A poet, musician, and graffiti prodigy in late-1970s New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat had honed his signature painting style of obsessive scribbling, elusive symbols and diagrams, and mask-and-skull imagery by the time he was 20. “I don’t think about art while I work,” he once said. “I think about life.”
Basquiat drew his subjects from his own Caribbean heritage—his father was Haitian and his mother of Puerto Rican descent—and a convergence of African-American, African, and Aztec cultural histories with Classical themes and contemporary heroes like athletes and musicians.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was at the forefront of New York’s downtown avant-garde in the late 1970s and 80s. Basquiat was born to Afro-Caribbean immigrants in 1960, and though he grew up in New York, Basquiat spent two years living in Puerto Rico, his mother’s country of origin. At the age of 16, he dropped out of high school, moved out of his parents’ house, and befriended several artists in New York’s downtown scene.
Basquiat formed the band Gray, spread graffiti under the group alias SAMO©, made TV appearances on a local cable access show popular among that crowd, and began painting and drawing with more focused effort. After he met Andy Warhol, the two became fast friends and collaborated on several projects. Sadly, Basquiat died of an overdose of drugs in 1988. Julian Schnabel, one of Basquiat’s friends and contemporaries, made an eponymous 1996 biographical film about the artist.
Basquiat’s work is known for its primitivist motives, combining anatomical diagrams, commercial art, Black pop cultural history and figures, charged phrases and words, and representations of the body in an emotional and psychologically explosive admixture. His employment of bright colors and his vibrant line drawings brought to vibrant life on canvas his experiences in the urban landscapes. In addition to traditional canvas painting, Basquiat often painted and drew on assemblage surfaces such as wood constructions, cardboard, aluminum, punching bags, and so on.