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  • Russ Ramsey

Getting to Know Jean-Michel Basquiat

Today’s Art Wednesday focuses on the work of the young, tragic pop artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat—born to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. He was an important part of the art world in New York during the time of Andy Warhol. All of today’s works were done in his early 20’s.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Portrait


As a child of the 70’s growing up in New York, Basquiat’s heroes were pop stars—Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker, Andy Warhol, Picasso, and David Bowie. Five of his key works were produced in an 18-month period, including “Untitled (Head)” 1981 The other four are also in this series.

Basquiat, Untitled (Head), 1981


This is Basquiat’s first substantial work tackling a narrative as his subject matter—an individual black male between a coiled snake and a dead cow—a look at mortality of living between threat (the snake) and decomposition (the bovine skeleton).

Basquiat, Acque Pericolose, 1981


Here Basquiat’s single black male appears again—painted just months after Acque Pericolose. The painter is finding his narrative voice, building a character, and exploring the planes of his composition, infusing them with commentary about politics, social struggle, and mortality.

Basquiat, Per Capita, 1981


Basquiat’s “Warrior” sold for $41,800,000 at a Christie’s Auction in Hong Kong in March 2021—the most money ever spent on Western art in an Asian auction. Basquiat said he felt 1982 was his best year as an artist. This particular painting traveled the world, being shown in Tokyo, Paris, Vienna, and Milan.

Basquiat, Warrior, 1982


Notice the narrative progress Basquiat has made here in comparison “Acque Pericolose.” He is using Greek, Roman, and African symbols, writing, machines, and images of human beings to tell a story. He is also mastering the use of layers.

Basquiat, Notary, 1983


Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker, “He was famous in the art world by the beginning of 1982, and rich soon afterward. Drugs, drink, sex, and bad behavior briefly fueled, then devastated, his genius. He died of a drug overdose in 1988—“tragically,” it says in a wall text at the show which a friend of mine testifies to having misread, at first glance, as “traditionally.” Indeed, Basquiat’s life and career adhered to a classical (in our day, tabloid) trajectory of rise, fall, and doom, though with an unusually sunny epilogue.”

Basquiat, La Columba, 1983


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