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Graffiti as high art: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Scrawled and scribbled, cartoon-like yet elegant, enigmatic yet engaging; American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork has an eccentric brilliance.

Almost thirty years after his passing, Jean-Michel Basquiat remains a permanent fixture in the 20th-century art consciousness. A rebel, poet, musician and graffiti artist in the late 1970s, Basquiat became notorious for his trademark style - obsessive scribbling, curious symbols and skull-laden imagery by the early age of twenty. An unconventional learner, Basquiat opted out of a formal art education, “I never went to an art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school. I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it.” Basquiat’s gestural marks and expressive nature have aligned him with the street art of both Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, but also the Neo-Expressionistic works of Julian Schnabel and David Sall.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn, 1984

Basquiat’s work largely focused on an examination of the nature of society’s most cruel dichotomies; integration versus segregation and wealth versus poverty and inner versus outer experience. Basquiat used social commentary in his artwork as a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual”, as well as an attack on power structures in the USA and institutional racism. Basquiat’s dramatic rise to fame, dazzling career and heroin overdose death at the age of 27 permanently shifted his reputation to that of an almost mythical figure in 20th-century contemporary art.

 

“I start a picture and I finish it. I don’t think about art while I work. I try to think about life.” - Jean-Michel Basquiat

The world created in a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting is one in which opposites coalesce: word and image, painterly surfaces and collaged paper, the past and present, erudition and graffiti. In spite of this produced chaos, Basquiat’s approach seemed unconcerned with the nuances of the artistic process, “I start a picture and I finish it. I don’t think about art while I work. I try to think about life.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Head), 1981

Born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York City, Basquiat developed an appreciation for art from an early age, mainly from visits to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where he would visit frequently with his mother. Basquiat emerged from New York’s graffiti scene in the 1970s, by means of his collaboration with his high-school friend Al Diaz in the street art duo SAMO. Together the pair sprayed cryptic aphorisms on subway cars and buildings in lower Manhattan. Basquiat’s initial launch pad to success was due to his involvement in the group exhibition New York/New Wave in 1981, where he was given a whole wall, which he filled with 20 paintings. Although the show contained more than 20 artists, it was Basquiat who truly stood out. Later that year, Basquiat gained a dealer: Annina Nosei, and the influential magazine Artforum posted an article about him under the headline “The Radiant Child”. Through another dealer, Bruno Bischofberger (his most consistent representative), Basquiat was introduced to Andy Warhol and the pair collaborated on a series of paintings before Warhol’s death in 1987. In 1992, The Whitney Museum of American Art held the first major retrospective of Basquiat’s work. Today, Basquiat's works are held in collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, amoungst others.

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