I don't think about art
when I'm working.
I try to think about life.
"Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Despite the appearances of an ordinary middle-class home life, Jean-Michel suffered several traumatic events in his early life. When he was seven years old, he was hit by a car and hospitalized for a month with injuries; both cars and ambulances later became a recurring motif in several drawings and paintings. While hospitalized, Jean-Michel’s mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which was a frequent source for the depictions of human anatomy in his later paintings and drawings. Jean-Michel’s domestic life was reportedly turbulent; he frequently told his friends tales of an abusive and depressive mother, who was hospitalized several times for mental problems. His parents separated when Jean-Michel was seven years old, and, according to some reports, his father’s social life often led to parental irresponsibility. According to his biographer, Phoebe Hoban, Jean-Michel told friends that he was beaten by his father.
Whether or not this is true, one cannot deny that the artist had a difficult relationship with his father throughout his life. This may in part explain some of Jean-Michel’s early rebelliousness. According to his father, Jean-Michel’s intelligence and talent were weaknesses. He explained to the artist’s biographer, Phoebe Hoban, that “[a] kid that bright thinks for some reason he is above the school system and teachers and rebels against it. He wanted to paint and draw all night. He got thrown out of schools. Jean-Michel couldn’t be disciplined. He gave me a lot of trouble.” In the third grade, Basquiat sent a drawing of a gun to FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. At the age of fifteen, Jean-Michel ran away from home, camping in Washington Square Park and living on the streets; he drank and experimented with drugs for almost a year before his father brought him home.
When he did attend school, Jean-Michel spent his time drawing, painting, and creating comic strips. As a student at the experimental high school “City as School,” Jean-Michel befriended Al Diaz. Together, the two boys created the concept of SAMO — an acronym for “Same Old Shit” —in the spring of 1977; it began as a religion and later became a persona, and an alternative to bourgeois life overall. Over the next year, SAMO appeared in comic strips, theater plays, and even public performances on the subway; in May 1978, SAMO writings (frequently with a copyright symbol) began to appear on walls and buildings in downtown Manhattan. These writings were a mixture of cryptic prophecies, jokes, and poems, including: SAMO© as a neo art form; SAMO© saves idiots; SAMO© as an alternative to god; SAMO© as an end to playing art; SAMO© for the so-called avant garde; SAMO© as an end 2 confirming art terms.
After relinquishing his anonymity in a December 1978 issue of The Village Voice, SAMO became Jean-Michel’s introduction to the downtown art scene. He appeared regularly on Glenn O’Brien’s public access show, TV Party. His noise-band Gray played regularly at the downtown hangout the Mudd Club. Around this time, he also began a friendship with artist and musician Fred Braithwaite, a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy, as well as several other early hip-hop artists, including Rammellzee. Jean-Michel even played the lead role of a struggling artist in a film about the underground art scene, New York Beat, written by Glenn O’Brien and directed by Edo Bertoglio and released in 2001 (with an actor’s voice dubbed for Basquiat’s dialogue) as Downtown 81. Although he could not afford canvas or other traditional art supplies at this time, Basquiat painted T-shirts and made small postcards, drawings and collages that he would sell in front of Washington Square Park, the Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1980, at just nineteen years old, Jean-Michel was invited to exhibit his work publicly for the first time in “The Times Square Show.” Organized by COLAB (Collaborative Projects Incorporated), this show was “an aggressively unkempt exhibition” of more than fifty young artists that marked the genesis of the eighties art movement. In his review of the exhibition, art dealer Jeffrey Deitch called special attention to the work Basquiat (still known as SAMO) exhibited there, calling it “a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway scribbles.” The next year, Diego Cortez, the main organizer of “The Times Square Show,” invited Jean-Michel to participate in his next venture, called “New York/New Wave.” The show, which opened on Valentine’s Day in 1981, became Basquiat’s official entrée into the art scene. Christophe de Menil and Henry Geldzahler both bought pieces. Basquiat was almost immediately invited to exhibit in his first one-man show in Modena, Italy.
Gallerist Annina Nosei, who also showed the more established artists David Salle and Richard Prince, agreed to represent him; he had a one-man show at her New York gallery in 1982. That same year, Basquiat also had exhibitions in Los Angeles, Zurich, Rome, and Rotterdam, and became the youngest artist ever invited to participate in Dokumenta 7, an international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Basquiat returned to Modena in March 1982, and executed three of his most important paintings there: Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, Untitled, and Profit I.
