An Animated Introduction to the Chaotic Brilliance of Jean-Michel Basquiat: From Homeless Graffiti Artist to Internationally Renowned Painter

By the late 1970s, New York City had fall­en into such a sham­bol­ic state that nobody could have been expect­ed to notice the occa­sion­al streak of addi­tion­al spray paint here and there. But some­how the repeat­ed appear­ance of the word “SAMO” caught the atten­tion of even jad­ed Low­er Man­hat­tan­ites. That tag sig­ni­fied the work of Al Diaz and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the lat­ter of whom would cre­ate work that, four decades lat­er, would sell for over $110 mil­lion at auc­tion, a record-break­ing num­ber for an Amer­i­can artist. But by then he had already been dead for near­ly 20 years, brought down by a hero­in over­dose at 27, an age that reflects not just his rock-star sta­tus in life but his increas­ing­ly leg­endary pro­file after it.

“Born in 1960 to a Hait­ian father and a Puer­to Rican moth­er, Basquiat spent his child­hood mak­ing art and mis­chief in Boerum Hill,” Brook­lyn, says Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land art his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Jor­dana Moore Saggese in the ani­mat­ed Ted-Ed intro­duc­tion above. “While he nev­er attend­ed art school, he learned by wan­der­ing through New York gal­leries, and lis­ten­ing to the music his father played at home.”

He seems to have drawn inspi­ra­tion from every­thing around him, “scrib­bling his own ver­sions of car­toons, com­ic books and bib­li­cal scenes on scrap paper from his father’s office” (lead­ing to a method that has some­thing in com­mon with William Bur­roughs’ cut-up tech­niques). He also spent a great deal of artis­ti­cal­ly for­ma­tive time laid up in the hos­pi­tal after a car acci­dent, por­ing over a copy of Gray’s Anato­my giv­en to him by his moth­er, which “ignit­ed a life­long fas­ci­na­tion with anato­my that man­i­fest­ed in the skulls, sinew and guts of his lat­er work.”

A skull hap­pens to fea­ture promi­nent­ly in that $110 mil­lion paint­ing of Basquiat’s, but he also made lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of oth­er works in his short life, hav­ing turned full-time to art after SAMO hit it big on the Soho art scene. The day job he quit was at a cloth­ing ware­house, a posi­tion he land­ed, after a peri­od of unem­ploy­ment and even home­less­ness, when the com­pa­ny’s founder spot­ted him spray-paint­ing a build­ing at night. Suc­cess came quick­ly to the young Basquiat, but it cer­tain­ly did­n’t come with­out effort: still, when we regard his paint­ings today, don’t we feel com­pelled by not just what Saggesse calls a dis­tinc­tive “inven­tive visu­al lan­guage” and hyper-ref­er­en­tial “phys­i­cal evi­dence of Basquiat’s rest­less and pro­lif­ic mind,” but also of the glimpse they offer into the rare life lived at max­i­mum pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, max­i­mum inten­si­ty, and max­i­mum speed?

To delve deep­er into the world of Basquiat, you can watch two doc­u­men­taries online: Basquiat: Rage to Rich­es, and Jean Michel Basquiat-The Radi­ant Child.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Close Look at Basquiat’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Art in a New 500-Page, 14-Pound, Large For­mat Book by TASCHEN

The Odd Cou­ple: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, 1986

Google Puts Online 10,000 Works of Street Art from Across the Globe

Big Bang Big Boom: Graf­fi­ti Stop-Motion Ani­ma­tion Cre­ative­ly Depicts the Evo­lu­tion of Life

The Cre­ativ­i­ty of Female Graf­fi­ti & Street Artists Will Be Cel­e­brat­ed in Street Hero­ines, a New Doc­u­men­tary

How to Jump­start Your Cre­ative Process with William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Tech­nique

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.