February! New month = new artist. This month I'm studying Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born December 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York. His father Gerard (an accountant) was from Haiti. His mother Matilde was born in Brooklyn and of Puerto Rican descent. Jean-Michel lived in a 3-story brownstone with his two younger sisters, Lisane and Jeanine. Something I learned is that Jean-Michel had an older brother named Max who died right before he was born. Coincidentally Andy’s oldest brother also died before Andy and his other siblings were born.
Jean-Michel was a precocious kid who learned to read and write by age 4. He loved to draw and was inspired by Hitchcock, comic books, TV cartoons, and Mad Magazine. His mom took him to art museums and enrolled him as junior mmber of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
When he was 7, he was playing in the street and was hit by a car. He broke his arm and had severe internal injuries that required his spleen be removed. He was in the hospital for a month. His mom brought him Gray’s Anatomy to help pass the time.
After the accident, Jean-Michel’s parents, Gerard & Matilde, separated. He and his sisters lived with their father. They lived in NYC for a few years and then Gerard got a job promotion and moved the family to Puerto Rico. During this time, Jean ran away from home for the first time. Despite being a very precocious child, fluent in French, English, and Spanish, Jean struggled in school. He changed schools often, going to St. Anns (a private arts oriented school), several NYC public schools, and an Episcopalian school in Puerto Rico.
In 1976 Gerard moved the Basquiat family back to Brooklyn. Jean-Michel soon transferred to City-As-School, an alternative high school. There he met Al Diaz and they became good friends. Jean got involved with a drama group at school and created a fictional character called SAMO who makes a living selling a fake religion. He published stories about SAMO in the school newspaper and class yearbook.
In 1977, he and Al collaborated under the name SAMO© spray-painting philosophical poems and phrases in Manhattan. In 1978 at Al’s graduation, on a dare, Jean filled a box with shaving cream and while the principal was giving his speech, Jean ran up to the podium and dumped it on his head. He had one more year of school left but figured “no point in going back” now.
In June 1978, at age 17 Basquiat left home. He stayed with various friends, went to parties & clubs, and became a regular among a crowd of filmmakers, musicians, & artists.
He sold hand-painted postcards & T-shirts for money. He and Al Diaz had a falling out and that ended their SAMO© collaboration. He was part of a jazz/punk/“noise band” that was eventually called Gray. He played clarinet and synthesizers. He said “Since I was 17 I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix ... I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous.”
In 1980 at the age of 19, Basquiat was in his first exhibition. It was a show with about 100 other artists called the Times Square Show. He made a large SAMO© installation piece. He was one of the few artists mentioned in the review of the show in Art in America.
Also in 1980 he was selected for the lead role in a movie, originally titled New York Beat, renamed Downtown 81, and released in 2000. During this time he lived in the production office for the film.
In 1981, Basquiat met Suzanne Mollouk while she was bartending at Max’s. Within days he moved in with her and they were in a relationship (not exactly monogamous) until 1985.
He was in several group shows in 1981 with artists like William Burroughs, David Byrne, Fab 5 Freddy, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, & Andy Warhol.
He played a cameo role of a DJ in the music video for Blondie’s “Rapture.” He traveled to Europe for his first solo show. Annina Nosei provided him with studio space in the basement of her gallery and “The Radiant Child” (the first major article about Basquiat) was published in Artforum magazine. It was a big year. He had a home (with Suzanne), a studio space, opportunities, and recognition. And I keep reminding myself just how young he was, turned 21 that year.