It took less than 10 years for Jean-Michel Basquiat to go from an anonymous graffiti artist to New York City’s boldest and most transgressive star. The Brooklyn native, who first attracted attention by tagging the name “SAMO” across New York City, helped propel a graffitied aesthetic to the Manhattan gallery scene in the 1980s and also broke barriers for young artists of color. His professional success, however, was overshadowed by personal turmoil: The artist struggled with drug addiction for most of his adult life and died from an overdose at the age of 27.
Basquiat’s short but influential life is the subject of the fourth and final film in American Masters’ documentary series “Artist’s Flight,” which airs on PBS on Sept. 14 and will be available for streaming on ALL ARTS the following day. Before you watch, read below for some interesting facts about the leading neo-expressionist.
The crown is a signifier
Those familiar with Basquiat’s early paintings might remember a deceptively simple crown featured in many of his works. Headpieces have been used in art as signifiers of royalty for centuries, and Basquiat, the child of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, knew this. By topping black figures with the angular crown, the artist was raising historically marginalized people to royal stature.
Basquiat had a tumultuous, but culturally vibrant, upbringing
Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat was the second of four children and the only surviving boy to Gérard Basquiat and Matilde Andrades. His mother, who instilled in Basquiat a love of the arts and foreign language, was committed to a mental institution when he was only 13 years old. He had a contentious relationship with his father and left home at age 13. Before he became a successful artist he would sell T-shirts and other goods emblazoned with his artwork on the streets, which sometimes doubled as his home.
His work continues to break records
His 1982 painting “Untitled” sold for a whopping $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2017, breaking the record for the highest sum ever paid for a piece of American art. Arguably one of his more famous works, “Untitled” is classic Basquiat. The graffitied crown, the skull, the rich colors are all there. Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa won the bidding war, which lasted only 10 minutes.
Top Image: Courtesy of Marion Busch