Twenty-nine years ago, Jean-Michel Basquiat died from a heroin overdose in his East Village apartment. His death, at just 27, was also the death knell of a scene otherwise decimated by drugs and AIDS. In his lifetime, however, he was one of the most prominent faces of downtown New York.
Now, perhaps more than any artist of his generation, he lives on in movies, books, music, and, of course, visual art, which isn’t terribly surprising, given that he was at the forefront of massive shifts in art, culture, and race in America. Yet the enduring power of his portrait also owes a lot to paparazzi and public-access TV.
Downtown New York of the late 1970s and early ’80s had more than its fair share of debauchery and party people. There was Mudd Club, Club 57, Area, seemingly infinite lofts, and plenty of drugs. Before he was 20, Basquiat was on the scene, first as one half of the graffiti duo SAMO, whose tags dotted the dilapidated city.
His band, Gray, played all the hip venues, while his girlfriend Jennifer Goode helped create the otherworldly sets at Area, and his friend and mentor Andy Warhol co-founded Interview magazine, the literary guide to downtown cultural figures.
If Interview and the Village Voice were the publications that documented Basquiat’s world, TV Party was their television counterpart. Created and hosted by writer Glenn O’Brien (who also wrote and edited at Interview), the public-access TV show was a live, low-budget, frequently unhinged visual record of downtown personalities—Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Fab Five Freddy, John Lurie, David Byrne, and countless others.
Each episode was essentially a party, and Basquiat was a frequent guest there as well as at the other, untelevised parties scattered across downtown New York.
But remember: This was pre-Instagram. So how did the rest of the city spy on all the invite-only fêtes, the unmissable shows, and the revelry behind the velvet rope? That responsibility fell to photographers (those who were invited, anyway) like Tseng Kwong Chi and Michael Halsband, who shot for themselves, their friends, and for taste-making publications like ARTnews.
Then, as now, consumers across New York and the world paid to see what celebrities were up to, and Basquiat—young, handsome, cool, and eventually extremely successful—was most certainly a celebrity. Being a Warhol protégé didn’t hurt.
On the mercenary side, photographers like Ron Galella (fortunately or unfortunately known as the godfather of paparazzi in America) would shoot the stars for gossip rags and Page Six featurettes, where Basquiat made numerous appearances. According to Galella, the paparazzi game was more dignified back then.
“Today they hound celebrities because they are out for money,” he has said. “They seek pictures showing cellulite and fat—I never did that, I wanted beauty.”
Basquiat had beauty. On his first TV Party appearance, when he was still known as SAMO, a female viewer called in to let him know: “I love Samo’s eyes. He has beautiful eyes. I want everyone to see that.”
Now, nearly 30 years after his death, Basquiat’s name still pops up on Page Six, but usually only in news stories about collectors and auction houses buying or selling his work for millions of dollars, as in this past May when he set the record for a work sold by an American artist at auction.
Meanwhile, much of what Basquiat represents—artistic rebellion, uncorked creativity, a 20th-century tragedy—is still alive in poster-ready portraits from a variety of artists today.
Whereas artists of antiquity tended to depict religious figures, philosophers, patrons, and the ruling class, today’s iconography is defined by celebrity and pop culture. Celebrities, dead and alive, are the new saints. For street artist Shepard Fairey, that means Basquiat’s portrait joins those of Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, George Harrison, and Ice T. For painter Otto Duecker, Basquiat joins Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Paul Newman, and Yoda.
Basquiat’s visage is just one volume in a library of famous faces that have accrued a tremendous amount of cultural currency.
Yet a few artists use Basquiat’s portrait to take a more nuanced view of his legacy. After all, the partying, the drugs, and the fame only glance at an essential characteristic of his story: being an artist of color in an art world that was, and is, overwhelmingly white.
In Carrie Mae Weems’s “Blue Notes” series (2014–15), she features a blurred portrait of Basquiat, his face slightly obscured by a block of color. “It’s about the way people live behind color,” she told the New York Times. “They live behind this wall of color that made it impossible for them to emerge as singular voices on their own.”
Even in New York, where Basquiat seemed to feel most at home, his voice sometimes didn’t come through. In the early ’80s, TV Party host O’Brien wrote a half-true documentary about a poor, young, black artist trying to make it in the city. Basquiat played the lead in what was essentially his own story.
The unfinished film, eventually called Downtown 81, was shelved and forgotten about until it was released in 2000, 12 years after Basquiat’s death. It’s now considered a cult classic, even though Basquiat died before he could record his dialogue. Most of his lines were dubbed, resulting in what is yet another incomplete portrait of a complex and deeply influential cultural figure.