Jean-Michel Basquiat


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American painter, a key figure in the transition of Graffiti art from a street phenomenon to the world of galleries and mainstream modern art. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. From 1977, when he definitively left home after a patchy school career, he worked on the streets in New York in collaboration with Al Diaz writing slogans with felt-tip, always with the signature SAMO©. As a publicity tactic this was enormously effective. In 1980 he met Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler and his work was praised in the influential publication Art in America. In 1981 he had his first solo exhibition at the Annina Nosei Gallery, which for a period also became the studio for the homeless artist. International success followed, his work corresponding very much to the tendency of the period towards Neo-Expressionism. He also made works in collaboration with Warhol. His early death from a drug overdose was followed by critical reassessment, and the enormous impact his paintings had made when first seen was sometimes ascribed to clever marketing. Robert Hughes described his story as ‘the tale of a small untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art-world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, critics, and, not least, himself’. However, there have also been serious attempts to assess his work in the light of interest in black culture. His work has constant references to jazz and African sculpture. Richard Powell points out the recurring motif of the ‘see-through man’, which ‘spoke to the notion that anatomy had a theatrical quality that, when paired with blackness, was a radical attack on society's superficiality and deep-seated racism’. Despite its origins in the street, Basquiat's art was very different from the subway graffiti which, in the early 1980s, were beginning to get serious academic and market attention. Instead of the smooth contours and shadings of the spray can, Basquiat's paintings have a raw violence. They knowingly refer to an idea of an African heritage mediated through modernist artists such as Picasso and Dubuffet. Some of the paintings have highly complex surfaces mixing colour photocopies with the paint. In 1996 a film about his life was released, directed by Julian Schnabel.

Subjects: Art.

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