A Bright Flame: The Story of Jean-Michel Basquiat

What is Basquiat famous for? What does SAMO stand for? We take a look at the life, career and legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Why Is Basquiat Important

Why Is Basquiat Important?

In 1982, an exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery showcased some of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early work. It was his big announcement to the art world; it was his first solo show. One of the works included in the showcase was the painting Untitled, made distinctive by its rough, in-your-face skull outline against a backdrop of different colors, pictures, and symbols.

Untitled (Skull) represented one of the most outstanding examples of the Neo-Expressionist art movement, a movement that emphasized the rejection of traditional art standards, ideals and conventions, instead opting for jarring and rough visuals that usually depict the human body. It is so outstanding in fact, that 35 years later in 2017, the painting was sold at an auction for $110.5 million, gaining the title of the second most expensive auctioned work by an American artist. However, it is not only outstanding; perhaps, it is also representative of Basquiat’s own life, struggles, and social issues that he faced and people continue to face today.

Where Was Jean Michel Basquiat Born?

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. As a child, he had already taken an interest in the arts. His mother tried to encourage him to be an artist. The skull motifs in Untitled and in many of his other words came from a car accident when he was seven. While he was at the hospital, his mother bought him a copy of Grey’s Anatomy. 

However, he would eventually fall into hard times during his pre-teenage and teenage years. At 11 years old, his mother – who at this time was his main source of inspiration for art – was admitted to a mental hospital. Partly due to this, he rebelled as a teenager and even got kicked out of his house by his father at age 15 because he was smoking pot.

Regardless, he still showed signs of brilliance in childhood. One of the many interesting facts about Jean Michel Basquiat is that he wrote a children’s book at age seven, and was already fluent in French, Spanish, and English at age 11. At his high school, he was encouraged to develop his artistic skills. Here, along with his friend Al Diaz, he would create SAMO.

SAMO Art and Basquiat’s Rise to Fame

SAMO was a character that stood for “same old sh*t”. In 1978, Basquiat and Diaz started doing graffiti art on buildings in the city using the pseudonym, and at one point, advertised it as a religion. “SAMO AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD” started filling up the streets.

It picked up slowly at first. He was expelled from his school for pieing the principal, and soon after was expelled from his house. He continued to create graffiti at night while working during the day. He started exploring other ventures throughout the next two years, appearing in a television show, drawing graffiti around the School of Visual Arts, and venturing into noise rock.

Finally, SAMO’s designs were picked up by Arleen Schloss, who had an open space. Basquiat used this space to sell his clothing line composed of painted garments. These designs were then acquired by a boutique owned by costume designer Patricia Field.

SAMO inspired Basquiat to paint more artwork, whether it be on the streets or on canvas. His first exhibition show, the Times Square Show, garnered attention from local and international art critics. This soon steamrolled to a gallery show at Moderna Italy, and an article in the Artforum magazine called The Radiant Child. By 1981, he had sold his first painting, Cadillac Moon.

Jean Michel Basquiat’s Inspiration and Evolution

Throughout the years, Basquiat’s artistry continued to evolve. The focus on human anatomy and heads, inspired by Grey’s Anatomy, showed that there is more to the body than just its form, showing it grizzled, dislocated, and damaged. This expressionism certainly ran in contrast to the highly intellectual abstract art movement just a decade prior.

He also drew inspiration from his diverse cultural background. With his mother being a Puerto Rican, he incorporated many Spanish terms into his works, as well as pulled from Black literary works from history, which illustrate how whiteness has controlled and continue to control African-Americans even years after Jim Crow.

Using these two concepts of anatomy and culture, Basquiat also focused on social issues, predominantly on issues affecting black people and the economically marginalized. His artwork included commentary on colonialism, racism, and the heroic struggle of prominent black figures. He would often draw parallels to issues such as integration vs segregation, rich vs poor, and black vs white.

This commentary would, in turn, encourage viewers to look inward. Combining social commentary as well as human forms, he often champions self-realization and the idea that humanity is more unified than it realizes. 

The Flame that Burns Twice as Bright Burns Half as Long

Basquiat’s work, not just in the art community but also in fashion, film, television, theater, and music, is recognized as some of the most important and influential in contemporary times. One could only wonder how much more influential he could have been if he lived longer. 

How and When Did Basquiat Die?

Tragically, Basquiat died at age 27 in 1988 due to a heroin overdose. The artist is buried at Green Wood Ceremony, and many celebrities around the world have paid tribute or continue to pay tribute to him. A public square in Paris is named in his memory. The Brooklyn Nets honored him with a basketball jersey. Jay-Z references him many times in his song Picasso Baby. A film is currently being made named Samo Lives in honor of Basquiat. The upcoming biopic is yet to be released.

Jean Michel Basquiat’s Achievements

As one of only a few young black artists who have been influential in modern art history, Basquiat has exerted a strong influence and had a unique effect on art. His expressive style promoted a deeper introspection of the human psyche and human thinking. His rags-to-riches story continues to inspire young artists around the world. Finally, his fight against racism, discrimination, and other social issues continues to remain relevant in a world still beset with these problems four decades later. Yes, a flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, but it did still burn bright.