Throughout the 1980's there was one particular artist that had the gift of translation. He
was able to take art from the street, and translate it into beautiful pieces in which could be understood in galleries. This artist was Jean-Michel Basquiat. He is most known for his rough around the edges, graphic style. This style addressed issues such as race, culture, and heritage in a provocative and loud way. His notorious street art became an icon and brought light to the Neo- expressionism era as well as empowering art as a whole. (JPMorgan Chase, Who Was Basquiat?). Paintings such as Untitled Skull were a huge part of this movement in this era of art.
Jean Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn New York, to a Haitian father, named Gerard Basquiat, and a Puerto Rican mother, named Matilde Andrades. He was the oldest of three children; both of his siblings were females, Lisanne and Jeanine. He learned to read and write by the age of four, and could do it in English, French, and Spanish by eleven. His artistic abilities were recognized at an early age by his mother and teachers. With their recognition came support and encouragement. (Bonnie Rosenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat- Biography). As a young boy Basquiat's mother would take him to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where he was enrolled as a junior member. This experience at the art museum was what exposed him to different artistic, pieces, and types of paintings. (The European Graduate School, Jean- Michel Basquiat Biography).
At eight years old Jean Michel was hit by a car. This accident brought a lot of internal injuries, causing him to stay at the hospital for an entire month. During this time, his mother bought him the book Gray's Anatomy, an English human anatomy textbook, to keep him occupied during this time. (JPMorgan Chase, Who Was Basquiat?). Shortly after his recovery from the car accident his parents separated. His mother was sent in and out of mental intuitions. Due to her instability, his father raised him and his two sisters. Together they resided in Brooklyn
until 1974 when they then moved to Puerto Rico for some time. While living in Puerto Rico Basquiat made his first attempt at running away, but failed after the police found and brought him back home to his family. (Bonnie Rosenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat Biography).
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As a young teenager Basquiat took part in the City as School program, which focused mainly on culture. Here, he met Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson. All three of them were fascinated by comics, cartoon drawings, and graffiti. Basquiat never graduated from high school. Instead, he ran away to the streets of Manhattan for a few years. During these years Basquiat, along with his new friends created a graffiti tag. They differed from other graffiti artists because instead of just writing their names, they wrote out sarcastic, funny poetic texts that received a lot of attention from the media. (Edward 49).
It was not long until the graffiti tag became famous in the area of New York. It was written about in the SoHo News, as well as the Village Voice. After his new found "fame", future famous students, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf became fans and took their own art to the streets. It was this that caused Basquiat to take his art to canvas. (The European Graduate School, Jean-Michel Biography). Unlike his friend Al Diaz, Jean Michel was more interested with art and publicity rather than graffiti and street art. Around 1980 the graffiti tag went through a transition, and Basquiat began to tag more pieces on his own. He started to draw and paint on paper and canvas. Soon after it was seen throughout the streets that the graffiti tag was officially dead. The death was a result of a fall out between the members. (JPMorgan Chase, Who Was Basquiat).
Jean Michel's early works resembled a lot of his former graffiti tag's characteristics, but as time went on they began to change. While keeping his graffiti style he incorporated much more of a painter-like edge to his works. His pieces were based on popular culture and
iconography. With his experimentation of collage and montage styles, Basquiat's career began to
really take off. (Edward 50).
During his transition from street artist to gallery artist, Basquiat was brought into a kind of fame which was common for young artists in the field of visual arts. During this newly found fame he met the "on the scene" New Yorker, Glenn O'Brien. O'Brien became an important piece for Basquiat in the downtown scene. Basquiat appeared on his show, TV Party and made repeated visits to the program over the next few years. He also starred in an independent film entitled New York Beat, which later became known as Downtown 81, as an unlucky painter who hung out on the streets of downtown in the music scene. (The European Graduate School, Jean- Michel Basquiat-Biography).
Jean Michel Basquiat was becoming a huge star in the realm of downtown artists. He started an art noise band called Gray with Shannon Dawson, Wayne Clifford, Michael Holman and Nick Taylor. None of them actually knew how to play an instrument, yet had success with the band. They formed in 1979 and began performing in all of the big downtown clubs such as CBGB's, the Mudd Club, Max's Kansas City, and Hurrah. Basquiat performed at the Times Square Show in 1980. Critics singled out his work in this performance. From this he was included in the painted exhibition New York/New Wave at the contemporary art venue in Queens, P.S.1. (Jean Michel Basquiat).
Annina Nasli took a huge interest in Basquiat and invited him into her art gallery. Her art gallery was located in SoHo, which was at that time the center of the contemporary art world. gave him his own art studio in the basement. His first viewed pieces were exhibited in a
group show held at the gallery in 1981. He had his first solo exhibition at the same gallery in the
following year in which received magnificent reviews. (Edward 50). A few months later he displayed his work in the East Village, also known as the "Fun Gallery". This show was considered to be great. His works bought him a new dealer, and grew the market of the arts. Basquiat's stardom got him "The Radiant Child", an article published in the December 1982 issue of Artforum magazine. (Bonnie Rosenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat Biography).
