Jean-Michel Basquiat on How to Be an Artist

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jun 6, 2019 10:13PM

Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat in St. Moritz, Switzerland, 1983. Photo by Lee Jaffe/Getty Images.

Jean-Michel Basquiat wasn’t a fan of interviews, and on the rare occasions he surrendered to them, his responses were terse—even cryptic. Despite this, the painter’s words reveal a great deal about his inspirations and his all-consuming process. They offer a window into his approach, in which he remixed references from art history, the streets of 1980s New York, and the tumult of pop culture with his Carribean heritage and his identity as a young black man.

In a unique television interview with ART/new york from early 1981, when Basquiat was 21 years old, curator Marc H. Miller asked the painter where the poetic smattering of words scrawled on his canvases came from. Standing in front of his 1983 masterpiece Notary, he answered succinctly: “Real life, books, television.” When pressed for more, he acknowledged the importance of spontaneity to his practice: “When I’m working I hear them, you know, and I just throw them down,” he said of the words.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Self-portrait, 1984
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Untitled (Rinso), 1982
Hamilton-Selway Fine Art

But Basquiat’s work was also deeply thoughtful—the products of his ravenous observations of the world around him. “I don’t think about art while I work,” he told writer Isabelle Graw in 1986. “I try to think about life.”

While Basquiat only survived to be 27 years old, passing away in 1988 due to drug overdose, he left behind a body of work that indelibly transformed painting. He also gave us a series of interviews (however short-winded) that offer profound glimpses into his artistic development and drive. Below, we share some of the painter’s most inspiring words.

Use museums as your classroom

While Basquiat never received a formal art education, he studied art history voraciously from a young age. Growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, his mother regularly carted him to the encyclopedic Brooklyn Museum, where he became card-carrying “junior member” at the tender age of six. As he grew older, Basquiat didn’t take to traditional education, hopping from school to school until finally dropping out after his junior year of high school. Instead, he preferred to self-educate. “I never went to an art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school,” the painter later recalled. “I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it.”

Later, with fellow graffiti writer and musician Fred Braithwaite—who went by the better-known moniker Fab 5 Freddy—Basquiat formed his “museum club.” The pair took weekly visits to museums across the city. “We’d go up to the Metropolitan Museum and act like we were art students,” Braithwaite remembered in an interview for Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981: the Studio of the Street. “We would take out drawing pads and walk around making sketches of stuff that we thought was cool.”

Portrait of Fred Brathwaite (Fab 5 Freddy) and Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1986. Photo by Patrick McMullan/Getty Images.

At the Met, Basquiat became intimately acquainted with the work of Old Masters like Caravaggio and Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. At home, he’d incorporate elements of their compositions and techniques into his own growing cache of paintings.

If you don’t agree with the establishment, don’t be afraid to criticize it

Even in grade school, Basquiat’s artistic approach didn’t conform to accepted standards of talent. “I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist, or I’d draw a ram’s head, really messy,” he later recalled. “I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.” After dropping out of school, he became more and more resentful towards artistic norms and the art establishment, which he regarded as an inaccessible, prejudiced ivory tower.

Along with his former classmate Al Diaz, he took this sentiment to the streets—the first work Basquiat revealed to the public. The two artists adopted the graffiti tag “SAMO,” which stood for “same old, same old” or “same old shit.” Across New York’s walls and subways, they scrawled poetic messages that clearly took issue with capitalism and, in their opinion, the greed and nepotism powering the art world. In all-caps lettering, they boldly announced maxims like: “SAMO © 4 the so-called avant-garde” and “SAMO© is an end 2 confining art terms. Riding around in daddy’s convertible trust fund company.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat
SAMO As A Neo Art Form, 1982
Julien's Auctions

In an interview with writers Tamra Davis and Becky Johnston in the mid-’80s, Basquiat explained the motivations behind his work as SAMO. “I was more interested in attacking the gallery circuit at that time. I didn’t think about doing painting—I was thinking about making fun of the paintings that were in there, more than making paintings,” he recalled. “The art was mostly minimal when I came up and it sort of confused me a little bit. I thought it divided people a little bit. I thought it alienated most people from art.”

While Basquiat would begin focusing on painting in 1981—the year in which he famously moved from the street to the studio—he would continue to incorporate language and imagery that chastised the money-hungry, myopic tendencies of the commercial art world into his canvases.

