Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother in Brooklyn, New York City. An American Neo-Expressionist artist whose work crossed over from its street art origins to the international gallery circuit, Basquiat was exceptionally gifted as a child. Quickly identifying him as a talented artist, his mother regularly took him to art museums, enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Starting at Saint Ann’s – an exclusive, arts-oriented private school in Brooklyn – he created a fully illustrated children’s book at the age of seven, at the same time as being a successful school athlete and becoming fluent in Spanish and French.
In September 1968, aged eight, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street. To occupy him while he recuperated, his mother gave him the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy, images from which later proved influential in his work. In 1973 his mother was committed to a mental institution. Three years later Basquiat dropped out of high school and started attending City-As-School – an alternative school for creative students who had failed in more conventional environments. As a consequence, his father banished him from the household and Basquiat lived with friends in Brooklyn, supporting himself by selling T-shirts and homemade post cards.
In 1976, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz began spraying satirical epigrams on buildings around the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Over the next few years SAMO – short for ‘same old’ – came to symbolise the coalescence of hip hop, post-punk and street art in New York City. In December 1978 The Village Voice published an article on New York’s graffiti scene and by 1979 the duo was finished – signing off with the inscription ‘SAMO IS DEAD’.
Through the early 1980s Basquiat became one of the most celebrated as well as most commercially exploited painters of his generation. In 1981 René Ricard published The Radiant Child, an essay in Artforum which brought Basquiat to the attention of the wider world. In 1982 Basquiat started work in a studio space built by Larry Gagosian at the gallery owner’s home in Venice Beach. There Basquiat commenced a series of paintings for a 1983 show – his second for Gagosian – accompanied by his girlfriend, an unknown singer called Madonna. Over the next few years Basquiat collaborated with both David Bowie and Andy Warhol. In August 1988, aged just twenty-seven, he died of a heroin overdose. On 18th May 2017 Untitled – a 1982 work in oil stick, acrylic and spray paint depicting a crazed face shaped as a skull – sold for over $110m.