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Jean-Michel Basquiat Died For Our Sins

Was it drug-induced psychosis, vaulting ambition, or the indignity of being Black in a lily-white art world?

Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1985. Photo by Evelyn Hofer/Getty Images

I kick it old school, being one of those crusty old Gen X dinosaurs who believes there’s freedom in discipline, that the goal of any artist should be (quoting monochrome painter Joseph Marioni) to “transcend the technique, transcend the material, and transcend the ego.”

In other words, you learn the technique and work with the material in hopes that one day you’ll be good enough to discard both. Ultimately, the ego, too, must be discarded to serve the artist’s true purpose, which is to make the best art he or she is capable of, irrespective of the fame and recognition that the ego so desperately craves.

Or maybe that’s just a lot of bullshit.

Neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 — August 12, 1988) would have certainly said so. He never quibbled about what he wanted, which was fame. He courted it, basked in it, mainlined it — and in my opinion, he ultimately let it kill him. But I don’t for one minute believe it invalidated him as a force majeure in the art world.

At the age of 21, Basquiat became the youngest artist to show work at documenta in Kassel, an exhibition of contemporary art occurring once every five years. At 22, he was the youngest artist to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York City. By 27, he was dead of a heroin overdose, having produced in a short period of time 1500 drawings, as well as around 600 paintings, multiple sculptures, and mixed media works. Now, of course, his paintings sell for auction-house prices: $110.5 million, at last count, for Untitled, a frenetic 1982 painting of a black and yellow skull.

Untitled, 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Every word one is tempted to use to describe Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work — naif, “intuitive primitivism,” art brut, Creole, juvenilia — is, by default, tinged with racism. The work itself is, I suspect, a way of confronting, head-on, viewers’ subconscious racism and their expectations for “a Black artist.” Basquiat was, by all accounts, a brilliant man who learned to read and write at age four, spoke Spanish, French, and English, and read books in all three languages. He understood too well the uses of irony.

Tellingly, his Puerto Rican mother, Matilde Andrades, and Gérard Basquiat, his Haitian-American father, a comptroller at MacMillan Publishing, had a fraught relationship. “She went crazy as a result of a bad marriage,” Jean-Michel once told an interviewer. Matilde would spend the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions, leaving her son and two younger daughters in the care of Gérard, who beat Jean-Michel regularly and reflexively withheld his love and approval.

At age 15, Jean-Michel either ran away from home or was banished. There are two accounts of this. In one, Gérard threw Basquiat out for smoking pot in his room. In another, Gérard threw Basquiat out after finding him having sex with his male cousin. Basquiat left Brooklyn for good at age 17, determined to never go home again.

That meant living in Washington Square Park in the skeeviest part of Manhattan, eating 15-cent bags of Cheetos and quaffing Mad Dog 2020 with the winos. Despite these hardships, he was able to begin his life as an artist by spray-painting philosophical epigrams on the walls of Soho under the handle Samo, which stood for “Same Old Shit.” He learned to work quickly, furtively. He made T-shirts and postcards to sell to tourists.

Postcard prints of Basquiat’s work.
In Italian, 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat

Seventeen-year-old Samo explained to the Village Voice that his street art was a way to mock bogusness. “This city is crawling with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have,” he’s quoted as saying in the magazine. “Status symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritually, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.”

Supporting by his girlfriend, Alexis Adler, Basquiat moved his creative work indoors, using whatever detritus he found on the streets as his canvas: torn paper, discarded doors, even the walls, floors, and dingy hallways of his own apartment building. That June, he painted a mural inside the “Times Square Show,” a hip-hop art exhibition held in a former massage parlor off Seventh Avenue. In February, 1981, Basquiat was invited to hang work in the “New York/New Wave” show at PS1, a nonprofit arts space in Long Island. Out of more than 100 artists, he was given pride of place in the final room of the exhibition, where his work caught the attention of the art dealer Annina Nosei.

She was instantly smitten by what she saw as genius, setting him up with a basement studio in her Prince Street gallery. Basquiat showed up early, usually with a box of fresh croissants, and got right to work. He played Ravel’s Bolero, loudly and with real feeling.

Hollywood Africans, 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat

By his own admission, he couldn’t draw. He certainly had no academic training. None of his paintings displays depth of field or any of the traditional techniques that signify an artistic mastery. And yet, he was a virtuoso.

What Basquiat painted was a window to the inside of his head, where all his thoughts, feelings, obsessions, and darkest impulses were on display. It can unsettle you, looking at his work, in the same way that watching people passionately make out on a park bench can unsettle you. Always, there’s this voyeuristic embarrassment of seeing something that’s too intimate to see.

Basquiat crossed out specific words to draw greater attention to them. He preferred to paint with the television blaring, or the stereo and television blaring simultaneously, working on several canvases at once. Annina Nosei had no trouble selling his paintings, and in fact, set up her new protégé with a studio to work in, a loft to party in, and a cadre of fawning assistants to do his bidding. All Basquiat had to do in was what he was already doing: produce art.

Collectors came to the Crosby Street loft. Those who dared to wonder out loud whether a painting might clash with their décor were ordered to leave by a furious Basquiat, who often hurled foodstuffs at them from his upstairs window. Friends, dealers, hangers-on came and went at all hours, sometimes lingering to watch him paint while they smoked a bowl of whatever they happened to be smoking at the time.

