By Christine Snyder

This week’s black artist spotlight in honor of Black History Month features Jean Michel-Basquiat.  Summarizing the life and work of Basquiat is no easy task.  I’m not usually at a loss for words when writing, but capturing the essence of this man and artist had me wondering if I was attempting too ambitious of a goal.  This is a man who was known as the “Radiant Child,” spoke three languages fluently, created a painting that sold for $110.5 million (the highest amount ever paid for American art at auction), experienced tragedy and homelessness and went on to become a cultural icon, and whose work is still inspiring famous artists of today like Banksy and Jay-Z.  I am equally captivated by his art and prestige as I am sorrowful of the fact that his life was cut so short.  There are books, articles, documentaries and a feature film that attempt to convey the depth of Basquiat’s talent and electrifying impact, so please use this post as only the starting point of your Basquiat enlightenment!

Although Jean-Michel was recognized early in life to be gifted, his childhood was marred with tragedy.  Sadly, his mother suffered from serious mental health issues, and she spent much of Basquiat’s early years in and out of hospitals.  Jean-Michel and his siblings were primarily raised by their father, who was accused of being abusive.  When Jean-Michel was eight, he got hit by a car and was hospitalized.  His mother, who was also responsible for introducing him to art museums and drawing, brought him an anatomy book to help pass the time while he recovered.  This was when his fascination with the human body–which later showed up in his work–was formed.  At age 17, Basquiat’s art career officially started when New York City became the canvas for his street art.  He dropped out of his school for gifted students, ran away from home, and supported himself by selling his hand-painted art. 

His life from this point was a whirlwind of activity.  To summarize, Jean-Michel befriended famous artists such as Andy Warhol, dated Madonna, graced the covers of magazines and television screens, became internationally known, and essentially epitomized the New York City art scene of the 1980s–all while creating a body of work that would make Picasso and Michelangelo green with envy.  Did I mention that he did this all by the age of 27?

One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by Basquiat is that his art is just so beautiful.  His use of line, color, texture, and text gives his works so much depth and almost guarantees that every time you look at his work, you will see something you never noticed before.  His art was not only beautiful but extremely conceptual.  He explored race, the human body, identity, mortality, religion, social justice issues, heritage, and art history.  Self-taught Basquiat’s paintings are displayed at the world’s most famous art museums and sell for tens of millions of dollars. 

The thing I love most about Basquiat’s art is that it’s chaotic, but not in an overwhelming way.  It’s chaotic in an exciting way, and it inspires me to want to create.   I hope that reading this has inspired you to explore his art more and appreciate his contributions to American culture.  He is truly transcendent.  

ST. MORITZ, SWITZERLAND – 1983: Artist Jean-Michel paints in 1983 in St. Moritz, Switzerland. (Photo by Lee Jaffe/Getty Images)

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