Awesome Men Throughout History: Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s story is a familiar one in our culture; a brilliant artist who self-destructs and dies young. In his specific case, he died of a heroin overdose at 27, and only spent eight years as a proper working artist.
I’m not here to romanticize his lifestyle or the way it ended, because it’s just sad. What I am here to do, however, is give Basquiat his propers as an Awesome Man Throughout History.
Basquiat grew up in New York City, and was kicked out of his house by his father after dropping out of high school; his mother, who supported his artistic leanings, had been institutionalized when he was 11. Left to fend for himself, Basquiat sold t-shirts and homemade postcards and fell into New York’s then-vibrant graffiti/street art scene, which was a mixture of early hip hop, punk rock, and misfits like him.
Basquiat’s official career genesis is one that the art world salivates over and tries to replicate whenever possible; he didn’t go to art school, came up from the streets as a graffiti artist whose work was really weird and good, and hustled his way into making connections beyond that. Andy Warhol loved the guy. He was in Blondie’s “Rapture” video. He used found objects as canvases and painted almost compulsively, with an apparently joy that was evident in every brush stroke. He collaborated with David Bowie and made art in Armani suits that he would wear around town after they’d been splattered with paint.
Dude had serious swag.
Plus, his paintings were awesome. They had the sense of urgency (and the incorporated wordplay) that legit graffiti murals have, but they were primitive in a way that made them easy to understand, and also made the viewer want to understand them. Wealth/poverty and race relations were common themes in his work, but never to the point of being boring or preachy, which can also be credited to his aesthetics.
Not only was Basquiat’s work gritty and cool-looking, he had a real knack for composition, so it was always easy to follow – as fun and eye-catching as pure graffiti is, it’s often very busy and hard to look at for long periods of time.
Unfortunately, Basquiat also liked drugs, and once the art world fell in love with him, there were suddenly plenty of people around to feed his vices. I wonder what would have happened if he’d cleaned up. How much more could he have done? What else could he have contributed toward the social change he wanted? For a guy who loved creating art that much to die so young is just heart-rending.
I’ll leave you with this documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat; it’s an hour and a half long, but totally worth your time. Look up some of his work, too. You won’t be disappointed.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.