Almost immediately, many art critics associated Basquiat with the money, the music, and the celebrity of New York’s eighties art scene. He appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in a paint-splattered Armani suit and no shoes, beneath the title, “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist” in 1985. Despite his overwhelming success, however, he had trouble maintaining a consistent relationship with a New York-based art dealer. After dumping Nosei in 1982, he bounced from Patti Astor to Mary Boone to Tony Shafrazi and eventually to Vrej Baghoomian; Bruno Bischofberger, owner of a gallery in Zurich, was his only consistent dealer, serving as his international representative from 1984. Nevertheless, he was immensely successful during his short career. Between 1981 and his death in 1988, Basquiat showed in approximately forty five one-and two-artist exhibitions and collaborations." - Dr Jordana Moore Saggese
Basquiat in Los Angeles
In April of 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat is invited to Los Angeles for his first solo West Coast exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s Gallery (April 8 - May 8, 1982), arranged as a collaboration between Gagosian and Basquiat’s New York Dealer Annina Nosei. He travels there with a small entourage that included Rammellzee, Toxic, A-1, and Fab 5 Freddy. Los Angeles collectors Eli and Edythe Broad, Douglas S. Cramer, and Stephanie Jansen were early supporters of his work. His first exhibition in Los Angeles completely sells out, and Los Angeles critic, Hunter Drohowska, paired a review of the show with one by Julian Schnabel. He writes of Basquiat’s display:
"Basquiat’s works are direct and furious reflections of a decadent, sadistic society.
Calligraphic markings, puerile stickfigures, symbols of angels and devils, black men and white men, teeth bared, wearing crowns, carrying scales of justice. Robotoid eyes roll back to show that the brains are fried, there is no hope. There seems to be almost no distillation or interpretation. It is as if the city itself crawled on these canvases and stomped around"
Two works included in this 1982 exhibition were Red Warrior and Tar and Feathers. This first trip to Los Angeles is the first of several long stays there, interrupted by trips back to New York or Zurich. In 1982 Jean-Michel splits his time in Los Angeles between the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood (in the Belushi Suite) and the houses of friends. Basquiat briefly returns to New York in the late spring of 1982, working in his Crosby Street Studio with an assistant, Steve Torton. It is during this period that the artist produces the characteristic canvases with exposed stretcher bars, frequently layering collaged papers onto the surface of the canvas and connecting multiple panels with hinges. Basquiat returns to Los Angeles briefly in October 1982, accompanied by Torton and the artist’s friend, rapper Rammellzee. In Los Angeles again in late December 1982, Basquiat passes his time in Beverly Hills at the L’Hermitage Hotel and Mr. Chow’s Restaurant. He even trades paintings with proprietors Michael and Tina Chow for his food and drink tab at their restaurant. He spends time with Madonna --a friend of his from the East Village scene in New York.
Basquiat was in Los Angeles to produce large canvas paintings for an upcoming exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s Gallery in West Hollywood (where he had also exhibited works on paper earlier in 1982); he travels back and forth between New York and Los Angeles between December 1982 and March 1983, when the exhibition of twenty-five works opened. He rents a studio on the first floor of Gagosian’s house on Market Street in Venice for $2500 a month; the artist lives there for several months in a spartanly furnished room. While there he begins a series of paintings on wood panels that his studio assistant Matt Dike salvaged from a broken picket fence behind Gagosian’s place. Basquiat’s second solo exhibition (“Jean-Michel Basquiat: New Paintings,” March 8 - April 2) opens at Larry Gagosian Gallery in March of 1983. He is joined by friends Toxic and Rammellzee right before the opening. The exhibition included twenty-five paintings, many of which centered on fame --that is, African American boxers, musicians, and the Hollywood film industry. Paintings in this exhibition included Eyes and Eggs, Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson), Jack Johnson, Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown), Hollywood Africans, Dos Cabezas II, Big Shoes, and All Colored Cast I and II.
Although he is in Los Angeles to work, Basquiat reportedly spends little of his time over the next few months painting. According to Matt Dike, “he didn’t even get started on the show until a couple of weeks before it happened.” Instead Basquiat frequently disappears to hang with friends, socialize at Chica Club, or do drugs. These extracurricular interests may have been why the artist “liked to be paid for works of art quickly in cash.” He could spend $5000 in just a weekend. Basquiat sometimes even paid for necessities (like doctor’s visits) with artworks. Whenever he did paint, however, Basquiat worked at an incredible speed. Fred Hoffman, a friend and collaborator who met the artist during his time in Los Angeles, once recalled seeing Jean-Michel finish ten large canvases (eight feet by six feet) in just a few hours.
Always interested in experimenting with new media, Basquiat works with Hoffman during this period on converting several of the artist’s drawings into silkscreens. Jean-Michel is also interested in Hoffman’s extensive library of art books, which included the sketchbooks of Leonardo. The resulting series of five screen-prints, inspired by Leonardo’s own drawings, was printed by Hoffman’s New City Editions. In total, Basquiat produces six limited-edition silkscreens produced between 1982 and 83. Working at a furious pace in his studio, making paintings, drawings and silkscreens Jean-Michel’s time in Venice became, in the words of Hoffman, “not only a prolific but pivotal period” in his career. - Dr Jordana Moore Saggese