Jean-Michel Basquiat was already well-known in the SoHo art world and downtown club scene as a member of the graffiti art collective called SAMO, but his first show at Mary Boone in 1984 marked his arrival as A-list artist whose sought-after paintings commanded high prices.
Basquiat’s work was immediately and warmly received by dealers, critics, and collectors because it was imbued with the conventions of high modernism to the same degree it was informed by the street. His middle-class family had encouraged his talents and supported his art education so that when he began spray painting walls in lower Manhattan, he was already self-conscious about the place his medium and style occupied within a tradition. Basquiat’s dual-citizenship in both the street and the gallery and his fluency in the visual languages of both high and low art, effectively neutralized charges of dilettantism and of selling out.
Although Basquiat ceased to be a graffiti artist when SAMO disbanded in 1981, the iconography and graphic style of street art were carried over to his studio art. More importantly, the ability to address the public directly through language and image, in an improvised, rhetorical manner allowed Basquiat to present politically-charged content with a low-key confidence and authority honed by practice. The 1980s were notorious for the proliferation of unenlightening politicized art and for ugly racial confrontations, yet Basquiat’s work was able to speak persuasively and compellingly to major historical and cultural issues like the legacy of slavery, racial inequality and identity politics not because he was a man of color (an essentialist fallacy that marred much of the political art made by his contemporaries), but because he had five years of experience in public speaking before he began making politically-charged art.
Understanding the rhetorical nature of Basquiat’s art helps to explain why his collaborations with mentor (and landlord) Andy Warhol were not successful. Warhol’s impersonal use of found and reproduced imagery derived its power not from addressing the public from a position outside of it with the intent to persuade, but by appropriating the imagery and passive point of view of that public for ironic and subversive purposes. Next to Basquiat’s discursive engagement and bravura painterly style, Warhol’s contributions seemed anemic and evasive.
Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in New York City on 12 August 1988, at the age of 28. On 13 May 2013, Basquiat’s Dustheads (1982) was sold at a Christie’s auction for a record $48.8 million.
ART OF THE 1980s