Jean-Michel Basquiat was a Neo-Expressionist painter in the 1980s. He is best known for his primitive style and his collaboration with pop artist Andy Warhol.

“I am not a black artist, I am an artist.”
—Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York. He first attracted attention for his graffiti under the name "SAMO" in New York City. He sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets before his painting career took off. He collaborated with Andy Warhol in the mid-1980s, which resulted in a show of their work. Basquiat died on August 12, 1988, in New York City.
Early Years
Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 22, 1960. With a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat's diverse cultural heritage was one of his many sources of inspiration.
A self-taught artist, Basquiat began drawing at an early age on sheets of paper his father, an accountant, brought home from the office. As he delved deeper into his creative side, his mother strongly encouraged to pursue artistic talents.
Basquiat first attracted attention for his graffiti in New York City in the late 1970s, under the name "SAMO." Working with a close friend, he tagged subway trains and Manhattan buildings with cryptic aphorisms.
In 1977, Basquiat quit high school a year before he was slated to graduate. To make ends meet, he sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets of his native New York.

Commercial Success

Three years of struggle gave way to fame in 1980, when his work was featured in a group show. His work and style received critical acclaim for the fusion of words, symbols, stick figures, and animals. Soon, his paintings came to be adored by an art loving public that had no problem paying as much as $50,000 for a Basquiat original.

His rise coincided with the emergence of a new art movement, Neo-Expressionism, ushering in a wave of new, young and experimental artists that included Julian Schnabel and Susan Rothenberg.

In the mid 1980s, Basquiat collaborated with famed pop artist Andy Warhol, which resulted in a show of their work that featured a series of corporate logos and cartoon characters.

On his own, Basquiat continued to exhibit around the country and the world. In 1986, he traveled to Africa for a show in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. That same year, the 25-year-old exhibited nearly 60 paintings at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, Germany—becoming the youngest artist to ever showcase his work there.

Personal Problems
As his popularity soared, so did Basquiat's personal problems. By the mid-1980s, friends became increasingly concerned by his excessive drug use. He became paranoid and isolated himself from the world around him for long stretches. Desperate to kick a heroin addiction, he left New York for Hawaii in 1988, returning a few months later and claiming to be sober.

Sadly, he wasn't. Basquiat died of a drug overdose on August 12, 1988, in New York City. He was 27 years old. Although his art career was brief, Jean-Michel Basquiat has been credited with bringing the African-American and Latino experience in the elite art world.


  • SAMO Graffiti (1980)
Artwork description & Analysis: Citing artistic differences, Al Diaz and Basquiat chose to sever their artistic collaboration, SAMO, with this three-word announcement. Carried out episodically at various cites as a piece of ephemeral graffiti art, the phrase surfaced repeatedly on gritty buildings throughout Lower Manhattan. At one time a sign of trespassing and vandalism, graffiti in the hands of Diaz and Basquiat became a tool of artistic "branding"; repeated here and there throughout the billboard-dotted city, "SAMO is Dead" slowly took on the status of a corporate mantra, such as, for instance, Coca Cola's "It's the Real Thing". Graffiti

  • Untitled (Skull) (1981)
Artwork description & Analysis: An example of Basquiat's early canvas-based work, Untitled (Skull) features a patchwork skull that seems the pictorial equivalent of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - a sum of incongruent parts. Suspended before a New York City subway map-like background, the skull is at once a contemporary graffitist's riff on a long Western tradition of self portraiture and the "signature piece" of some anonymous, streetwise miscreant. Basquiat's recent past as a gritty curbside peddler, virtually homeless floater, and occasional nightclub interloper are all equally stamped into this troubled three-quarter profile, making for a world-weary icon of the displaced Puerto-Rican and Haitian immigrant Basquiat forever seemed to remain even while successfully navigating the newly gentrified streets that were 1980s SoHo.
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

  • Untitled (1982)
Artwork description & Analysis: Like a page pulled cleanly from a daily artist's journal, this untitled canvas features Basquiat's personal iconography, some reminiscent of that of Paul Klee. Boldy appropriating images commonly associated with African art - a skull, a bone, an arrow - Basquiat modernizes them with his Neo-Expressionist style of thickly applied paint, rapidly rendered subjects, and scrawled linear characters, all of which float loosely across the pictorial field, as though hallucinatory. A white skull juts from the center of the ebony composition, vividly recalling a revered painter's tradition of the memento mori - a reminder of the ephemeral nature of all life and the body's eventual, merciless degeneration. Basquiat demonstrates in one concise "study" how he is able to carry on an ancient practice of painting "still life", all the while suggesting, as does a great jazz musician, that the artist's work was relatively effortless, if not completely improvisatory.

Acrylic and oil paint stick on canvas - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

  • Flexible (1982)
Artwork description & Analysis: Flexible features two of Basquiat's most famous motifs: thegriot and the venerable crown. A sole black figure, half cadaver, half living entity, stares "blindly" at the viewer, its arms creating a closed circuit, perhaps a reference to spiritualized energy. With few distinguishing characteristics, the subject takes on the visage of the Everyman. At the same time, this is not just any figure, but one of African ethnicity and proud heritage a clear reference to Basquiat's own identity (note the diagrammatic rendering of the figure's lungs and abdomen, reminiscent of the young Basquiat's fascination for Gray's Anatomysketches). Given that the griot is traditionally a kind of wandering philosopher, street performer, and social commentator all in one, it is probable that Basquiat saw himself in this role within the New York art world, one that nurtured his artistic success but also swiftly exploited it for material profit.

Acrylic and oil paint stick on wood - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

  • Untitled (History of the Black People) (1983)
Artwork description & Analysis: As though he were reconstructing an epic history, or precedent, for his own ancestors' arrival on the American continent, this expansive work of the early 1980s compresses together the relationship of Egypt to Africa, with references to more local centers of African-American music and greater southern culture, such as Memphis, Tennessee. At the center of the painting, Basquiat depicts a yellow Egyptian boat being guided down the Nile River by the god Osiris. Rife with visual and textual references to African history, the painting tackles a heady subject with a deceptively naïve style. Basquiat's late-period works feature multi-panel paintings, in the tradition of Renaissance religious tryptichs, and canvases with exposed stretcher bars. Often the surfaces of these pieces are virtually consumed by their own freight of dense writing, collage, and abstruse imagery.

Acrylic paint and oil paint stick on panel - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

  • Arm and Hammer II (1985)
Artwork description & Analysis: Typical of their collaboration, "Arm and Hammer II" demonstrates how Basquiat and Warhol would pass a work between them for their mutual intervention, like a game of chance happening, free association, and mutual inspiration. Warhol's characteristic employment of corporate logos and advertising copy as shorthand signs for the materialistic modern psyche is frequently overlaid by Basquiat's only partially successful attempt to deface them, or otherwise "humanize" them, freehand, as though he were vainly railing his fist at a largely invisible and insidious monster.

Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas - Gallery Bruno Bischofberger AG

  • Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) (1986-1987)
Artwork description & Analysis: Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) is a collaboration between Basquiat and Andy Warhol, once commissioned by Alexandre Iolas, the international art gallerist and collector. This piece was originally intended to be displayed in Milan directly across the street from Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Opposite the Renaissance masterpiece, Ten Punching Bags was to function, somewhat playfully, as a "call to arms" for contemporary art against all forms of ideological oppression.

Acrylic and oil stick on punching bags - The Andy Warhol Museum

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