The graffiti rebel

The graffiti rebel

Last month, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting, ‘Untitled’, depicting a skull set a new record high for any American artist at auction. Offered at a Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction with a minimum guaranteed price of $60 million, it sold for a staggering $110.5 million, the highest price paid for any artwork created after 1980. The successful bidder was Japanese tech tycoon and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. The sale brought back to life Basquiat’s personal story, which was one of high drama and tragic ending; in 1988, when he died of drug overdose, he was just 27.

Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother (who separated when he was just seven), Basquiat’s first brush with fame was being a graffiti artist who painted on New York subway walls. He was then an ordinary school dropout, working odd jobs, including selling junk jewellery, T-shirts and postcards on streets. With no place to live or money to buy art supplies, he would paint on cheap paper, salvaged sheet metal or broken pieces of window casement and make assemblages out of junk material.

On a meteoric rise

Everything, however, changed for the young black artist in dreadlocks who went on to become a shooting star during the 1980s art boom. His meteoric rise in the art world saw his paintings grabbing high prices and headlines. In 1985, he was on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine in an article called ‘New Art, New Money’.

His ‘downtown’ origins and upbringing notwithstanding, Basquiat was clearly focused on stardom even before his exploding career took off. “Since I was 17, I thought I might be a star,” he once revealed. “I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous. Even when I didn’t think my stuff was that good, I’d have faith.”

Success and sudden public scrutiny did have an impact on the artist and his many relationships. By early 1988, he was telling his friends about his plans to give up painting altogether and take up writing instead. To some others, he revealed his resolve only to make music, or open a tequila distillery. He also wanted to get out of New York and head towards Africa. Just six days before his scheduled departure to Abidjan, his lifeless body was discovered in his studio. Interestingly, death was a dominant feature of his paintings and drawings all through his career.

From the very beginning, Basquiat’s art was characterised by an uninhibited rendering of human form mostly set in dark, intriguing and inimical environs. Filled with a series of scrabbles, brushstrokes, and splashed paint, his theatrical images often featured portraits of warriors, black kings, and skeletons (with open mouths and wide eyes). They exuded a striking rawness and rich expressions highlighted by disgruntled lines and shocking hues of red, yellow and blue. Even though no clear visual meaning could be attributed to them, his images conveyed a deep sense of anxiety, unease, and tension.

His stark and outrageous imagery attracted widespread attention, but left critics baffled and divided. “I find his paintings fascinating, liberated, original,” said one critic while another went on to declare the artist as a saviour and savant! “We are simultaneously convinced that he is a tough street-voodoo artist and a painter of astonishing precocity,” wrote William Wilson of The Los Angeles Times.

Some observers saw in his art ‘suggestive dichotomies,’ such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience; while some others perceived intimations of social commentary, as well as an assault on power structures and systems of racism in his art. “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings,” revealed Basquiat himself. “I realised that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.”

Not everybody’s favourite

Basquiat has had his share of carping critics who labelled him as a glorified and ‘talentless hack’ propped up by manipulative, aggressive and hard-headed art dealers and collectors for huge money and publicity. When he died, influential critic and commentator Robert Hughes wrote a stinging obituary titled ‘Requiem for a Featherweight’ (New Republic / November 21, 1988). Calling Basquiat’s story as “the tale of a small untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of artworld promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and, no doubt to their future embarrassment, critics,” Hughes added, “there were infinitely better artists than Basquiat who happened to be black, such as the sculptor Martin Puryear, but they did not have to contend with this kind of boom-and-bust success.”

Almost a decade after Basquiat’s death, Hilton Kramer (The Telegraph / March 22, 1997) recalled: “This New York graffitist is memorable only for the hype…He was essentially a talentless hustler, street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant, who used his youth, his looks, his skin colour and his abundant sex appeal to win an overnight fame that proved to be his undoing.”

On his part, Basquiat was known to be contemptuous of critics. “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” For him, art making was simple, straightforward and inevitable. “I start a picture and I finish it,” he said about his working process. “I don’t think about art while I work. I try to think about life.”

Basquiat’s life and art have been well documented in a series of biographies and monographs. He was the subject of a 1996 film directed by the artist Julian Schnabel, and a documentary subtitled The Radiant Child in 2010. Schnabel’s film received a thumbs up from several reviewers.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat seems to have spent most of his brief life on the right side of the brain,” wrote well-known film critic Robert Ebert in his column. “Only another artist could understand that, and ‘Basquiat’ is the confident, poetic film-making debut of the painter Julian Schnabel, who was a friend of Basquiat’s… He shows Basquiat painting a stack of car tires, and then seeing them transformed into a flowering tree.”

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