Jean-Michel Basquiat, and How the Public Painted His Image

Love him or hate him, Jean-Michel Basquiat is infamous. His death at age 27 immortalized him as an icon to be forever young. Whilst king of the NY streets for his graffiti, Basquiat also made a name for himself in the elite art world – a recent auction selling one of his paintings for $110.5 million. One of the first artists to bridge the gap between high and low culture, you might be wondering… What is it that made the art so compelling?

“The fact they are obscured”

Basquiat allowed his work to seem unintentional and spontaneous, for instance by writing and crossing out certain words on the canvas. He asserted however that he always knew exactly what he was doing, that each detail was purposeful. He explained “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Onion Gum, 1983

Full of intertextuality, the works make direct references to Basquiat’s heroes – athletes, prophets, musicians and other artworks. They appear like the artist’s mind exploded onto the canvas. Unsophisticated, and vibrant, they are full of colour symbols and humanity.

Personality over Painting

But to a certain extent, Basquiat was playing into the image that the public had painted of him – drawing from what the 1970’s public might have expected from a young, half haitian, half puerto rican street artist. At first enjoying his rise into the exclusive art world as a ‘wildcard’, he soon grew tired of being labelled ‘the black picasso’. Basquiat explained that critics tended to talk about his personality more so than his work, due to racism. When called a ‘Wild artistic youth locked up in his gallerist’s basement’ Basquiat responded – ‘If I was white they would just call it an artist-in-residence’. It seems that ethnicity was used to diversify Basquiat from his contemporaries. The continuous racial references by critics can be seen as a tactic to boost his publicity.

Basquiat’s fame grew from fame. Soon his entourage were A-list celebrities, he dated Madonna, became very close with Andy Warhol and spent his nights in the trendiest New York clubs. The new availability of glamourous drugs soon made them a crucial part of his image.

Warhol and Basquiat in front of Crocodile, a collaboration work, 1984

Life In The Press And Under It’s Pressure

For the sake of his popularity and because of the pressure of those publicising him, Basquiat fell fatally to the allure of drugs. “They tell me that the drugs are killing me, then I stop and then they say my art’s dead” he confided in a friend. Towards the end of his life Basquiat relied on the drugs to continue the supply of necessary paintings for his buyers. However on top of drug abuse for the sake of completing works, a certain romance in ‘the notion of the artist as the person whose life is so intense that it’s more than he can bear’ suggests Ann Temkin (current art curator at MOMA) may have influenced him. In 1988 Basquiat died of an overdose.

Marketing Basquiat Today

He was at the forefront of bringing counterculture artwork into the predominantly white high brow art world of the 1980s, because of this, he quickly became a marketing phenomenon. Today Basquiat is still a cultural icon, made reference to by modern graffiti artists such as Banksy, by brands such as supreme and comme des garcons and still selling originals in the most reputable auction houses.

Banksy’s homage to Basquiat, Barbican London, 2017

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