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Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960, the son of a middle-class accountant from Haiti and a mother of Puerto Rican descent. He began drawing at an early age, inspired and helped by his mother, who also took him on frequent visits to the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. In 1968 he was hospitalized for a month after being hit by a car and one of the presents his mother brought him was copy of Gray‘s Anatomy, which was to have a lasting influence on his work.
Basquiats parents divorced the same year, and in 1974 the father moved his his children to Puerto Rico. Back in New York in 1976, Jean-Michel was sent to City-as-School, a progressive school designed for gifted children with learning difficulties. Here he met Al Diaz, a participant in the burgeoning teenage graffiti movement in New York, and the two became close friends and collaborators. The two became ring-leaders in the graffiti movement . Basquiat created a fictional alter ego called SAMO (Same Old Shit), the prophet of a fake religion.
His school attendance came to an abrupt and final end in June 1977 after dumping a box full of shaving cream on the principal‘s head during graduation ceremonies. A year later, he left home for good and being attracted by the worlds of pop music, art and film, became a conspicuous figure in the burgeoning club scene, especially the East Village Mudd Club. He continued to created graffiti under the SAMO pseudonym until he and Diaz broke up.
In 1979 he formed his own band but continued to produce postcards and T-shirts as well as drawings and collages which he sold in Washington Square Park, in the SoHo gallery district and in front of the MoMA. He exhibited publicly for the first time at the Times Square Show, and the notice attracted by his work led to his decision to leave his band and become a full-time artist. By this time, he was introduced to Warhol, who was however very reserved.
The Times Square Show was followed by a series of survey shows featuring New York Art. Basquiat however attracted more attention from the European art dealers than from Americans. In May 1981 he had his first solo exhibition at the Galleria d‘Arte Emilio Mazzola in Modena, Italy. Shortly after this, Annina Nosei, an Italian with a gallery in New York, became his principal dealer. His American breakthrough came with an enthusiastic article in Artforum magazine.
After that, Basquiat was included in important international exhibitions such as Transavantguardia: Italia/America in March 1982, a show curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, where he was seen with some established artists of the Neo-Expressionist movement, among them Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi from Italy and David Salle and Julian Schnabel from the US. In June 1982 he was the youngest of the artists invited to participate in documenta 7. In 1983 Basquiat was included in The Whitney Biennial. By then, his relationship with Warhol began to blossom, he moved into a studio rented from Warhol and became the latter‘s escort to parties and openings. They travelled to Europe and at the end of the year, Basquiat, Warhol and Clemente began work on a series of collaborative works initiated by Bruno Bischofberger his longest and most stable dealer relationship.
Warhol‘s death in 1987 had a devasting effect on Basquiat. Despite continuing drug abuse, Basquiat still produced great quantities of works. In the first months of 1988 he had shows in New York, Paris and Düsseldorf. On August 17 of that year he died of a massive drug overdose.
Excerpt of „Jean-Michel Basquiat” published iin „Lives of the great 20th Century Artists” (Edward Lucie-Smith, Thames and Hudson 1999, London)