As the premiere Black painter of the late 20th century, Jean-Michel Basquiat came to prominence in the art world during the early 1980s. A Brooklyn native whose mama used to take him to museums when he was a kid, Basquiat pushed to the forefront of the art world at a time when most well known Black artists were either old men like Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence, or hotshot bad boys spray-painting masterpieces on the side of subway cars.
Basquiat, along with high school buddy Al Diaz, had once tagged the crumbling walls on the Lower East Side with the tag SAMO©, leaving avant-garde messages that had more in common with cut-up poetry than actual graffiti. But when he finally made his move from the cracked pavement streets to a small art studio blaring Miles Davis and Ravel for inspiration, Basquiat’s rise from street urchin to the crowned king of chic was quick.
But no matter how much he partied, Basquiat still managed to be prolific. Influenced by everything from comic books to Picasso to the brutal world around him, Basquiat’s stunning style was dubbed neo-expressionist. Established art critics were divided on what to make of this dreadlocked interloper rapidly changing their scene with his “rock star” status and the gall to make a king’s crown his logo. While respected art decrier Robert Hughes once dismissed Basquiat as “the Eddie Murphy of the art world,” The Nation art critic Arthur Danto wrote, “…the way he puts paint on canvas was a gift.”
Staring at Basquiat’s oversized masterworks at various shows over the years—including the powerful Charles the First (a painting currently owned by Jay Z) and the always-timely Irony of a Negro Policeman—I could feel the purity and pathos surging through each image. Basquiat put his soul into each brushstroke.
Like his bebopping hero Charlie Parker, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a genius as well as a notorious junkie who eventually fall harder than the Tower of Babel. On August 12, 1988, he nodded into an eternal sleep and became history. Twenty-five years later, Basquiat’s work is very much alive and the crown is still rockin’. —Michael A. Gonzales