Ten Things You Might Not Know About Basquiat

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Jean-Michel Basquiat 1984
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984Photograph by Lee Jaffe, Copyright, All Rights Reserved Courtesy of LW Archives

To mark the opening of Guggenheim, Bilbao's new exhibition, we celebrate the colourful life of troubled artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s legacy is defined as much by the tragedy of doomed genius as it is by his work. The Haitian-American artist’s iconic paintings and drawings – his interpretation of black identity in America – formed a major part of New York City’s artistic explosion in the early 1980s. They flung him into a world of fame and celebrity, of friendship with Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol and David Bowie. But they came at a great cost. On August 12th 1988, aged just 27, he was found dead in his apartment in NoHo, Manhattan after losing his struggle with heroin addiction.

Opening today at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s The Time. One of the most important examinations of the artist's output, the exhibition features around 100 of his works, in his characteristic style: rooted in expressionism, but influenced by everything around him, from high culture to jazz. Basquiat was able to reduce his subject matter to its most basic form, and he often combined images with text that had been crossed out or written multiple times. He described his art as providing a “springboard to deeper truths about the individual.” To mark the exhibition’s opening, AnOther presents 10 facts about the idiosyncratic artist.

1. Growing up Basquiat was precocious. His accountant father Gerard used to bring home scraps of paper from work for his four-year-old son to draw on. Eleven years later, and two years before he decided to leave school, Basquiat ran away from home. His father recalled that when he found him in a park, his son told him, “Papa, I will be very famous one day.”

2. Aged six, Basquiat was hit by a car in an accident which led to him having a splenectomy. Whilst recovering from the operation, his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy; the medical textbook would have a profound influence on him: in 1981 he named his avant-garde industrial band Gray, in reference to the volume, and in his later work he often used motifs of feet, the human body and words laid over images.

3. By the time he was 11, Basquiat was trilingual in French, English and Spanish; Gerard was of Haitian descent, and his mother Matilde of Puerto Rican.

4. One of Jean-Michel’s first art projects was SAMO, a graffiti collaboration with his friend and past classmate Al Diaz. The two would spray the tag of their character (which stood for “Same Old Shit”) around the streets of Manhattan. But at the start of the 1980s, “SAMO IS DEAD” started to appear throughout the city; the pair had fallen out, and the project was over.

5. The art critic Rene Ricard had a hand in bringing fame to the young New York artist. In December 1981 Ricard published “The Radiant Child”, an article that would later provide the name of a documentary on Basquiat’s life.

6. Basquiat’s paint ended up on much more than canvas. He liked to work on whatever was in front of him, from refrigerators to lab coats, shipping crates to typewriters. And he liked to work in an Armani suit – when finished, he would go out, still dressed in the paint-splattered clothing.

7. Basquiat’s rise to fame coincided with hip-hop’s emergence, and his work conveyed similar themes. His 1981 painting The Irony of the Negro Policeman echoed the messages of groups NWA and Public Enemy.

8. At the height of his spending, Basquiat was shelling out $150 a day on health food. He rarely ate it however, and much was left to spoil.

9. Basquiat was part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene in the mid-1980s, and the two held an exhibition of their collaborative work in 1985. But their combined fame didn’t guarantee success; critics received the project poorly.

10. Although Basquiat filled his work with recurring symbols, his crown is perhaps best known. It tops figures he respected or admired.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s The Time is at the Guggenheim, Bilbao until November 1.