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Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960-1988)


Born in New York in 1960, Jean-Michel Basquiat had anything but a stable childhood, making him predisposed to rebellious behavior at an early age. He was hit by a car when he was eight years old and suffered several internal injuries that required extensive recovery; so to occupy his time, his mother bought him a copy of Grey’s Anatomy—a book that remained a major influence on his depictions of the internal human anatomy throughout his career.

By fifteen, he had been uprooted from his Brooklyn home to live in Puerto Rico with his father and sisters, because his mother was committed to a mental institution. He later returned to New York where he attended City as School, a progressive school in Manhattan. There, he bonded with fellow student Al Diaz, a graffitist who lived in the lower east side projects, and the two formed an artistic collaboration and worked under the pseudonym, SAMO. Despite the positive creative influences they had on one another, the boys also shared an affinity for getting into trouble, spurring Jean-Michel to run away from home for weeks at a time—one of which he spent living in Washington Square Park.

Basquiat finally left home for good in 1978 and spent the next couple years living with friends, supporting himself by selling his original, punk-inspired postcards and t-shirts on the street. One time he even approached Andy Warhol in a restaurant and made a sale, although the two would not become friends until years later.

He participated in his first multi-artist exhibition in 1980, and his breakthrough career as a solo artist took off shortly thereafter. Basquiat and Warhol finally reunited in 1983, and spent the following two years on a series of collaborative works that featured multi-panel paintings and large canvases with exposed stretcher bars and blended Warhol’s stylized logos and pop culture motifs with Basquiat’s almost childlike designs of encrypted text and imagery. Despite mediocre critic reviews, both artists continued to enjoy their prestige as two of New York’s most celebrated cultural icons.

Unfortunately, Jean-Michel’s growing heroin addiction began to interfere with his personal life, and it after his close friend Andy Warhol’s death on February 22, 1987 that the young pioneer’s promising future quickly dissipated. He died of a heroin overdose in his studio on August 12, 1988.

Although his career lasted barely a decade, Jean-Michel Basquiat continues to have lasting relevance as a bridge between graffiti and the gallery—transforming street art into fine art and giving a voice to subsequent generations of artists who may have never have found their platform otherwise.

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