Jean-Michel Basquiat was looked upon as a “wild child” artist as people sat up and took notice of his graffiti-related signs and symbols that decorated the streets of Manhattan in the 1970’s. Although his career only lasted a brief nine years, he made an impact on the art world at large, including displays of his work in Africa and Hannover Germany where he became the youngest artist ever given an exhibition.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960, the son of middle-class Brooklyn parents. As childhood friends, Basquiat and Al Diaz began their rein of the graffiti world by painting cryptic messages on subway trains and various areas in lower Manhattan, always signing each work with a SAMO (same old shit) phrase. Upon quitting high school in his senior year, the budding artist started selling hand painted postcards and T-shirts to promote his talent.
Basquiat’s first exhibit in 1962 was sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated. Trading his spray paint for a new visual collage method, he began using paper elements and silk screening techniques in his unique depiction of man, more specifically, the black man. His art was representative of the artistic sensibilities and sociopolitical attitudes that coexisted in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Exhibits in New York City and Europe catapulted Basquiat’s career and life got even better for him when his work was displayed in the 1983 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. During this time, Andy Warhol took an interest in Basquiat’s art and soon the two became friends. Their collaboration on a number of paintings was controversial; many were conflicted with white patronization of black art. Works represented during this time include Florence, Self Portrait as a Heel and Trumpet.
A second showing of Basquiat’s work at the Mary Boone Gallery had people speculating that this young talent would enjoy much success. On February 10, 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, posing for the Cathleen McGuigan article, "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist."
After the remarkable success of his shows in Africa, Hannover, Paris and New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat attempted to kick his addiction to heroin. He moved from New York to Hawaii in a sincere effort to free himself from drugs for good. His concerns over race and identity issues directed him on a new artistic journey. The mask-like heads and skeletal black men that identified his work gave way to more powerful dark subjects that seemed to reflect the battle that raged within him. His art mirrored his on-going struggle with drug addiction and the constant pressure he felt to reinvent himself.
Riding with Death (1988) would be one of the last contributions Jean-Michel Basquiat would make to the art world. He died from a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988 at the young age of 27. Although his life and budding art career was cut short, he would be remembered for his significant contributions to Neo-Expressionist art.