Art
Basquiat Left School at 17—and Made New York Museums His Classroom

When Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 19 years old, he received his first write-up in the art press. Then-critic Jeffrey Deitch had spotted his work in the “Times Square Show,” a game-changing group exhibition of radical New York art in 1980, and praised the young artist’s painting as a “knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray paint.”

Basquiat’s name and art would soon become famous—on par with Abstract Expressionist masters like de Kooning, who preceded him. Countless curators and scholars would go on to compare Basquiat’s work to that of Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock, and Jean Dubuffet. But the young artist hadn’t attended art school, save for a handful of life drawing classes. So was he aware of the synchronicities between his expressive, symbol-laden paintings and those of his artist-elders?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” While Basquiat might have eschewed a formal art education, he was a die-hard student of art history—and he built the foundation of his knowledge in the institutions that surrounded him in New York City.

Basquiat’s introduction to museums can be traced back to his early years in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he lived with his parents and two young sisters. Basquiat’s mother, Matilde, a Puerto Rican American with an interest in art and fashion design, took her five-year-old son to the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum in 1965.

A year later, at age six, Basquiat was a card-carrying “junior member” of the Brooklyn Museum. (His father, Gerard, a Haitian immigrant and accountant, would years later find the membership card among his son’s personal effects—in other words, Basquiat had hung onto it since his grade-school days.)

By this point, Basquiat was also drawing incessantly—mostly cartoonish sketches informed by what he saw on T.V. (Alfred Hitchcock films), in comic book magazines (Mad), and on Brooklyn streets (cars). “He was always so bright, absolutely an unbelievable mind…he drew and painted all of his life from the time he was three or four years old,” Gerard told curator Franklin Sirmans in the 1992 catalogue that accompanied Jean-Michel’s first major retrospective at the Whitney Museum.

But like many wunderkind children, Jean-Michel wasn’t a fan of structured education—and “didn’t like obedience,” as Gerard recalled. After leaving St. Ann’s, a private school, in 1971, Basquiat moved between at least five different public schools. Eventually, in 1976, at the age of 15, he landed at the City-as-School, a refuge for gifted New York children who didn’t respond well to traditional learning. It used the city’s cultural institutions as classrooms and regularly gave its students subway tokens for rides to the Hayden Planetarium and MoMA.

But the rebellious Basquiat didn’t last long at City-as-School, either. At his friend Al Diaz’s graduation in 1977, he dumped a box of shaving cream on the principal’s head as a dare. He didn’t return for his last year of high school, but he did continue to self-educate by visiting New York museums and frequenting other creative hubs, like SoHo, where the contemporary art galleries had begun to congregate.

There, his graffiti-poetry, signed with the moniker SAMO©, began to show up on walls, and he started peddling hand-painted postcards and tee-shirts in front of well-known art meccas, from MoMA to Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Basquiat also maintained a weekly ritual with Fred Braithwaite, a graffiti artist and musician more commonly known as Fab 5 Freddy. “We had this routine where we would go to museums together. We called it Museum Day,” Braithwaite recalled in a 2006 interview for the catalogue Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, the Studio of the Street. “It would typically be on a Wednesday. We’d go up to the Metropolitan Museum and act like we were art students. We would take out drawing pads and walk around making sketches of stuff that we thought was cool.”

They’d pore over all genres of art, from paintings by famous modern artists to objects forged by ancient craftsmen; “abstract practitioners like Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko to Old Masters like Caravaggio,” explained Braithwaite. “He was very knowledgeable about it all.”

Basquiat added the resulting sketches to his “massive arsenal of imagery and ideas,” in Braithwaite’s words, which would later pop up in his drawings and canvases.

By the time Basquiat was included in the “Times Square Show,” he’d begun to talk about his influences: a pantheon of artist-heroes he’d encountered over many years of museum visits. That year, Henry Geldzahler, a former curator of contemporary art at the Met, had his first meeting with the aspiring painter. “I asked him about which artists he admired: the names Dubuffet, Twombly, Kline, Rauschenberg, and Warhol tripped easily from him,” Geldzahler later remembered.

In his essay “Repelling Ghosts” for the 1992 Whitney catalogue, curator Richard Marshall also noted Pablo Picasso, Pollock, and Twombly as Basquiat’s “models and inspiration,” pointing out that, by 1981, the artist owned books on all three painters. “Basquiat was teaching himself how to paint with the art he saw in museums and in books,” Marshall explained.

Direct references to the styles of these iconic artists crop up in early canvases by Basquiat like Untitled (1981) and The Ruffians (1982). Twombly’s influence, in particular, surfaces in the former. “One of the few artworks that Basquiat ever cited as an influence was Twombly’s Apollo and the Artist (1975),” wrote Marshall. “And its impact is apparent in numerous loose, collaged, and scribbled Basquiat works, such as Untitled, 1981.”

In The Ruffians, on the other hand, Basquiat nods to Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) through his use of appropriation and layering. Basquiat probably saw Rauschenberg’s subversive drawing when it was included in the artist’s 1977 retrospective at MoMA.

Basquiat siphoned elements from the work of these mid-20th-century artist icons, remixing them with symbols drawn from his own experiences as a street artist, a musician, an artist of color, and a kid reared in the ’70s and surrounded by Brooklyn, jazz, T.V., and baseball.

In Deitch’s May 1982 review of Basquiat’s first New York solo show at Annina Nosei Gallery, he nodded to Basquiat’s expert weaving together of these wide-ranging references: “Basquiat’s great strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvelously intuitive understanding of the language of modern painting.”

Basquiat was no doubt born with innate artistic talent, as many writers have noted since his untimely death, at the age of 27, in 1988. But he also studied the history of art passionately and ceaselessly. In step, he incorporated the vocabulary of the artists he admired—abstract gestures, erasures, and readymades—into his paintings, making these techniques his own by adding allusions to his life, one lived on Brooklyn streets and in downtown clubs.

Writer Glenn O’Brien probably put Basquiat’s ability to combine art history, street culture, and personal experience in a single canvas best: “His influences were encyclopedic, and when we look for one we can find it,” O’Brien wrote in a 2010 catalogue. “He made histories equivalent: biblical, colonial, jazz, and prizefighting. There’s a democracy of information.…He let it all in and reorganized it with divine judgment and artistic elegance.”

Alexxa Gotthardt is a Staff Writer at Artsy.