Icons / September 2016

Coat Of Paint: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s penchant for painting in Armani suits may have made some sartorialists turn in their graves, but were Basquiat’s tailored overalls a point of pretension or an artistic statement?

If you’re a Londoner, you’re lucky, because the city which nine million people call home has hosted some spectacular art exhibitions in recent years. The most recent addition to the big-hitting list of names is Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose exhibition Boom For Real is currently on at the Barbican. Boom For Real is a must-see as it captures everything from his experimental, playground roots as an elusive graffiti artist operating under the moniker SAMO, to his breakthrough works that featured at the New York/New Wave exhibition. There’s his intricate and minute postcard series, experiments in film and timid but intriguing interviews. Then his relatively unknown ventures into deejaying and rap, his honest and revealing primitive-esque notebooks plus his extremely well-known collaborations with his hero Andy Warhol, of course. 

It’s without doubt the greatest Basquiat exposé ever. Totally enriching and eye-opening in its expanse and depth, it's as much a celebration as it is a memoriam. Vibrant in colour yet monochromatic in its layered sadness, an unexpected, perhaps unintended ray of light that the exhibition captures sheds light on his approach to style, which we explore in the feature below. With his effortless sense of nonchalant cool, Basquiat blended louche Italian tailoring (Giorgio Armani being his favourite) with thrift shop finds. When looked at retrospectively, his choice in style says a lot about the confused, angry, sensitive and talented young man whose paint-clad, raglan-sleeve shoulders could not take the burden of stardom. Basquiat died aged 27, on 12 August, 1988. His exhibition is open till 28 January, 2018. Read on to enjoy our original feature on Basquiat, which was first published in issue 48 of The Rake. 


Where do you begin when talking about the prodigious Jean-Michel Basquiat? His enigmatic mind — a mystery that should never be solved — and the nature of his work are topics of discussion that have remained newsworthy since his untimely death, aged 27, in 1988. He has been viewed as the greatest black artist ever, though such classification is crude and unhelpful. As he once made clear, “I am not a black artist, I am an artist”. I, for one, believe he supersedes that statement. His precipitous rise to stardom inevitably prefaced his sharp downfall. Basquiat’s story is not so much about the life of the world’s first commercially successful black artist, but of the struggles and tribulations that went hand-in-hand with fame in the 1980s New York art world. From a homeless, sui generis graffiti artist in New York in the late seventies, working underneath the moniker ‘SAMO’ with his friend Al Diaz, he quickly became one of the most recognisable and respected artists in the world. Basquiat broke away from the collaboration in 1979 (marked by his sign-off ‘SAMO is dead’) to pursue his solo career.

During the late 1970s, the art world was revitalised with the birth of neo-expressionism, a style of late-modernist painting and sculpture. Basquiat, in addition to other famous artists and contemporaries, such as Julian Schnabel (who in 1996 directed the biographical film Basquiat), Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, was at the vanguard of the new movement. A necessary transition away from the movement’s minimalist, conceptual forebears and popular culture-ridden art planted the seed of its growth. Drawing upon cultural, social, political and mythical themes, delivered with the conveying tool of brash brushstrokes, neo-expressionism yielded a wealth of art that was rife with colour and vibrancy. At its forefront was the young, fame-hungry and confused Basquiat, uncertain of his role in the world, yet somehow aware of his immense talent.

In the mid 1980s, the bifurcated role of art as raw commodity and vehicle for stardom reached its zenith. Even so, when in February 1985 Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, he made art history. He was by this point a world-famous artist, and yet landing the cover of New York’s most respected title underlined his status, an unprecedented feat for an African American artist at the time. Seated in a red armchair and holding a distant stare into the camera that reflects what one imagines was an empty, confused and anguished soul, he rejects the notion of socks and shoes. It’s as if he knows a secret that no one else is aware of. Is it a mark of his genius or a sign of his melancholy? With paintbrush gripped in hand, almost poised and ready to strike, he wears a relaxed dark charcoal pinstripe suit by Giorgio Armani, a favourite brand of his (along with Comme des Garçons, for whom he walked in their spring/summer 1987 collection).

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Benedict Browne

Benedict is The Rake's Associate Style Editor.