Executed 1981-82. Crayon on paper.
To be sold at Contemporary 11 May.
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Jean-Michel Basquiat The Radiant Child (2010) See the documentary on Youtube here
When Basquiat was born in 1960, the decade of Pop had only just begun. Cartoon strips, TV and advertising were the raw materials, and mass media made up the platform. Pop art prepared the ground for Neo-expressionism, its aesthetics and hype. The fundamental concept of Pop is to take the simplest approach – Andy Warhol wrote that 'anyone can do anything' and that artistry was 'just another job'. He applied conveyor-belt methodology to his art and called his studio 'The Factory'.
In the 1970s, New York was inundated with young people who dreamed of becoming rock stars, artists, dancers and actors. A new Bohemian generation was gradually developing, creating a mad scene for music, fashion and art. Artists were experimenting with new media, combining music, film, painting and fashion, and there were no limits to expression.
Jean-Michel Basquiat established his artistic persona in collaboration with his friend Al Diaz under the moniker of: SAMO (same old shit). Their graffiti featuring cryptic phrases soon began to appear on buildings throughout Manhattan and strategically close to the galleries in SoHo. This marked the start of his artistic career, and when the friends parted ways in 1979, the walls of SoHo bore the news that 'SAMO IS DEAD'.
Basquiat was a charismatic figure and quickly became a profile on the New York entertainment scent. He began appearing on TV with his band Gray, playing nightclubs all over the city. Many people were drawn in by his brilliance, and one day in a restaurant he met Andy Warhol, who was captivated by his genius. Basquiat left the room, but soon returned with a painting – still wet – of the two of them, and a working relationship between them was born.
Basquiat's breakthrough as an artist came in 1980 with the group exhibition The Times Square Show, which resulted in his being represented at the Anna Nosei Gallery. He was given a studio in the basement below the gallery, where he put the finishing touches to an individual exhibition that was held the following year. A dazzling review in Art Forum under the header of 'A radiant child' catapulted him into the international limelight.
Several powerful stakeholders flocked to the new star of the art world, and it was not long before Basquiat received an invitation from Larry Gagosian. In 1983, he returned to Los Angeles to set up his exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood, accompanied by his girlfriend – a young, as yet unrecognised singer by the name of Madonna. Basquiat often painted while dressed in expensive Armani suits, which he then wore to public events, still splattered with paint.
His colourful lifestyle had a dark flip-side, however, and his addiction to drugs would ultimately lead to his death. At the age of just 27, he was found dead of an overdose. His life had been dominated by the fixation of the age with celebrity, but it was not until after his death that his real greatness as an artist was indisputably confirmed.
Basquiat's dark identity was manifested through his art, and he demonstrated what it meant to be a black man in America. Many of his stylistic touches were drawn from African-American aesthetic tradition, and harking back to his early life as a graffiti artist, he often used text in his paintings. His works regularly featured skeletons and skulls covered with codes, words, letters and diagrams.
One of Basquiat's most significant reference works was Grey's Anatomy, the famous anatomy text book, which his mother gave him during a hospital visit when he was a child. The pictures of the underlying construction of the human body, and the mixture of text and images became a recurring source of inspiration for Basquiat. In Basquiat's paintings, boys never grow into men; they become skeletons and skulls. Presence is expressed through absence in the ghost-like bodies, the detached heads and the struck-through words. The paintings are distinctively straggling, spontaneous and messy, like a drawing done during a phone call or in the margin of a notebook.