliance, community, or acclaim can protect a person from the fierce grip of addiction. Pile on racial animosity, a troubled childhood, and various systemic and personal traumas, and it can be hard to get and stay sober. Near the end of his life, Basquait exclaimed about the new life he was going to start as he continued to relapse. Many of his friends were frustrated, and did not want to wait around to watch a death they felt was inevitable. It’s easy to feel anger when seeing addiction take someone. It’s easy to blame the addict instead of the addiction, but addiction causes people to engage in harmful behaviors despite the consequences. Though Basquiat is gone, his work, almost hieroglyphic in nature, stays behind as a transmission of his vision, his brilliance, and his struggle.

If you are someone you love are struggling with drug addiction, help is available. Check out the Collegiate Recovery Program for resources on and off campus.

Patience YoungComment