Seek out your mentors

Tseng Kwong Chi
Warhol and Basquiat Sitting, 1987, 1987
Eric Firestone Gallery

Despite Basquiat’s criticisms of the art establishment, he admired scores of its most renowned artists, routinely citing Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol as his idols. He was particularly fascinated with Warhol, who had also transformed the course of art and how it was valued by launching Pop Art. Another stage of Basquiat’s ad-hoc art education developed after he boldly introduced himself to Warhol, on a stroll through Soho in the late ’70s. That decision would lead Basquiat to his most influential mentor.

At the time, Basquiat was peddling painted postcards and tee-shirts to help make ends meet, ferrying them wherever he went. On one fateful day, he spotted Warhol and Henry Geldzahler, the Met’s influential curator of American art, through the window of the hip Prince Street watering hole WPA. “Jean is walking by with postcard-size things—like an intermediate step from graffiti into the world of galleries…,” Geldzahler recalled to Phoebe Hoban, in her 1998 biography Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. “And he notices Andy, so he comes in and he shows Andy the work.” While Geldzahler immediately dismissed Basquiat as “too young,” Warhol bought a postcard for $1, jumpstarting a significant relationship between the two artists.

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol, Photograph of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bryan Ferry, Julian Schnabel, Jacqueline Beaurang, Paige Powell, and Others at a Party at Julian Schnabel's Apartment, 1985, 1985
Hedges Projects

Not long after, Warhol became a champion of Basquiat’s early paintings, introducing the young artist and his work to his vast network of influential artists, writers, curators, and gallerists. They developed both a productive professional relationship and a deep friendship. “I’d never seen Andy so close with anyone, and I’d never seen Jean so close with anyone—these guys really loved each other,” recalled dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean Michel Basquiat's "DOS CABEZAS" (1982), Original Press Photo. 1988, Sotheby's New York, 1988
VINCE fine arts/ephemera

Warhol’s diaries are chock full of references to Basquiat—trips to his studio, dining at the Odeon in tandem, attending a Boy George concert together. By 1985, the two artists were collaborating on a series of work for the exhibition “Warhol/Basquiat Paintings,”in which, as Basquiat recalled in his interview with Davis and Johnston, “[Warhol] would put something very concrete or recognizable, like a newspaper headline or a product logo, and then I would sort of deface it.” While the two artists had a falling out over the exhibition—Basquiat became angry when he was referred to as Warhol’s sidekick by the press—the younger artist was devastated by Warhol’s death in 1987.

Remix your references

As Basquiat’s visual vocabulary developed, and his canvases expanded in size, the sundry references that filled them also accumulated. As Luc Sante, a writer and friend of Basquiat’s, explained, the artist collected “images, words and music everywhere he went, absorbing and applying them, sometimes immediately. He’d glom diagrams from girlfriends’ schoolbooks, ingredients from the sides of packages, signage from the streets.” A single painting, like The Ruffians (1982), could blend nods to Rauschenberg’s famed Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) with allusions to African masks and the cartoons of Basquiat’s youth.

Basquiat hinted at his process of absorbing pop cultural references, in particular, in his interview with Davis and Johnston: “Do you have a specific method of working?” Johnston inquired. “I’m usually in front of the television,” Basquiat answered. “I have to have some source material around me to work off.” The painter was famous for working in a veritable soup of source material. He’d paint while watching cartoons with a clutter of art books, magazines, and textbooks at his feet.

Lee Jaffe
“Untitled” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, working 4),”, 1983
HG Contemporary

The words inscribed on his canvases point most overtly to this deep array of inspirations. In one piece from 1981, Basquiat embedded the phrase “Flats Fix,” pulled from the street-side signs of Autobody shops in Brooklyn’s historically black neighborhoods. “It is one of the things he remembered well and extracted multiple meanings from,” remembered Basquiat’s father, Gerard, of the piece. “He always used simple symbolism to explain complex situations.” In this case, it was the culture of his native Brooklyn and his identity as a black man within it.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Untitled (Two Heads on Gold), 1982

He also pulled from literature and textbooks. In a 1987 work, the pared-down chapter titles of Moby Dick become something of a poem: “Loomings, Carpet-Bag, Spouter-Inn, Counterpane, Breakfast, Street, Chapel.” In another, he pulled the phrase “Punic Wars” from a “guidebook on Roman history,” as he explained with a wide smile in the ART/new york interview.

As Deitch, who also read Basquiat’s eulogy at his funeral, told Larry Warsh in the 1993 book Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, “Basquiat’s canvases are aesthetic drop cloths that catch the leaks from a whirring mind. He vacuums up cultural fall-out and spits it out on the stretched canvas, disturbingly transformed.”

Alexxa Gotthardt