Jean-Michel Basquiat, 10 Key Dates Tracing His Life

Jean-Michel Basquiat, an iconic artist of the 20th century, profoundly impacted art history through his redefinition of graffiti and street art. His work is inseparable from his personal life. Explore a selection of pivotal dates that marked the artist's career.

1960 : Birth of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York. Born into a family of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, his family home is steeped in diverse cultural influences. His childhood was marked by several elements that shaped his life and art: experiencing challenging times, notably his parents' divorce. This period had an impact on his personal life, contributing to shaping his artistic identity. From a young age, Basquiat displayed an early interest in art and was greatly encouraged by his mother.

1976 : Artistic beginning

During his teenage years, Basquiat led a homeless life after leaving his family home. In the early 1970s, he took his first steps in the New York art scene as a graffiti artist under the pseudonym "SAMO" ("Same Old Shit") with his friend Al Diaz. SAMO's graffiti, scattered throughout Manhattan and particularly in the SoHo district, attracts the attention of passers-by and the media. The tags elicited various reactions, from curiosity to controversy, thereby contributing to Basquiat's early recognition in New York's underground art scene. His tags were characterized by enigmatic and philosophical messages, accompanied by drawings or visual symbols. SAMO's distinctive style quickly gained attention for its bold approach and satirical statements about society, politics, and contemporary culture. During this time, he deeply embarked on an identity quest that resonated in his art. Faced with a glaring absence of Black artists in the institutions of his era, he expressed his Black pride and addressed issues of racism in his work. Charged with intense emotional energy, his art reflected his commitment against racial injustices and his desire to amplify the voices of minorities in the world of contemporary art. This artistic inception, though modest and underground, laid the groundwork for Basquiat's meteoric career and allowed him to gain recognition in the art world. By the late 1970s, he co-founded a rock band with American filmmaker Michael Holman and also participated in an independent movie. His transition from graffiti to art galleries and his ability to incorporate street elements into his work were pivotal aspects of his unique artistic identity and would have a major influence on his future body of work.

1981 : Spectacular ascent

In 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat soared to the summits of the art world. His participation in Documenta, alongside major art figures such as Beuys, Kiefer, Richter, Cy Twombly, and Warhol, placed him in the spotlight. In February, the New York/New Wave exhibition was inaugurated at the P.S.1 Art Center, organized by Diego Cortez. It was an immense exhibition aimed at showcasing the entire range of artistic counterculture at that time. Jean-Michel Basquiat was invited to exhibit, sharing the stage with internationally renowned artists like Keith Haring and Mapplethorpe. Through this exhibition, Basquiat's work immediately captivated the attention of prominent gallery owners such as Bruno Bischofberger, Emilio Mazzoli, and Annina Nosei. He was acclaimed as the most moving and interesting artist of the exhibition. His career truly took flight from this point. In May, his works were displayed in his first solo exhibition at the Emilio Mazzoli Gallery in Modena, Italy. Back in New York, gallery owner Annina Nosei showed keen interest in his work. As Basquiat had no studio space to create new canvases, she offered him a space in the basement of her club in SoHo. In October 1981, Basquiat participated in the Public Address exhibition at the Nosei gallery, showcasing politically charged works by Haring, Holzer, and others. In December, a remarkable article by René Ricard titled "The Radiant Child" was published in Artforum. In this article, he stated: "If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a child and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel. The elegance of Twombly is there but from the same source (graffiti), just as the rawness of young Dubuffet. But Dubuffet's politics needed explanation, required a separate text, whereas with Jean-Michel, it's built into the necessity of the image. I'd rather have a Jean-Michel than a Cy Twombly. I don't live in the classical city. My neighborhood isn't safe. Besides, I want my house to look like a pile of junk to burglars." This year marked a pivotal moment in his career, offering significant visibility in the art world and solidifying his presence on the artistic stage.

1982 : Warhol and Dustheads

Encounter with Andy Warhol

In 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat encountered the icon of contemporary art, Andy Warhol, at the Factory, the artists' workshop opened by Warhol in 1964. This encounter marked a decisive turning point in Basquiat's artistic journey, signifying the beginning of an artistic collaboration and a profound friendship between the two artists. They worked together, exchanged ideas, and collaborated on several projects. Their partnership resulted in the creation of joint works that fused their distinctive styles, generating considerable interest in the art world. The relationship between Basquiat and Warhol was widely publicized and had a significant influence on the evolution of Basquiat's work. It contributed to increasing his visibility on the international art scene, thereby reinforcing his reputation as a major artist of his time.

Dustheads, Jean-Michel Basquiat

© Jean Michel Basquiat

In 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat created one of his most renowned works, titled Dustheads. This powerful piece captures a raw and urban energy characteristic of his style. Laden with symbolism, it blends striking visual elements to reflect urban life, social tensions, and contemporary culture—attributes that define Basquiat's bold and distinctive body of work.

1983: Hollywood Africans, Jean-Michel Basquiat

© Whitney Museum of American Art

Hollywood Africans, displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is part of a series of Basquiat's paintings that address images and texts related to stereotypes of African-Americans in the entertainment industry. It was created during Basquiat's extended visit to Los Angeles, California, in 1983. This artwork incorporates several autobiographical elements: on the right, a trio of figures represents the artist alongside rap musician Rammellzee and painter Toxic, fellow travelers from New York. Basquiat also integrates figures from his date of birth: 12, 22, and 60. Other annotations hold a historical dimension, with phrases like "Sugar Cane," "Tobacco," "Gangsterism," and "What is Bwana?" referring to the limited roles offered to Black actors in old Hollywood films. The idea of exclusion or erasure is underscored by Basquiat, who frequently crossed out words or phrases in his works. This technique, according to him, aimed to draw attention to these elements: by crossing out words, he made them more noticeable to the audience.

1984 : Grillo, Jean-Michel Basquiat

©  Louis Vuitton Foundation

This iconic and monumental work by Jean-Michel Basquiat consists of four panels. The first and third panels instantly capture the viewer's attention, featuring two large expressive portraits typical of Basquiat's style. One of the two figures wears a golden crown. It's a recurring, symbolic motif for the artist, often representing royalty, power, but also suffering and sanctity. Used repeatedly, Basquiat's Crown embodies the complexity of his artistic expression. The two characters stand out against a white background scattered with a collage of symbols, drawings, and fragments of phrases that overlap. We find an array of elements and symbols characteristic of his artistic language: skulls, words, abstract shapes... The artwork exudes raw energy and emotional depth, inviting the viewer to explore themes of race, culture, and identity, often explored by Basquiat in his art. This vibrant and expressive painting blends elements of graffiti, drawing, and painting.

1985 : Basquiat X Warhol by Michael Halsband

©  Louis Vuitton Foundation

The renowned American photographer, Michael Halsband, captured iconic images in 1985 of the encounter between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol dressed as boxers. Their photographs, a memorable series, reveal the chemistry between these two giants of art, providing a striking insight into their artistic collaboration and personal relationship. These shots illustrate the merging of two distinct yet complementary artistic worlds, capturing the energy, creativity, and unique dynamics of their partnership. Halsband's images offer a precious window into this period of exchange of ideas and influences, immortalizing the collaboration between two legendary figures of contemporary art. One of the photographs from the series was chosen as the main image to promote the Warhol, Basquiat Paintings exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985.

1988 : the last year

Basquiat’s death

In 1988, Basquiat tragically joined the "27 Club": his death was attributed to an overdose. His passing sent shockwaves through the art world. His premature departure at the age of 27 deprived the art scene of a prodigious and visionary talent. He succumbed two years after the devastating loss of his great friend Warhol. Basquiat's death was felt as that of an artist on a rapid ascent, whose vibrant and often provocative work delved into profound themes such as race, celebrity, and social injustices. He leaves behind an enduring artistic legacy and cultural impact. His demise highlighted the mental health issues and pressures associated with success in the art world.

Riding with Death, Jean-Michel Basquiat

© L’art en tête

1988 also marks the year of the creation of Riding with Death. This painting depicts a central figure riding a skeletal mount, surrounded by symbols and enigmatic texts. Some interpret this piece as a meditation on mortality, power, and the artist's personal struggles. It reflects Basquiat's distinctive aesthetic, blending elements of street art, graffiti, and cultural references to create a work rich in meaning and emotions.

1996 « Basquiat », by Julian Schnabel

"Basquiat" is a film directed by Julian Schnabel, released in 1996. The biopic chronicles the life of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, from his beginnings in the streets of New York to his meteoric rise in the world of contemporary art. The film sheds light on Basquiat's artistic talent and his relationships and interactions with other iconic figures of the time, notably Andy Warhol. This cinematic portrait provides an intimate glimpse into Basquiat's life, struggles, and successes, with Jeffrey Wright in the lead role.

2017 : Auction sales record  

Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 piece, Untitled, made history by becoming the highest-selling artwork at Sotheby's auction, fetching an exceptional price exceeding $110 million. This sale also set a new record for an American artist at an auction, showcasing Basquiat's increasing fame and value in the art market. Basquiat has shown remarkable figures in the art market, with an annual turnover of €186 million, placing him as the second highest-selling artist in 2023.

Investing in Basquiat's Artworks with Matis

Given the rising interest in Basquiat's work and the auction sale records of recent years, investing in a Basquiat creation is becoming increasingly appealing. Indeed, an artist like Basquiat stands the test of time: demand for his works is rising while the supply diminishes, creating a scarcity effect. However, despite the constantly rising prices, investing in such works requires a deep understanding of the art market. It involves verifying the authenticity of purchased works and handling issues related to transportation and insurance. Furthermore, acquiring a single piece demands substantial capital. Thanks to the co-investment solution offered by Matis, which presents club deals for works by major contemporary artists, these barriers are now alleviated: Matis' investment team selects the artwork, verifies its authenticity, and manages its transportation and insurance. The artwork is funded through the contributions of multiple private investors, using a fractional investment model. Subsequently, Matis entrusts the artwork to leading galleries worldwide for resale. Explore the ongoing club deals at Matis to learn more.

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