Remembering impactful, short life of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michael Basquiat featured himself periodically in his art.

This month we look at Jean-Michel Basquiat, a master of neo-expressionism who dominated the art scene during the 1980s.

He was brash, unapologetic and at his financial height, known to squander thousands of dollars at a time. His relationships with megastars, including Madonna and Andy Warhol, added to his mystique. By the end of his short life, he was a cultural icon and venerable presence in the art community.

Jean-Michel was born Dec. 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a successful accountant from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and primarily spoke French. His mother, Matilde, was a skilled artist and clothes designer from Puerto Rico and spoke Spanish. He and his siblings were trilingual – fluent in Spanish, French and English.

Basquiat began drawing at age 3. His first art studio was a closet beneath the stairs that also served as his bedroom. He drew on napkins and paper discarded from his father’s accounting office. To encourage him, Jean’s mother took him to art museums. His favorite painting was a massive mural by Pablo Picasso, called Guernica. The painting’s ability to express human tra­gedy deeply inspired Basquiat.

Although he was far from being the best artist in the class, Jean-Michel spent most of his time in school doodling in his notebooks.

Shortly after his seventh birthday, Jean-Michel was struck by a car. He spent a month recovering from his injuries. To keep him occupied, his mother bought him a used copy of the textbook “Gray’s Anatomy.” This book would become the foundation for finding his own art style.

Unfortunately, Jean’s mother’s mental health deteriorated. When she was institutionalized, Jean isolated himself from friends and family. He and his father frequently clashed. His father threw him out after Jean was expelled from high school. Jean then lived sporadically with friends or on park benches.

Basquiat supported himself and his art interests by selling T-shirts, handmade postcards and drugs. He finally found his own art style in the 1970s graffiti movement when he incorporated skulls and other images from his “Gray’s Anatomy” book.

Basquiat and his artist friend Al Diaz gained substantial media attention when they began spray-painting buildings under the name SAMO. Jean was spotted by a reporter painting “SAMO” on a New York Wall. When the reporter inquired as to how the SAMO movement began, Basquiat did not share credit with his friend, which led to a huge rift between the two artists.

Basquiat later ended the SAMO project by painting the brusque message SAMO IS DEAD on many conspicuous building fronts.

Having no consistent income, he made the best of his situation. He painted on any surface he could find, such as discarded doors frames, windows from burned out buildings and trash bins. One day when he spotted pop art icon Andy Warhol having lunch in a café, Basquiat asked Warhol if he would purchase one of his postcards.

Warhol was quite taken with this charismatic and charming artist and felt compelled to help Basquiat break into the art world. Soon people were paying top-dollar for Basquiat’s colorful, expressive art.

Jean travelled the world painting for commissions from wealthy art patrons. When he became addicted to drugs, his friends tried to help him get clean. Sadly, they failed. On Aug. 12, 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroine overdose at age 27.

This graffiti rebel from Brooklyn is now a member of an elite group of artists whose paintings have sold for more than $100 million dollars.

Basquiat once boasted, “I’m not a real person. I’m a legend.” And he was right.

As renowned art gallery owner Rich­ard Marshall observed, “First he became famous for his art, then he became famous for being famous, then he became famous for being infamous. He is legendary.”

Becky Chinnici Anderson is a children’s librarian with the Hardin County Public Library, which offers a bi-weekly Kids’ Art Camp. Her series of Art Smart articles provides bite-sized insight into art and artists. She can be reached at iloveteachingyourkids@gmail.com.