The Angry Genius


This year, a retrospective of his work was shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and is now at the Guggenheim in Bilbao. More than 25 years after his death, this talented artist is still the same radiant soul.

Text: José Francisco Hurtado @jfhurtado

Jean Michel Basquiat

phOTO: Getty images


“Papa, I have made it.” After more than two years away from his father, a proud and exhilarated Jean-Michel Basquiat returned to share his success with his family. In a black suit and tie, Basquiat had come in a limo with a coterie of friends after a night out celebrating the New York / New Wave exhibition in Queens. Opened February 1981, the show was just the beginning of the prolific artist’s career in the Big Apple.

Basquiat grew up on the streets of Brooklyn in a middle-class home, sharing his accountant father’s baseball and boxing heroes and finding inspiration in his mother’s artistic sensibility – she often took him to places like the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This mix of cultural images – popular, urban and elite – filled the early imagination of the young artist, who once dreamed of illustrating comic books.



phOTO: ©Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York


Part Haitian and part Puerto Rican, Jean-Michel Basquiat eventually set his sights even higher. Determined, well educated and an avid reader, the 15-year-old Basquiat would sell drawings to tourists on a basketball court, his father recalls. At the time, the budding artist would offer his postcard-sized pieces for a couple of dollars. More than 25 years after his death, Christie’s auctions have vaulted the price of his paintings to more than US$48 million.


The Art Market

Una de las obras conjuntas de Basquiat & Warhol, Ailing Ali in Fight of Life, 1984. Arriba, Jean Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait, 1984.

One of the collaborations from Basquiat and Warhol: Ailing Ali in Fight of Life (1984

PHOTO: ©Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York


As he gradually established himself in Manhattan’s intense cultural scene in the early 1980s – full of clubs, exclusive galleries, drugs and parties populated by the likes of Debbie Harry, David Byrne, Keith Haring and Madonna (who he dated for a time) – Basquiat left his mark throughout the city. Doors, discarded materials, walls…anything could become his canvas. He lived day-to-day, eating junk food, always in search of a place to crash for the night, whether with friends or someone he had just met.

Basquiat held his first solo exhibition in 1982, a year that overlapped with an 18-month period during which he produced what critics consider to be the bulk of his most important work. His art was filled with biblical and anatomical motifs, images of warriors, wrestlers, kings, legends and parasites, all grappling with profound, universal themes.


  • Basquiat’s works sell for as much as US$48 million but also adorn t-shirts meant for mass consumption.

PHOTOS: ©Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York


The pressures of the art market, the attention of the media and new collectors, and the intense emotions provoked by this recognition were overwhelming for Basquiat, who by 1985 had exhibitions in Zurich, Edinburgh and Los Angeles. When Basquiat’s work made the cover of the influential New York Times Magazine, Andy Warhol himself celebrated the triumph by taking a bunch of the magazines to the artist’s father, Gerard Basquiat, on the Sunday the feature was published. The 24-year-old prodigy had formed a strange, symbiotic relationship with the much-older icon of pop art.

The prolific, young artist’s light shone brightly and briefly, extinguished by an overdose in 1988, when he was 27. In less than a decade, however, Basquiat had produced 3,000 pieces.


The Poet & the Crown

Exhibition Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat in New York poster 19 octobre 1985 boxing gloves pop art graphics

FOTO: Getty images
Basquiat’s work dedicates a fundamental space to text and symbols. By writing, superimposing images and painting over parts, he left the mark of editing and constructed blocks of content. His early graffiti using the tag SAMO (standing for “Same Old Shit”) and the copyright marks in his paintings are an integral part of his signature graphic style.

Basquiat, The Unknown Notebooks celebrates the verbal component of the artist. The show, which opened in the Brooklyn Museum this April and runs through August, is complemented by a book of the same name, published by Rizzoli, which collects Basquiat’s thoughts on his early experiences and what he saw during the days of savage economic speculation, the industrialization of fashion and the culture of consumption in which he decided to become an artist.

Warhol and Basquiat created a series of collaborative works that combined their respective pop imagery and neo-expressionism.


Now’s the Time, another show of Basquiat’s work, debuted at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and will be on display at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao through November 2015. This exhibition links Basquiat’s art with his surrounding influences, including the friends who painted graffiti with him, the New York public transportation system, Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci and Andy Warhol. The original exhibition in Toronto included audio loops of Martin Luther King, a curatorial decision that was not well received by critics. In Bilbao, the accompaniment to Now’s the Time is limited to the bebop saxophone of Charlie Parker, another young victim of an explosive career, who Basquiat crowned in the piece Charles the First. As the verse featured in the painting reads: “Most Young Kings / Get Thier Head Cut Off”, strike-through and misspelling included. in

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