Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 - 1988)


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Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn and later lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where in the 1970s he was influenced by the coalescing of hip hop, punk and street art movements. He first became famous from his collaboration with Al Diaz with whom he created ‘SAMO’, a graffiti tag used alongside short, poetic phrases, symbols, icons and aphorisms to paint the streets of downtown Manhattan.

Many of his early works were inspired by the New York skyline seen from his childhood home in Brooklyn. Basquiat created highly personal artworks by drawing inspiration liberally from fields such as urban street culture, music, poetry and a broad range of art historical sources. Much of his creativity stemmed from harnessing the potential of free association.

In 1980 Basquiat had his first public exhibition at the age of 20 titled The Times Square Show. The exhibition was held in a vacant building and was organised by artists from two distinct New York subcultures: the downtown avant-garde consisting of new wave and neo-pop art movements and the uptown avant-garde of rap and graffiti.

In 1980 Basquiat was selected by the writer Glenn O’Brien to play the lead role in a film about himself, New York Beat (Also titled Downtown 81). The film is about a day in the life of young Basquiat trying to make it in the New York art scene. Although not released until after his death in 2001, Basquiat received enough money to buy art supplies and began painting seriously for the first time in the downtown production offices. Some of his early, Neo-Expressionist drawings were sold to the production team and members of the band Blondie. During this time, he also met Keith Haring who he greatly admired for his graffiti style.

In 1981, Basquiat took part in the landmark exhibition New York New Wave at P.S. 1 in Long Island City curated by Diego Cortez. As the show closed, Cortez began to act as Basquiat’s agent, exposing his work to many collectors. Soon after, Basquiat opened the Lower Manhattan Drawing Show at the Mudd Club where he exhibited one black ink drawing of a wheel inscribed, Flats Fix. This drawing was inspired by the signs found in immigrant neighbourhoods such as Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, where there would be signs such as “Flat Fix” for fixing flat tires. Whereas his elder contemporaries such as Warhol drew from mass culture, Basquiat often drew inspiration from personal memories such as handmade signs he found on the streets of New York.

Basquiat passed away on the 12th August 1988 due to a heroin overdose in his studio at the age of 27. He produced less than 2000 drawings in his lifetime and his work continues to serve as an important part of contemporary history.
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