I love Jean Michel Basquiat so much. I live in a time where that’s cliche to say because of how popular he is and how his paintings sell for trillions of dollars at Sothebys, but his work just means so much to me personally. I saw a few pieces of his for the first time in person 2 months ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario and as a person who’s been obsessed with his work since I was 13, I had a mark out moment, I almost passed out like those people getting MKUltra’d at Michael Jackson concerts.
Basquiat's art is loud, it's aggressive, it’s bold and it’s very stream of consciousness. There’s a sense of deliberation, and a clear ability and technical proficiency, but a revolutionary carelessness, like he’s challenging the audience, you’ll accept what I give you. Basquiat was intent on living the aristocratic life, that as a descendant of slaves, he knew was a birthright he’s been deprived of, and he used his canvas to crown other kings he saw himself in.
His freeform dreads, his loose fitting yet expensive cardigans and armani suits covered in paint, how he would paint on boxes, walls, doors, televisions & books. Jean Michel was dedicated to being unconstrained in any capacity, as long as he wasn’t hurting you, he could do whatever he wanted, and he meant that. After literally achieving his childhood dreams as a child, Basquiat saw himself as a revolutionary warrior like Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian leader of the slave rebellion Jean often depicted in his art. Jean used his signature crown as his knighting sword, and his art as his external hard drive.
Basquiat is revolutionary to me because of how he lived his life, which was reflected in his art. Jean Michel is admired by musicians because he’s a rockstar of art, he’s like the Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix of art. He’s actually one of the only non-musicians that’s renowned for being in the 27 club with Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix. After dying from a heroin overdose and reaching unparalleled levels of fame as a painter at only 27 years old, his name and work has only risen to new heights with each passing year.
I’ve studied this person for many years and I can honestly say, Jean Michel was a person seeking freedom in its truest sense, and like many people seeking freedom he tragically took a fatal path at a young age, but he was still a genius, and I don’t use that term lightly.
Each brush stroke meant so much yet nothing at all, the work looked hurried but the concepts were deep and meaningful, like he spent a lot of time in contemplation before being struck by something to put it down on a canvas. I think his commercial success, his fame and the perception of him as a “black artist” have actually demeaned what his work has meant to the culture and how groundbreaking of an artist he truly was.
As a 24 year old Black first generation immigrant artist with free form dreads in a metropolitan city that is degrading by the day and is being referred to as new york in the 80s, with inflation, rising crime, and a degrading infrastructure, I already relate to Basquiat on so many levels, but the genius in his work was his ability to capture my current 21st century multimedia perspective back in the 20th Century. That is the thing Basquiat doesn’t really get the credit for.
Everyone always talks about Basquiat's influence in terms of how rappers have shouted him out or how he ushered in a new language for painting stylistically with his neo expressionism, but people leave out that he was the first internet multimedia kid before the internet.
Basquiat's art was reconciling analogous patterns & reconciling adversarial patternings, he was sampling from the world like a hip hop artist, he produced an album while taking over painting, walking in Commes Des Garcon fashion shows, appearing on MTV commercials & dating Madonna. His art was revolutionary without always needing to have a message, he just conveyed a feeling, all of these things that are happening simultaneously, police sirens, crime and violence, rap music, graffiti artists bombing the torn down city with awe inspiring colours but not being accepted by the snobby art galleries, jazz, punk rock, house music, all of it is expressed in his work.
Basquiat was a musician, actor, painter, photographer, he would paint with music on, while skimming books and watching TV, he was dedicated to absorbing and capturing as much information as he possibly could. We currently live in the information age due to the internet, the internet didn’t really become mainstream to the public until the 90s and we still have no idea what it really is, we just know it's much easier to gather, store and share information now, which is exactly what Basquiat was doing.
