When the spray painted slogans attributed to SAMO© first appeared in Downtown Manhattan in 1976, few realised that one of the artists responsible would go on to become the enfant terrible of the 1980s New York art scene. By Lily Mercer.
When Jean-Michel Basquiat was only fifteen years old, he ran away to Washington Square Park and shaved his head. Once his father had found him a few days later, he said, “Papa, I will be very, very famous one day.” A few years later, SAMO© appeared on the streets of New York. With slogans such as “Nothing to be gained here”, “SAMO as an alternative to God” and “Pay for soup, build a fort, set it on fire,” Basquiat and his graffiti partner, Al Diaz openly mocked the bourgeoise elite. These pieces acted as a form of social commentary in which SAMO©, meaning same old shit, was free to criticize society.
From here Basquiat went at it alone, he began to produce art on a smaller scale using objects such as window frames and fridge doors. He later began to create merchandise, selling postcards and painted jumpers in the streets of downtown Manhattan. It was on such a day that he pushed his paintings upon Andy Warhol. The two artists were to forge a temperamental bond that lasted for the rest of their lives. At the age of 19, Basquiat achieved critical acclaim in a group exhibition called The Times Square Show. Only a year later, he held his first solo show in Modena, Italy. All of a sudden, the young Basquiat was on his way to achieving the fame he had forewarned his father of that day in Washington Square Park.
“I had some money: I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.”
Far more than the Banksy of his day, Basquiat went on to produce Neo-expressionist paintings of which he is best known for. In eight brief years Basquiat became the most commercially successful African-American artist of all time. At the height of his career the artist was making more money than he could handle. Without a bank account, he literally struggled to contain his wealth as stacks of cash littered his loft. In what could be described as an act of destruction, Basquiat wore Armani suits while painting, which he then wore to debauched parties at Studio 54. His fridge was filled with pricey French pastries, which Basquiat would leave to rot. He was once quoted as saying, ‘I had some money: I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.’
The theme of anger ran deep in Basquiat’s work. He once said that his work was 80 percent anger, and “Every line means something.” The anger inside Basquiat appears to have been harboured since childhood and is directly linked to his sense of identity. This subject is frequently explored in the artist’s work and may in part be the result of being the product of a mixed race relationship. Though not uncommon in the 1980s, it may have been confusing to be part of two cultures. Added to this that Basquiat’s family were middle class and it becomes likely that many of his peers were white.
In 1960 Basquiat was born in Brooklyn to a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father. His father was a bureaucrat, so the family lived a fairly comfortable life, with the exception of his mother’s mental illness. After being hit by a car aged seven, he studied the medical book Gray’s Anatomy given to him by his mother. This book became an obvious influence on the artist, as internal organs decorate his paintings. Red paint and diagrams of organs reinforce the suggestion of violence in Basquiat’s paintings. As a child, the artist would hide in a cupboard in his room, decorated with pictures from comics. Here he would sit and draw for hours.
Race plays an extremely important role within Basquiat’s work, often used to highlight tension between white and black people. His series of portraits of black boxers and jazz singers celebrate the likes of Charlie Parker and Muhammad Ali, but at their core is a sense of anger and mockery. at the white elite’s fascination with them. It is almost as if Basquiat feels that he is giving the white audience what they want, but not the way that they want it. This could also be his interpretation of black sportsmen and musicians.
A sense of never belonging to something can be seen in the artist’s use of ‘Hobo Signs’, a group of signs used by homeless people to communicate with each other in the early 20th Century. Unfortunately Basquiat never found a home. The bourgeoisie art scene was willing to foster him, but it’s unlikely that he ever felt comfortable amongst them. Even when they celebrated him, it’s unlikely that they understood the criticism, which could so nearly have been aimed at them.
It was his relationship with Warhol that had the biggest effect on him. The Pop Artist took Basquiat under his wing, helping him to achieve fame through collaborations. Basquiat took a step back from the friendship when critics were uncomplimentary of the work within the collaboration, in which only one piece was sold. Warhol’s death hit Basquiat hard and is believed to have contributed to the young artist’s spiraling heroin use, which led to his death.
“If you know what I mean by hip-hop, then you probably don’t own one of Basquiat’s paintings, but you may feel them in a way their owners may not.”
Drugs were always one of Basquiat’s main loves, at one point he was spending $2,000 a week on cocaine and heroin. His view of drugs became almost romantic; a friend of the artist believed that he saw himself as the Charlie Parker of the art world. Basquiat eventually died in 1988 of a heroin overdose. His addiction was widely known, but after the death of Andy Warhol, the young artist deteriorated, developing an obsession with death. It is likely that Basquiat knew he would die from an overdose. His painting, Eroica II features the words, “man dies” scrawled repeatedly next to “from narcotics”. The painting was completed months before he died.
In 2007, the record for the highest selling Basquiat paintings rose to $14.6 million, proof that his legacy does not appear to be slowing down. Often seen as the enfant terrible of modern art, this year he will be introduced to a new generation thanks to the documentary, The Radiant Child released this summer. Directed by Tamara Davis, a friend of Basquiat, the film focuses on the positive sides of the artist’s personality while recognising his anger. Davis originally met Basquiat back in the early eighties when the director was a film student and part time gallery assistant in LA. An interview conducted in 1985 forms the basis of the film, becoming some of the most insightful footage of the artist in conversation and at work.
His foundations in the graffiti movement remained with him to influence his art. For example, the act of crossing out words was popular within the artist’s work. In the graffiti world, a line through someone’s name is the ultimte insult. Basquiat used the technique for a different result, “I cross out words so you will see them more – the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
Starting his career in New York around the time of the birth of Hip Hop, it’s inevitable the artist and the music should reflect similar concepts and themes. The curator/writer Franklin Sirmans once said, “If you know what I mean by Hip Hop, then you probably don’t own one of Basquiat’s paintings, but you may feel them in a way their owners may not.” This quote clarifies the significance of Basquiat’s work within Hip Hop culture. Though he never fully integrated himself into the scene, like his friend Fab 5 Freddy, Basquiat’s art shares an affinity with Hip Hop culture, particularly through the use of anger and outspoken racial commentary.
Other elements of New York street culture can be seen in Basquiat’s paintings, such as the use of gang symbols. Basquiat took symbolism that was considered threatening, like graffiti and gang signs and placed them in an entirely different context in an upmarket gallery. By no means was he the first to take low-end culture and place it in a high-end setting, but the signifiers he chose, educated a small selection of people and opened their eyes to the world Basquiat saw before him. Though many have misunderstood or misinterpreted these signs, those that recognise them will never forget his work. Some have said that the white walls of a gallery desensitise Basquiat’s message and remove the violence and anger from within. In my opinion, the gallery location just makes his message all the more poignant.