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).