A vivid biography of the meteoric rise and tragic death of art star Jean-Michel Basquiat
Painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was the Jimi Hendrix of the art world. In less than a decade, he went from being a teenage graffiti artist to an international art star; he was dead of a drug overdose at age twenty-seven. Basquiat’s brief career spanned the giddy 1980s art boom and epitomized its outrageous excess. A legend in his own lifetime, Basquiat was a fixture of the downtown scene, a wild nexus of music, fashion, art, and drugs. Along the way, the artist got involved with many of the period’s most celebrated personalities, from his friendships with Keith Haring and Andy Warhol to his brief romantic fling with Madonna.
Nearly thirty years after his death, Basquiat’s story — and his art — continue to resonate and inspire. Posthumously, Basquiat is more successful than ever, with international retrospectives, critical acclaim, and multimillion dollar sales. Widely considered to be a major twentieth-century artist, Basquiat’s work has permeated the culture, from hip-hop shout-outs to a plethora of products. A definitive biography of this charismatic figure, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art is as much a portrait of the era as a portrait of the artist; an incisive exposé of the eighties art market that paints a vivid picture of the rise and fall of the graffiti movement, the East Village art scene, and the art galleries and auction houses that fueled his meteoric career. Basquiat resurrects both the painter and his time.
They flooded into New York from all over the country in the middle to late 1970s, a new generation of would-be rock stars, artists, dancers, and actors. It was still possible to find cheap apartments in Alphabet City and lower Manhattan. There were few homeless. AIDS didn’t exist. The city was an urban frontier, theirs for the taking. Before long, influenced by the Punk movement in England, wildly coiffed young people with multicolored Mohawks and safety-pinned clothes seemed to have taken over the East Village — then still a scary neighborhood full of shooting galleries. CBGB’s on the Bowery became a mecca for the new bands: the Ramones, Television, the Talking Heads. Punk-rock boutiques began popping up around St. Mark’s Place.
A new Bohemia was in the making, a wild nexus of music, fashion, and art that created a distinctive downtown aesthetic. Punk and the subsequent New Wave movements that quickly took over were a welcome antidote to the sterile Conceptual and Minimalist art that had numbed the art scene during the post-Pop decade, boring both critics and collectors. Even slam-dancing was preferable to the mindless throb of Saturday Night Fever music pulsing in the discos.
Like the sixties, this was a multimedia event, amplified by an English invasion of fashion and music that crisscrossed the Atlantic and was transmuted in Manhattan. It had its drugs of choice; instead of getting stoned on marijuana, speeding on amphetamines, or tripping on LSD, people snorted coke the way the stars in Godard films sucked on cigarettes, or got into cool, strung out heroin. The Sex Pistols replaced the Beatles; cute Paul McCartney became decadent Johnny Rotten, dressed in torn, black rags instead of psychedelic tie-dye. Johnny Rotten gave way to the robotic Devo and Klaus Nomi and the jubilant B-52’s.
But there was another, more profound difference. Unlike the sixties, the new cultural movement had no real ideology, no revolution at its core. It was as if the veiled commercialism of such historic sold-out events as the rock musical Hair or Woodstock had been stripped of any pretext of politics. No one raised an eyebrow when ex-radical and Chicago 7 kingpin Jerry Rubin became a stockbroker and began to throw networking parties at the Underground.
There was also no generation gap: from the start, adults began to exploit the obvious possibilities. The late seventies paved the way for the eighties, which celebrated the materialism the sixties had rebelled against. New Wave everything from fashion to graphics was soon inundating Madison Avenue. Fiorucci, on Fifty-seventh Street, became the first uptown boutique to combine the new fashion, music, and art. And anything and everything was considered art.
Perhaps the most blatant exploitation by uptown of the downtown art scene was the marketing of the graffiti movement, which galvanized the art world in the late seventies and was completely passé by 1983. For a brief moment the inner-city artists, whose work had been followed for years by transit cops, not critics, were the darlings of Fifty-seventh Street and SoHo. But the “limousine liberals” — upscale dealers and pseudo radical collectors — soon got bored with baby-sitting and found some new neo movement to market.
Real estate played a major role in the new Bohemia and its shifting boundaries; as one area became gentrified, artists migrated to the next new place. At this point, SoHo, the industrial area south of Houston Street, was still full of textile outlets, floor-sanding companies, and riveters — and lofts that artists could live in under the Artist in Residence (A.I.R.) rental regulations. There were few, if any, residential amenities — Dean and DeLuca was just a tiny little gourmet store. And despite the growing artist population, by Fifty-seventh Street gallery standards, the neighborhood was still practically the Wild West. But by 1979, when Julian Schnabel, one of the first Neo-Expressionist art stars, had his first show at the Mary Boone Gallery on West Broadway, the cross-pollination between the East Village and SoHo was in full bloom. Within the next few years, SoHo would evolve into the Madison Avenue of the downtown scene.
By the end of the seventies, a whole group of downtown clubs had sprung up — from the Mudd Club on White Street in TriBeCa to Club 57 on St. Mark’s Place, to Danceteria on Twenty-third Street, raunchy parodies of the fabulous Studio 54 where Warhol and his celebrity cronies — Bianca and Halston and Calvin and Brooke — were hanging out, with one big difference. People didn’t just dance and do drugs and hob-nob in these clubs: they were venues for performance art, underground films, New Wave music. The Talking Heads — art students turned musicians — were paradigmatic of the scene. Artists were mixing up their media; music, film, painting, and fashion were recombining in innovative ways. From fashion to music, television was a central reference point for this burgeoning baby-boomer culture.
By early 1979, Jean-Michel Basquiat had established himself as an artistic persona: SAMO, the author of cryptic sayings scrawled on public spaces all over Manhattan — including, strategically, near SoHo’s newest galleries. It was the beginning of his art career, and it segued neatly with the “discovery” of graffiti. At the time, it was convenient, but Basquiat had no intention of being lumped into a category with a bunch of kids who bombed trains. In fact, Basquiat was not a true graffiti artist; he didn’t work up through the ranks as a “toy,” earning the right to leave his tag on certain turf, and he never drew on subways; certainly the stars of Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn’s graffiti film of the time, didn’t consider Basquiat a real member of their group. Ultimately, Basquiat would be the only black artist to survive the graffiti label, and find a permanent place as a black painter in a white art world.