His Samo graffiti tags were memes, nonsensical & subversive groupings of words that would leave people shocked. His paintings were Tumblr profiles where he combined aesthetics he admired through different mediums of information that Steve Jobs' technology would eventually transform into one device a few decades later. This man would have thrived with an iPhone but he already lived like an iPhone, his work depicted his favourite cartoons, musicians, music, albums, films, his favourite comic books, his work is more comparable to a photo dump on finsta than anything Da Vinci was doing, and that’s part of his brilliance. The idea of being ahead of your time is that the world needs to catch up to you, the invention and growth of the internet was just building how Basquiat already saw the world.
We don’t know where the internet will be, what it is, or what it’s doing to us, we just know it will become more integrated into our lives everyday, and Jean Michels work will only continue to grow & evolve as time progresses with AI & the metaverse.
Even though Jean Michel had been going to art galleries and museums his entire life, he was still a self taught street artist and he was flung to fame and fortune, and scrutiny, as the first and only person of his kind, racially and in terms of actual talent, with expectations nobody could maintain, that he had of himself and that the world had of him, all that pressure, along with shady art people and a disconnect from a grounding base as he grew more paranoid, isolated and reclusive, it ultimately led to his untimely demise.
Basquiat was ahead of everyone creatively and that's an understatement, Warhol got next to him because he saw that this kid was a generational talent, in a way not many other artists have ever been. From just being plain racist, to genuinely not understanding how progressive Jean Michels art really was, many critics just didn't understand Basquiat during his time and that ate at him. They did everything to belittle his work and attribute his success to Warhol even though, as a person who has studied both artists respectively, it's very clear that Jean Michel was light years ahead of Andy, and like a proud father passing the baton over to his son, Andy knew it.
Jean Michel was a revolutionary creative genius, his work was political in that he was proof that the political is personal. It's easy to be an artist closed off in your cave, eat at fancy restaurants eating caviar, wearing armani suits, hanging out with pretty girls and getting paid ridiculous amounts to do silly stuff you would do anyway like photography, poetry, paintings, and djing parties, right after you were just a homeless kid, you can easily get disconnected from reality and if you study his life enough he definitely had his fun, but then things happen like when Basquiat's close friend and graffiti artist was murdered by the police. That led to a piece titled defacement of cops beating up his friend to death, it’s not a statement as much of an honest portrayal of an experience. Basquiat's close friends say he was shaken and said that could have easily been him, because it could have.
Last week a girl my age was stabbed in the face on a streetcar I take everyday, and her blood stained the doors I walk through, this was one of 50 random acts of violence on public transit, on routes I take very often. This everpresent looming threat of violence in urban environments is present in Basquiats work, his work while gritty is often simultaneously inspirational, he depicts people like boxers to show violence being overcome, or at the very least managed tactfully.
He’s living under that level of turbulence and antagony from his society, he just escaped poverty, but everyone else is still broke, he’s receiving all this new information that comes from being exposed when you’re wealthy, all the information that comes from living in the streets, all the information that comes from absorbing culture, all the information that comes from creating culture, all the information that comes from taking drugs like LSD. He was just a homeless kid on drugs in New York City, then he was a rich kid on drugs in New York City, but despite being a legitimate genius, he was still a kid on drugs running away from the very real problems he faced in the world, and it caught up to him.
There’s so many places in Basquiat's life where I wish someone would have intervened for my own selfish reasons. I really would have loved to have seen what he would have been making today because the world is finally built for how he saw it. AI art has stored all of his art and is recreating various remakes and remixes of his work everyday, he’s undoubtedly one of the most influential people in visuals from his influence in painting, to people using his work on fashion and various products, his work is almost inescapable in the modern world. Me, Jay Z & The Weeknd have had our hair styled like him, he’s inspired how I paint and just my general approach to creativity on so many levels, artists like Slawn, Zelooper, PoorTeffy, Banksy, XXXTentacion, The Weeknd, Jay Z, Ye and many other artists wouldn’t exist how we know them if Basquiat never existed. This man was just the goat. His work is timeless, he was ahead of his time and his work, influence and legend will only continue to grow with time.
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