International icon, myth, absolute reference of artistic movements from the underground, Jean-Michel Basquiat was an eccentric artist, a muse. Avant-garde, he has among other things, put his miscegenation at the heart of his work. His Caribbean origins are the result of a meeting in New York: a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. An iconic figure in the history of contemporary art and the forerunner of vivid, violent graffiti, he was born on December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn. In 2015, according to Artprice, he was the # 1 contemporary artist among the most successful in the art market, with a sale proceeds of $ 125,821,223.

From Brooklyn to Soho

Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up in the midst of the middle class. From the age of 7, he is encouraged by all his relatives for his talent as a draftsman and at 8, he is hit by a car. This accident will mark a turning point in his career. Seriously injured, he must remain bedridden for several weeks. His parents are separated, he lives with his father and his two little sisters. During his convalescence, his mother will offer him a famous book on human anatomy, Gray’s Anatomy (written by Henry Gray) and his extreme sensitivity, already very lively, allows him to grasp the aesthetic stakes of the study of the human body . A few years later, he will say about this reading: “I’d say my mother gave me all the primary things. The art came from her. In fact, through his paintings, his frescoes, the motif of human anatomy – skulls or pieces of skeletons, thoracic cages – appears, in the middle of colored figures, falsely naive.

Musician, at the age of 19, he creates a group called “Gray”, where he plays synthesizer and clarinet. Visual artist in the soul, the superposition of notes and sounds will develop his reflection and allow him to conceptualize and energize his future work as a painter. At the dawn of graffiti’s birth in New York in the late 1970s, he set out to conquer history: he wove the walls of the legendary Soho district. His works are part of the setting of an urban jungle in perpetual effervescence, and quickly attract the attention of the many gallerists and actors of the art world who work in the district, who will be able to read the genius.

The work, the signature

Basquiat writes, claw, erases, scratches. He marks his will to rupture by the words, thrown on the walls and palissades, where we can read maxims such as: “SAMO, as a neo art form” [2]. These slogans, poetic and satirical, first punchlines, are signed with the pseudonym “SAMO”. It is a contraction of the formula “Same old shit” [3], meaning that for him, nothing changes, nothing evolves. This formula, meditative and insolent resignation, will be followed by the symbol ©, the copyright, indicating the intellectual property. Add a crown with three points, which will be found in his paintings. This set of signs, now as iconic as the most famous industrial logos, will be an affirmation of his identity, that of a Métis man.

Basquiat is a precursor of the crossing of different forms of art, from graffiti to Neo-Expressionism through Pop Art … He assembles, superposes, creates and plays with his triple origin: New York, Puerto Rican and Haitian. The words are cut out, repeated, mixed with self-portraits, faces, autobiographical subjects such as racism or death, combined with comments in English, French and Spanish. He introduces writing into his paintings and mixes voodoo, spirituality, comics, African-American heroes, shaking America rocked by minimalist and conceptual arts. In his work, the artist sublimates everyday life. The work testifies.

Ferociously attached to his negritude and wearing his dreadlocks with as much pride as Samson, at 22, he exhibited his work Kassel Documenta. The following year, he exhibited at the biennale of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the list will continue to grow; its success will be dazzling.

The coronation

The artist becomes friends with Andy Warhol, they work together and exchange around the question of the condescension of the art “white” with regard to the art “black”. They will make a joint exhibition that will end their powerful artistic collaboration, but their friendship will last until the death of Warhol. In 1988, a year later, billionaire Basquiat died of an overdose in New York at the age of 28.

Death announced, utopia proven … the dreamlike rebus that punctuate his creations exceed the threshold of consciousness. The work is drive, alive, the letter is barred and finds meaning in its inaccuracy. “SAMO is dead”. This sentence could be read on the walls of the city as he entered the exhilarated artistic universe of studio 54 and the Factory, the beginning of glory. He was leaving the urban network forever, in search of his philosopher’s stone. Forever, the royal crown adjoins the copyright. The king is dead, long live the king !

By Olivia Berthon

[1]Littéralement : “Je dois dire que c’est ma mère qui m’a donné les principes fondateurs. C’est d’elle que vient l’art”. inJ.-L. Chalumeau, Basquiat, Paris, Éd. du Cercle d’art, 2003.

[2]Littéralement : “SAMO, comme une néo-forme d’art”. inJ. Cage, Compositions as Process : Silence, Lectures and Writings, Middleton, Weyseleyan (1961, p. 23) cité par Dieter Buchhart dans le catalogue de l’exposition Basquiat de 2010-2011 au musée d’Art moderne de la ville de Paris, p. 59. / D. Buchhart, « Jean-Michel Basquiat Révolutionnaire entre quotidien, savoir et mythe », dans le catalogue cité, p. XIV.

[3]Littéralement : “la même vieille merde” inJ.-M. Basquiat, Témoignage 1977-1988, Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont.