A Closer Look At… Jean Michel Basquiat
The artist Jean Michel Basquiat is not conventionally known, yet his work is instantly recognisable for its graffiti-style, bold lines and graphic figures, which convey a lively spirit and raw emotion. Basquiat was an intelligent and gifted child who fled his home in Brooklyn at the age of fifteen to dwell in the New York underground jazz scene. He forged a life as a street poet who emblazoned the streets of downtown Manhattan with intricate aphorisms under the copyrighted name SAMO, before he began painting on salvaged materials. His style evolved to combine the tools of graffiti such as the Magic Marker and spray enamel, with traditional fine art and he fused painting, drawing, culture, history and poetry to create a uniquely exuberant and expressive style.
Such genius coincided with the Neo-expressionist art boom which ensured that from 1982, his work was highly demanded and he secured the cover of The New York Times Magazine; for an African-American artist to reach such heights of success was unforeseen, yet he was continually influenced by the predicament of being a young black man in a white art world, and the dichotomy between black and white is a frequent feature of his work. In fact he maintains a compelling tension between opposing aesthetic forces – control and spontaneity, refinement and primitivism – whilst being continually driven by social commentary on race, culture, politics and society. Like artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Basquiat’s artwork was a pursuit of fundamental truths as he grappled with and scrutinized his perceptions of the outside world, before distilling and reincarnating them via his creative instincts, into their most simplistic form. Through such a process he transcends the individual and, like all art should do, addresses broader issues, such as racism, colonialism and class struggle.
Basquiat’s work displays little concern for physiognomic accuracy but incorporates forceful figures and menacing faces against a cacophony of brush strikes, symbols and words, which bizarrely coalesce into a united pictorial equilibrium. This inhibited painterly graphic style, so reminiscent of street art, ensured his notoriety. His rising success led to collaboration with Andy Warhol, and his tragically early death in 1988 from mixed-drug toxicity only strengthened the popularity and prominence of his work in the New York art scene.
For film enthusiasts and Basquiat fans alike, Julian Schnabel’s drama ‘Basquiat’, released in 1996, presents a gorgeously disaffected nineteen-year old street artist who becomes rapidly ensconced into the less than forgiving New York art world, where he is judged and manipulated at the expense of love, friendship and his own life. Schnabel’s biopic has been critiqued for its factual inaccuracy, self-indulgence and for mythologizing Basquiat; Jeffrey Wright portrays him as elusive, naïve and lacking depth of character. Nevertheless, the film offers an enjoyable and lasting impression of the temptations and turbulence facing one of the lesser known art masterminds of the twentieth century.