Basquiat, who didn’t have a bank account and knew nothing about the care and management of money, stuffed wads of it inside books and under couch cushions. He and his new girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, regularly free-based cocaine, which helped him keep up with the demand for his work. It seemed as though the greater his success as an artist, the more rapacious his appetite for drugs. And always there was the siren song of more: more fame, more recognition, more drugs, more everything.

Basquiat dated a young, pre-fame Madonna, with whom he had an ugly breakup.

He dated a lot of people.

A personal favorite, Irony of the Negro Policeman, 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat

Then he met Andy Warhol, a lifelong idol of his, whose reputation in the art world was already dimming. All of that was lost on Basquiat, who felt as though he’d finally met someone who understood him, gave his guidance and advice, was a surrogate father. Despite all the adoring attention, the money, the glitterati, Basquiat was never able to earn the approval of the one man he wanted it from: Gérard Basquiat, his own father. Like a lot of people who are narcissistically wounded, Basquiat was likely suspicious of the gobs of adoring attention and secretly convinced his father was the only one who knew the truth about him. He was nothing. A fraud. A Black man masquerading in a White man’s world.

“From being so critical of the art scene, Jean-Michel was all of a sudden becoming the thing he criticized,” his longtime friend, Keith Haring, said. Basquiat would buy expensive Armani suits and then paint in them. He loaned strangers outrageous sums of money. Driving past the Bowery winos he used to drink with, Basquiat threw hundred-dollar bills out the window. And yet, instead of hanging out with his old pals, Basquiat surrounded himself with Warhol’s people — again, the very art scene he once abhorred.

One night, Basquiat’s new art dealer, a Swiss named Bruno Bischofberger, suggested the two men collaborate on a series of paintings — Basquiat’s street art superimposed over Warhol’s pop art. Critics eviscerated the exhibition. “Everything . . . is infused with banality,’’ one critic wrote. ‘’The real question is, who is using whom here?’’

Basquiat had never before faced the firing squad of public opinion. Not like this. For a young man with unerring instincts about where to position himself on fame’s fickle chessboard, his collaboration with Warhol had proven to be a huge mistake. The two men fell out. Warhol claimed it was because of Basquiat’s increasing drug use — and to be fair, Basquiat’s hunger for the needle was becoming notorious at this point. Just as likely was Basquiat feeling betrayed, suspicious, worried that he’d lost his mentor’s respect, and more painfully, the adoration of the art world.

In February of 1987, Warhol died after a routine gallbladder surgery. Basquiat was inconsolable. According to many who knew him, his grief drove him even further into drug use, using as many as a hundred baggies of heroin a day, exchanging paintings that now worth millions of dollars for another fix. “They tell me the drugs are killing me,” Basquiat once told a friend, “but when I stop using, they say my art is dead.”

Basquiat made one last effort to clean up before returning to Manhattan. He died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose at his apartment on Great Jones Street on August 12, 1988. His girlfriend Kellie Inman found him unresponsive by the side of the bed, but by the time she got him to the hospital, it was too late.

It’s impossible to know exactly what, besides rampant drug use, killed Jean-Michel Basquiat. Maybe a combination of things. Few survive the limelight without third-degree burns. And for a young Black man, a man beset with ambition, whose works were snubbed by tastemakers like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney … that yearning for approval has the power to destroy even the purest souls.

Riding with Death, 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s last painting.

Basquiat surely suffered from Imposter Syndrome. Had he been less drug-addled and more psychologically stable, he might have seen the 1980’s art scene for what it was: a cabal of sycophantic, greedy, old white men who saw a cash cow and proceeded to milk it. By any parameter, he was better than they were. But how can a young man who once worked as a rent boy on 42nd Street ever know the truth about himself? He kept grabbing at things, people, fame, money, drugs to silence the roar of his own insecurity, having no idea these things were making it worse.

Would Basquiat have been Basquiat without those wounds, without his own personal provenance? Would he have achieved the same level of success if he’d been called Larry Wilkes? There’s romance to his story. There’s romance to his name. And most importantly, there’s romance to the idea that a street urchin with outsized talent can ascend to the heights of Olympus. What no one ever seems to recognize is that, more often than not, Olympus is actively plotting to kill you.

Life being what it is, irony being what it is, Jean-Michel Basquiat did finally achieve in death what he failed to do while living. His father, Gérard, took control of his estate, running it like a mini-fiefdom until his own death in 2013. An accountant by trade, and perhaps by nature, Gérard had great respect for bank checks full of big round zeros. His own son may have remained a mystery to him, but not the money.

But who can really see inside a person’s heart? Perhaps, like so many parents before him, Gérard Basquiat discovered that he loved his son only after it was too late. There are few things sadder than a man who can be everything to everybody, except a father to his own son.

Jean-Michel gained the world, but paid the ultimate price for it. That doesn’t make him a cautionary tale. His death, like his art, offers us a mirror so we may look at what we do to the creatives we love.

We eat them.

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Stacey Keith

Stacey Keith

Culture, Lifestyle, Travel, Thoughtful Entertainment.