The Great Basquiat

I must have first heard about Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 - 1988) when the backlash was in full force. He was over-hyped and over-priced, they said. Maybe a fraud whose best talent was hanging with celebs like Madonna. Nonsense. He was truly great, maybe even a genius; an inspired artist whose work was dense, direct, allusive, expressionistic, playful, confusing, ironic, and sincere. Okay, he probably was over-hyped, but that doesn't mean his art wasn't strong.

A high school drop out, he lived on the streets of New York and, working with his friend Al Diaz, did street art under the name SAMO. Their work wasn't graffiti art in any traditional sense. Their art was word focused -- witty and cryptic. Basquiat's own later body of work as a painter incorporated lots of words, often crossed out. This, he said, made you pay more attention to them.

He loved music, and his work was kind of a visual analog to free jazz, or like the intensely associative improvisations of Sonny Rollins. At the same time, he invoked the punk spirit of the 80s, all the while building quite consciously on painting masters such as DeKooning and Rauschenberg, and the Primitivist Dubuffet. His work deserved to be popular. Basquiat couldn't handle the fame, though. I've been meaning to create this post since seeing the superb documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child a few weeks ago.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Trumpet, 1984.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fallen Angel, 1981

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1984


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