From City Streets to Gallery Walls
The ‘tortured artist’ is a stereotype known around the world but not always understood, especially by those who are not creative or not tormented in some way. Van Gogh painted some of his best works while under severe emotional torment, Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he lost his wife and child – and his eyesight. Look at what Amy Winehouse achieved in her short and tormented life. Another extremely talented but ‘tortured’ artist with a brief but productive life was Jean-Michel Basquiat. His journey started with a tough childhood in which he was plagued with one catastrophe after another. Instead of becoming a statistic, Basquiat channelled his trauma into creating a complex and colourful body of work that impacted on the American contemporary art world in a big way.
Same Old Shit (SAMO)
Basquiat shouted out against politics, religion and the institution with by signing his works with SAMO, which is shorthand for ‘Same Old Shit’. He once said there is no such thing as influence, that ‘…it’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.’ His works featured elements from his Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage, bible verses, political issues and popular culture. Did Basquiat truly feel that his work was ‘SAMO’? Considering what he had to endure in his life, this would not be surprising.
Surgery, Madness, Drugs and Rock
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mother was originally from Puerto Rico and his father from Haiti. They lived in New York where their children were born and raised. Basquiat visited art exhibitions and museums from a young age with his mother who also encouraged his artistic talents. The first tragedy the family experienced was the death of Basquiat’s older brother shortly after he was born. When Basquiat was eight he was struck by a car. His injuries were extensive and his spleen was surgically removed. During his stay in the hospital, Basquiat was entertained by a medical textbook his mother brought him. In later years it became apparent that the sketches in the book made such an impact on him that it featured in much of his work.
Sadly, the accident was not the only blow for Basquiat that year – his parents separated. His mother was then diagnosed as mentally unstable and the children had to live with their father. A few years later her mental state had declined so far that she was committed to a hospital and subsequently spent extended periods in mental institutions. Basquiat was 15 when he ran away from home to sleep in the streets. He was arrested and taken home but left yet again aged 17. This time he didn’t go back and instead left school and started living with a friend and his family. In later years Basquiat made a modest living by painting and selling postcards and also sold drugs. He spent nights hanging around in punk rock nightclubs hours. During this time he began painting the New York City walls, signing his work as SAMO.
A Short Path to Fame
Basquiat’s art in the streets got noticed. Pop art icon Andy Warhol took an interest in him as did neo-expressionist artist Julian Schnabel and eminent street artist Keith Haring, who also became enchanted with the young artist’s mark all over the city. Basquiat’s work exploded onto the contemporary art scene in New York and was soon featured on some of the city’s top galleries’ walls. He became an instant star. Various high-end and underground art magazines featured Basquiat as a formidable and fresh new voice in the scene. Fame and fortune lead to the young artist dating Madonna and developing habits like driving past street merchants in his limousine and handing out US$100 bills to them. Unfortunately, not all of his habits had a positive outcome.
The Final Devastating Chapter
Just as fast as he shot to stardom, Jean-Michel Basquiat crashed. He was a victim of drug abuse and was eventually killed by it. When he was only 27 years old Basquiat died in his Manhattan studio of a drug overdose.
The Art Lives on
After his tragic death, Jean-Michel Basquiat and his contribution to the contemporary art scene was honored at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Brooklyn Museum. His short life has featured in biographies and documentaries and his artworks have reached record sales prices of as much as US$100 million.