Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988), one of the first African American artists to reach international stature and wealth in the art world, had a short but impactful career. His rise to fame came quickly, as he was celebrated for his fusion of multicultural symbols, biting social commentary, and distinctive graphic style. Born in Brooklyn, NY, Basquiat drew and visited museums regularly from an early age, and many of his childhood interests—ranging from cartoons and Alfred Hitchcock films to anatomy and French and Spanish textbooks—would prove influential in his later work. Basquiat dropped out of school at the age of 17 and began creating art full time, gaining notoriety for his invented character SAMO (“Same Old Shit”), who made a living peddling “fake” religion.
Basquiat depicted SAMO’s signature in graffiti art with cryptic messages in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and began painting on found materials, buildings, t-shirts, and commercial items. He delved into the urban 1980s avant-garde culture of New York, creating wildly expressive paintings which earned him considerable acclaim by his first solo exhibition in 1982. In 1983 he befriended his idol, Andy Warhol, and the two collaborated on several projects. Basquiat combined African, Aztec, Hispanic, and ancient Roman and Greek imagery with his own invented iconography and graphic marks in works that emphasized the physical and the gestural aspects of the artistic process.
Ever conscious of his identity as an African-American in the art world, Basquiat’s work was rife with imagery commenting on race relations in America, and drawing from the culture of the African Diaspora. His prevalent drug use became a greater concern to his friends and colleagues in the mid-1980s, and the artist’s fiery temper and capriciousness increased, particularly when working with dealers or developing his oeuvre. Warhol’s death in 1987 deeply affected Basquiat, and he painted several final works in a frenzy, full of apocalyptic imagery but with a confident, mature style. He died of a drug overdose on August 12, 1988, ending a brief but highly influential life at the age of 27. As a testament to his lasting importance to the history of art, in 2016 his large canvas Untitled (1982) broke auction records with a final price of $57.3 million.