Jean-Michel Basquiat is without a doubt one of the most pivotal American artists of the modern era. During his short life, he transformed from graffiti artist to world-wide rockstar, captivating the art world and leaving behind an impressive legacy.
I was familiar with Basquiat’s vibrant paintings, but I didn’t know much about the young man behind the art. So I watched American Masters' film Basquiat: Rage to Riches, which explores Basquiat’s journey from artistic and ambitious genius to mythical icon.
Here are ten things I learned watching the film.
1. His fascination with anatomy started as a child.
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street. During his recovery in the hospital, his mom gave him the classic medical book Gray’s Anatomy, hoping he could learn about what happened to his body. The book influenced Basquiat’s work for the rest of his life, as he frequently painted disfigured bodies and skulls.
2. He never went to art school.
Basquiat was self-taught and learned everything growing up in the “creative paradise” that was New York City. His mom took him and his siblings to museums all over the city, and, “he had something burning inside of him,” according to his sister. “I never went to an art school,” Basquiat said in the film. “I failed the art courses that I did take. I just looked at a lot of things — that’s where I learned about art, by looking at it.”
3. As part of SAMO, he expressed his early creativity through graffiti.
Basquiat left his mark all over New York — literally — as SAMO, the enigmatic graffiti collaboration between him and artist Al Diaz. SAMO, slang for “same old,” wrote mysterious and philosophical phrases all over the un-gentrified neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan.
4. Basquiat sold work to Andy Warhol before he was famous.
Long before his work sold for millions of dollars, Basquiat was an artist hustling to make ends meet. One day in the 1970s, he was walking down the street in New York when he spotted Andy Warhol in a restaurant. He walked right in and introduced himself and his work, afterwhich Warhol bought a series of his paint-splattered Xeroxes. They later became friends, collaborators and rivals.
5. He invented a “new visual language.”
Basquiat’s unique style of restructuring anatomical figures and his use of color was something the art world had never seen from such a young artist: “His work reflected a deep understanding of avant-garde writing and poetry,” said art curator Jeffrey Deitch. A clip in the film shows Basquiat being asked about his own work: “I never know how to describe it. It’s like asking Miles, how does your horn sound? It’s sort of on automatic most of the time.”
6. He was heavily influenced by music, especially jazz and hip-hop.
In the film, Basquiat’s sisters said their father played music constantly at home of all genres: jazz, classical, and disco. Music influenced him through his whole life, with Basquiat saying in the film that he constantly listened to music while he worked, which he incorporated into his paintings. When he formed his own experimental rock band with some friends, he named it Gray, after Gray’s Anatomy.
7. At a young age, he achieved massive success that enchanted the art world in the 1980s.
The first painting Basquiat ever sold was to Debbie Harry of Blondie for $200. By the age of 21, he was jetting off to California for a solo gallery show, and then greeted like a rock star with shows all around the world. He was in high demand, and between the years of 1981 and 1982 he produced 250 paintings and 500 drawings, often working on several paintings at one time. He started to struggle with the idea that his art was a commodity.
8. Despite his success, racial resentment took a toll on him.
In the film, Basquiat’s sister Lisane said, “it was important to Jean-Michel that he be known as a great artist, not just a Black artist.” Critics often stereotyped his work and used offensive terms like “primitive” to describe it. “He had this fear that he wasn’t really allowed ‘in’ because it was a mostly white, affluent world,” his friend Suzanne Mallouk said about how the art world received him.
9. The killing of a Black man by police rattled Basquiat and influenced his later work.
In 1983, artist Michael Stewart was beaten to death by New York City Transit police after being caught drawing graffiti on a subway station. “He [Basquiat] was terrified that it could have been him,” Mallouk said in the film. After the killing, Basquiat painted Defacement to call attention to police brutality. “The many paintings you see that give you skull and bones and anatomy, they’re very much about the symbolic gutting of Black men in American society,” musician Greg Tate said.
10. After his death at age 27, his work became mythical.
Like many artists at the time, Basquiat turned to drugs to handle the pressures of his success and the souring of his friendship with Andy Warhol. After his tragic overdose at 27, art collectors clamored to own his paintings, which took on a mythical quality. In 2017, he shattered records when one of his skull paintings sold for more than $100 million.
Basquiat: Rage to Riches airs on Sunday, September 13th at 5pm on WGBH2. Stream it nowwith GBH Passport.