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Cultural Icon Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Man Behind the Art

Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat sitting in a leather chair barefoot in an Armani suit.

Jean-Michel Basquiat/Photo

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a revolutionary artist, poet, and musician. But it was his vibrant artwork that made him famous. Born to a Puerto Rican mother, Matilde Andradas, and a Haitian-immigrant father, Gerard Basquiat, Basquiat’s art was greatly influenced by his mixed cultural heritage and New York upbringing. Thirty years after his passing, his work remains relevant today as he commented on systemic racism and police brutality.

Becoming a Cultural Icon

Jean-Michel Basquiat rose from an unknown graffiti artist to a famed Neo-Expressionist painter in just eight years. This, in part, was due to his fearlessness, drive, and talent. Basquiat first gained recognition in 1980 at the groundbreaking Time Square exhibit. The show, organized by the artist group Collaborative Projects, Inc., brought together artists at the early stage of their careers, including Kenny Scharf and Jenny Holzer. The Time Square show was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first exhibit, and he took advantage of the opportunity to showcase his talent as both a graffiti artist and a painter.

A year later, at the age of 20, Basquiat participated in the legendary New York/New Wave exhibition at the P.S.1, a contemporary art space in Queens. The show attracted more than 100 seasoned and up-and-coming artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians, including Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Jean-Michel Basquiat was the only artist whose paintings were prominently featured. The creative genius commanded the entire space with over 20 drawings and paintings on wood, rubber, canvas, and paper surfaces. News of Basquiat’s energetic art spread like wildfire, and as a result, he began to gain more traction.

Basquiat Exhibition View, New York/New Wave PSI 1981

Exhibition View, New York/New Wave PSI 1981. Image via

In his first solo exhibit at the Annina Nosei Gallery in 1982, Basquiat sold all his work that same night. He had six solo shows worldwide, including the prestigious Gagosian Gallery in LA. In addition to his solo exhibitions, Basquiat’s work has been displayed alongside leading artists. He collaborated with pop artist Andy Warhol and Italian contemporary artist Francesco Clemente.

The 80’s art star’s career had finally taken off. Jean-Michel’s work landed him an Artforum feature, “The Radiant Child,” and a New York Times Magazine cover story titled, “New Art, New Money.” At age 21, Basquiat was the youngest artist to ever participate in Documenta 7, the esteemed international contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and one of the youngest at age 22, to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol Banana Painting. Sold for $4.3M/

His Childhood Wasn’t Easy

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960, the self-taught artist developed a love for the arts at an early age, learning how to draw and paint. His mother recognized his talent and introduced Jean-Michel to New York’s art museums and galleries to nurture his artistic interest. He even became a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum.

Basquiat’s parents separated when he was eight years old, and he and his sisters were raised by their father. His mother was deemed unfit because she suffered from mental health issues and was in and out of institutions. Shortly after his parents split, Basquiat was hit by a car and spent a month in the hospital after surgery to remove his spleen. During his stay in the hospital, his mother gave him the medical book Gray’s Anatomy as a gift. The anatomical drawings strongly influenced his art.

Basquiat spent his teenage years between Puerto Rico and New York. Like many Caribbean parents, his father believed in corporal punishment. He eventually ran away from home at age 15, noting emotional and physical abuse. The frequently homeless teen slept on benches in Washington Square Park and later stayed with friends. He dropped out of high school at age 17 and supported himself by selling hand-painted postcards and t-shirts. He sold a postcard to Andy Warhol, who became his mentor.

Black and White photos by Christopher Makos. James Van der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Center photo/Lee Jaffe 1983.

After dropping out of high school, Basquiat formed the street-art collective SAMO with classmate Al Diaz. SAMO, an acronym for “same old shit,” started as an inside joke between the pair, who met at a Manhattan high school for gifted students. SAMO became the pseudonym for his graffiti art, which included texted-based anti-establishment and anti-politics messages with cartoon-inspired imagery. After a falling out with Diaz, he put the graffiti tag to rest with the message: SAMO is dead.

New Jean-Michel Basquiat Exhibit: King Pleasure

The late artist’s stunning work is currently on display at a new Manhattan exhibition that opened on April 9, 2022, at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea. The show, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” features over 200 paintings and artifacts – most of which have never been seen before. Visitors will get an intimate look at the artist’s personal life, and artistic pursuits told through the eyes of his family. This is the first presentation of Basquiat’s work by his sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux.

Basquiat was widely known for his neo-expressionist paintings, often characterized as rebellious and controversial. His iconic works embodied the New York City art scene. He also drew inspiration from the West African griot and famous black figures, including jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie and boxer and social activist Muhammad Ali. Though his career was cut short due to his untimely death at age 27 from a heroin overdose, Basquiat had a significant impact on African-American and Latino art.


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