agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 4 minutes

Thirty years since his untimely death, interest in Jean-Michel Basquiat is soaring. Major exhibitions in London and Paris in the last couple of years have brought the late artist’s work to a new generation, while demand among art collectors is insatiable. Research from Artnet attributes 77% of all auction sales for African-American artists over the last decade to Basquiat, whose untitled skull painting fetched a record $110.5 million at auction in 2017. So what is it about his work that resonates today?

Much of what is written about the man and his art focuses on its context, that of New York in the 80s. Back then, the city was in ruins. The young artist’s frequent trips to the museum would pass by derelict buildings, piles of overflowing garbage and junkies shooting up in broad daylight. Basquiat embedded himself in this urban dystopia as one half of SAMO©, a mysterious entity that penned short, provocative phrases around the streets of downtown Manhattan. His hastily applied scribbles asked questions about values, exposing a society rife with contradictions marked by economic and racial tensions. Just as intrigue grew amongst New York’s art elite, Basquiat swiftly killed it off declaring; “SAMO© IS DEAD”.

But let’s pull away from this scene for a second, from 80s New York, struggling to drag itself out of the gutter and away from the brink of bankruptcy. No doubt this specific context coloured his art and affected his process, but it could also not be more relevant to the present day.

When asked why he covered subway cars with subversive messages, he responded “in order to become famous”. Later, once he’d established himself as a successful painter, he continued to seek notoriety, turning up to parties in paint-splattered Armani suits and appearing on the cover of the New York Times Magazine bare foot. He actively pursued Andy Warhol, spotting him through the window of a restaurant and going in to introduce himself (managing to sell him some drawings that day too). The pair went on to form an unlikely alliance that many close friends believe was based, at least in part, on the mutual benefits they brought each other. In many ways, his search for fame and recognition mirrors that of the thousands of insta-hopefuls who pepper our feeds today. But while most are likely to be forgotten in the constant content churn, Basquiat’s legacy is only getting stronger.

He absorbed an incredibly wide range of influences, which fused together to create a new visual language based on perspective and colour. Having never studied it, Basquiat said he learnt about art “by looking at it”. Together with Fab 5 Freddy he would pretend to be an art student, toting a sketchbook around the Met and looking at paintings by Caravaggio and Picasso. He was fascinated by the former’s chiaroscuro technique – the treatment of light and dark – as well as the latter’s borrowing of African influences to deconstruct a subject.

But he also turned his gaze outside of the art history canon to arrive at these new forms of self-expression. The cut-up technique employed by Beat Generation writer William Burroughs influenced his use of words and text on canvas. Hip hop opened his eyes to new forms of creation, which he folded into his work with a new energy. The experimental quality of jazz inspired him to try new things, soundtracking his studio sessions as he moved from canvas to canvas, working on several pieces at once in a spellbinding choreographic sequence. His wide lens allowed him to craft a unique and impactful style that was unparalleled in its originality.

Perhaps the biggest key to his success was that he was incredibly prolific. He was very productive, working all day every day in his studio. Even before he secured gallery representation, he would paint on doors that had been ripped off their hinges and thrown out on the street when he couldn’t afford canvas. He had an innate need to create, driven by his unrelenting curiosity and revolutionary intentions.

So what can we learn from Basquiat today? That widening our gaze beyond traditional sources of inspiration can lead to unexpected discoveries, while spending time really “looking at art” is not the same as scrolling through it. That the importance of showing up for your art every day cannot be underestimated. And that challenging the status quo by exposing society’s ills is just as relevant today as it was thirty years ago.

As put in a recent Dazed piece about previously unseen photos of Basquiat posing in head to toe Issey Miyake in Tokyo in the 80s; “In a contemporary internet world of oversharing, the fact that unknown Basquiat images are still resurfacing thirty years later is a testament to the artist’s powerful and ever-lasting presence in modern art.”

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