The Rise of Basquiat

By Julie L. Belcove 

He was an overnight sensation and then a superstar, anointed by no less an authority than Andy Warhol. He broke the colour barrier in the contemporary art world and had collectors lining up for his expressive, often vibrantly coloured but psychologically dark paintings. He also abused drugs for years, succumbing to an overdose at the tender age of 27.

But 25 years after his premature death, Jean-Michel Basquiat is more than a cautionary tale. As much as his complicated life continues to intrigue, his paintings – with skeletal figures, language, erasure and elements of graffiti, scribbling and cartooning – continue to be relevant. Collectors routinely pay millions of dollars for his canvases, and believers do not hesitate to compare him to some of the most towering figures in the canon. “His work is based on classical painterly language, from Matisse through de Kooning, Rauschenberg and Wifredo Lam,” says Annina Nosei, the first art dealer to give him a solo exhibition and now an art historian. “The way some parts are covered up by colour and others disclosed by colour – this is better than Twombly in my opinion.”

The collector Peter Brant, who began acquiring his work not long after being introduced to him by Warhol in 1984, is even bolder. “Jean-Michel Basquiat is the quintessential Van Gogh figure of our time,” Brant says. “He left with us a genius body of work.”

Tragic and talented, to be sure. But much of the popular mythology surrounding Basquiat – that he went from sleeping in cardboard boxes in the park and tagging graffiti in downtown Manhattan to the top of the art world, then crashed from the sudden influx of cash and fame – is an oversimplification of a complex life.

His father, Gerard, an accountant, was a Haitian immigrant, though from an affluent family. His mother, Matilde, was Puerto Rican. Basquiat depicted his family as highly dysfunctional – Matilde struggled with mental illness; Gerard, who had custody after he and Matilde divorced, practiced corporal punishment – but they were neither poor nor uneducated. Basquiat and his two younger sisters grew up in a solidly middle-class home in Brooklyn. A bright, ambitious child, he nevertheless floundered, became heavily involved with drugs and ran away from home. He infamously threw a pie in the face of the principal of his high school, which catered to struggling teens who had shown potential.

But it would be inaccurate to call him directionless. He drew and wrote and started hanging around the School of Visual Arts, where students Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf befriended him. His ubiquitous and poetic SAMO graffiti – which stood for “same old shit” – scrawled on buildings downtown first brought him the wider attention he seemed to desire. But he never considered himself a graffiti artist, Nosei says. Graffiti, he told her, was merely fashionable. He did not fit the stereotype of a juvenile delinquent with a spray can, and he was no naïf.

When she first met him, Nosei recalls, “he was particularly cultivated, even though he was [20]. He had read everything. He was way more sophisticated than all the others his age. He was a genius. You can see from his paintings his knowledge of modern art.

“He gave me as a present for my birthday a book on Marcel Duchamp,” she continues. “What American kid knows Duchamp?

”Nosei had been struck by his work in the landmark “New York/New Wave” group show of unknowns at the alternative space PS1 in 1981. “Even the scribble showed ability, knowledge and talent that was distinguishing him [from the others],” Nosei says. She called his family’s home in Brooklyn trying to track him down and finally found him at his girlfriend’s. Since he couldn’t afford canvas and paint, he had only drawings to show her. “I told him he could paint in my basement,” she says. “In the back part there was a skylight and two windows. I gave him some money to buy canvases. In a really short time, he painted fantastic canvases.”

His first solo exhibition, in March 1982, sold out. Basquiat was 21. He was also an instant celebrity, with an impish hairstyle and a print-ready back-story.

As is true with most artists, there is a particular infatuation with Basquiat’s early period, during which he was extremely prolific. Writing in The New Yorker on the occasion of a major Basquiat retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2005, Peter Schjeldahl called him a “painter to the core” and marveled about his graphic, graffiti-laced canvases from 1982: “You can’t learn to do this stuff. It’s about talent, served by commensurate desire and concentration – and joy.”

Larry Warsh, a collector turned author (Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks) who later served on the authentication committee for the artist’s estate, remembers begging family members to help finance his initial acquisitions. “It was about the energy, the language, the presentation, the spontaneity, the freshness,” says Warsh, who still owns a substantial trove of Basquiats. “It stands the test of time. There’s a visual language that’s a combination of frenzy and communication, and a portrait of the moment.”
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Julie L. Belcove writes on art and culture. Her work has appeared in The New YorkerArchitectural DigestElleTown & Country and The Financial Times, amongst other publications.