One of America’s greatest and most unique artists is Jean-Michel Basquiat. With one of the most distinctive and unique styles, Basquiat left behind a legacy of stunning artistry and meaningful work. 32 years after his death, his creativity and artistry is inspiring a new generation of people as his style is headed to the basketball court. 

Basquiat’s Life

Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York City, on December 22, 1960. Born shortly after the death of his older brother, Basquiat is of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, and his childhood inspired the work he would later go on to create. The second of four children of Matilde and Gerard Basquiat, Jean-Michel was introduced to a love of art by his mother. Matilde took her young son to art museums in Manhattan, and later enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Jean-Michel cold both read and write by the age of 4, and at age 7 he helped create a children’s book with friend Marc Prozzo. Prozzo and Basquiat met at Saint Ann’s School, an elite private art’s school where Matilde sent her son to nurture his love and talent for art. 

Also at the age of 7, Jean-Michel was struck by a car. One arm was broken and he sustained several internal injuries, eventually undergoing a splenectomy. During his recovery, Matilde brought him a copy of the book Grey’s Anatomy, which played a big role in the art he later became famous for. 

Shortly after he recovered, Jean-Michel’s parents separated, and he and his sisters left with their father. Under his father’s guidane, Jean-Michel became somewhat of a Rennaisance Man. By the age of 11, Jean-Michel was fluent in not only English but French and Spanish as well. 

Sadly, Matilde was committed to a mental institution when Jean-Michel was 13. Due to the heartache and instability of his mom’s thereafter stints in and out of institutions, Jean-Michel ran away from home at age 15. 

Early Street Art

Basquiat Painting

After running away from home, Basquiat began exploring his art through graffiti. Around 1977, he and pal Al Diaz began tagging buildings around lower Manhattan, under the alias SAMO. In 1978, as Basquiat worked at a clothing store, The Village Voice published an article about the SAMO graffiti. 

Although Basquiat is best known for his art, he also gained notoriety through appearances on a public access show, and as a member of the band Test Pattern, later renamed Gray. 

According to his Wikipedia bio, “Around this time, Basquiat lived in the East Village with his friend Alexis Adler, a Barnard biology graduate. He often copied diagrams of chemical compounds borrowed from Adler’s science textbooks. She documented Basquiat’s creative explorations as he transformed the floors, walls, doors and furniture into his artworks. He also made postcards with his friend Jennifer Stein. While selling postcards in SoHo, Basquiat spotted Andy Warhol at W.P.A. restaurant with art critic Henry Geldzahler. He sold Warhol a postcard titled Stupid Games, Bad Ideas.”

Transition to Gallery Art

In June of 1980, Basquiat officially transitioned from street artist to gallery artist. He participated in the Times Square Show in ’80, and in ’81 sold his first painting to Debbie Harry, frontwoman for famed band Blondie. The painting sold for $200. 

At the time, Basquiat lived with girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk, who would later describe his sexuality as, “very rich,” and, “multichromatic.” Basquiat was not limited to attraction based on looks, sex, or gender, but was attracted to people’s minds. 

As Basquiat’s success grew, so too did his unquiet. The creative genius turned to drugs like cocaine, an later heroin, to cope with the stresses of fame and a troubled but creative mind. It was this struggle with drugs that drove a wedge between himself and famed singer Madonna, with whom he had a long and loving relationship. 

From his studio in SoHo, Basquiat began churning out masterpieces and had his work displayed in galleries in Italy and the United States. Basquiat even struck up an unlikely friendship with Andy Warhol and worked in a studio space Larry Gagosian built under his California home. Here Gagosian met Madonna as Basquiat’s girlfriend. The art world legend recounted in an interview, “I was in my loft, and I got a phone call one afternoon from Barbara Kruger, who I’d gotten to know, and she said, ‘Larry, I’m in a group show at Annina Nosei’s. The opening is this afternoon. I’d love to have you come over and see it.’ So I walked over to Annina’s gallery on Prince Street. As I recall, the way Annina’s gallery was set up was that there were two rooms, one larger and one smaller, that led to her office in the back. In the room that was closest to Annina’s office, there were these paintings that just electrified me. I’d never heard the name Jean-Michel Basquiat before. I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman, to be honest with you. But I met Jean-Michel that night because he was in Annina’s office. I was startled when I saw him because he wasn’t what I was expecting to see. He was this great-looking young black guy with hair that stood straight up. I think he was wearing white painter’s pants that were splattered. But I liked him immediately and we became friends, so I went on to show his work in Los Angeles.”

Basquiat also produced a rap album, and walked the runway. The whole time he was churning out prolific art and stunning audiences, Basquiat was wrestling with his own demons. At the age of 27, Basquiet died in 1988 from a heroin overdose in his NoHo studio. 

At the end of his life, Basquiet had produced a stunning estimated 1,500 drawings, 600 paintings, and countless other artwork in other mediums. 

Basquiat’s Legacy

Basquiat SAMO

Basquiat took on more than canvas with his art. He tackled societal concerns like racism, inequality, and the human condition. His artwork featured diagrams, intense line work, and a blend of realism and abstract that evokes emotion and thought. Although he’s been gone for 32 years, his style continues to inspire. One piece of art by Basquiet sold for a staggering $56.3 million. 

Coming to a Basketball Court Near New Yorkers

Per ArtNet, “It’s a collision between two of Brooklyn’s most powerful cultural forces: basketball and a local street artist known the world over.

Next season, the Brooklyn Nets will honor Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the borough’s best-known exports, with a new alternate jersey featuring several of his most famous imprints. And the world is already buzzing.”

Soon, fans won’t have to find the nearest Basquiet exhibit to appreciate the lives he touched, all they’ll have to do is attend a Brooklyn Nets game. 

Basquiet’s art is nearly impossible to summarize in word. His canvas pieces are almost like an experience one has to have; and every person will feel different emotions and invoke different thoughts. Surely one of America’s most unique artists, Basquiet’s legacy has helped shape generations of art.

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