Jean Michel Basquiat traveled to Los Angles in order to prepare for a show at the Gragosian gallery. While there, he worked with Ramellzee to produce the album Beat Bop. He was then included in the 1983 Whitney Biennial, a mixed exhibition featuring famous artists, and moved into the Great Jones street studio loft, which he rented from Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol was a very famous American artist who created the movement of "pop art". (Edward 51). The next year he showed a group of small works at the Mary Boone Gallery, which received mixed reviews. A little later in time he began a series of collaborations with Andy Warhol. The two of them became friends and produced work for Bruno Bischoffeberger, a famous art dealer and gallerist from Switzerland, in Europe as well as an exhibition in New York at the Tony Sharfrazie gallery, which did not take off with critics. (Jean Michel Basquiat). The collaborations between Jean Michel and Andy Warhol were not successful, however their friendship, as well as the development of their individual works was. Both artists had a tendency of making collages like art. They were extremely successful with this type of artwork. (Edward 51).
Basquiat's work flourished by the early 1980's. In 1982 alone, he produced over 200 works. With the development of the style of his art he never lost the "edge" in his pieces. The aspects that were present in his earlier works remained present in his more formal painting, though the paintings had more a formal light to them. He was able to translate the art of the street to the art found in galleries. (The European Graduate School, Jean-Michel Biography).
Some of Basquiat's subjects of his paintings were figural while others were not. The non
figural subject in his paintings was a singular, heroic, black male. The figures were often presented with a simple outlining of a head which was the focal point of the work and given the most attention. Another figure that often appeared in his painting was the "Griot”. This figure was a type of representation of Basquiat as a painter. The "Griot” was inspired by the West African culture and was said to be the keeper of stories, and kept them in existence by sharing a community's history and culture. Jean Michel painted this figure as an energetic figure with huge eyes and strange facial expressions. (Bonnie Rosenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat Biography).
Later in his career he incorporated economics into his works. This is thought to have been brought on by his rise to stardom, his worsening addiction, and the mourning of his good friend Andy Warhol. The preparation for his final exhibition was done in complete isolation. During this time he attempted to rid his drug addiction. He came out of isolation when he was finished preparing and presented his exhibition at a newer gallery called Baghoomian. The show was given much praise and was said to be Basquiat's come back. (The European Graduate School Jean-Michel Basquiat Biography).
Two months after the exhibition he was found dead of a heroin overdose. He was only twenty seven years old. His death was an enormous shock to everyone and produced an entirely new outlook to his pieces, as well as himself as a person. (Edward 52). Many tributes had, and continue to be made in his honor, and in an attempt to figure out who Basquiat really was. Four years after his death The Whitney Museum of American Art produced the first retrospective. In 2005 the Brooklyn Museum of Art went further with it. In addition to this there have been many articles, stories, and debates over Basquait's works and how they reflected the person that he
was. (The European Graduate School, Jean-Michel Basquait).
Jean Michel Basquiat's works included a lot of text throughout. An example being Jimmy
Best, a graffiti styled piece created on a piece of metal. The texts represented a viewpoint on topics such as history, culture, identity, justice and equality, heroes, and politics. These texts were written in different languages which demonstrated his intelligence. He also incorporated a variety of symbols in his paintings, the crown being the most common. The crown symbolized Basquiat's heroes. (JPMorgan Chase, Explore the Paintings).
Anatomy was another aspect that appeared in Basquiat's works quite often. The book Gray's Anatomy which Jean Michel read at a young age influenced the use of the human body into his pieces. (Edward 49). The Untitled “Skull”, 1981 is an example of his fascination with anatomy. In this painting there is a presentation of a human skull, complete with eyes, a nose,
and mouth. Although the skull is complete, it gives the illusion that it is not. The contrast of the dark blue and burning orange create this almost optical illusion. The head is filled in with Basquiat's famous graffiti style. This graffiti gives the impression that there are more dynamics to the skull, but in realization the head is filled with nothing but abstract lines and shapes. The background of this painting includes a piece of text that says "Head Of". He never identified exactly who's head was painted, but many believe it was his own portrait due to the stitching going through the skull, as well as the deteriorating and decaying look to it. This painting carried phenomenal commercial value, $19,000 in the year 1984. (JPMorganChase, Explore the Paintings).
Basquiat included many abstract shapes and lines. The rigid shapes in the mouth area of the figure give the illusion that the mouth is in decay. The circles for the eyes and pupils give the effect that the skull is looking down, possibly in depression or anger. This look of anger and
depression is one of the contributions to the mood of the painting as a whole. The small lines throughout the skull look like a stitching surrounding the head. This gives the idea that the skull is not fully together and well. The downward look of the eyes, as well as the decay of the skull gives a depressing feel to the piece. The stitching surrounding the head gives it a rough edge.
The positioning of the skull gives it the illusion that it is floating. The eyes of the skull are looking downward, which draws the viewer's eyes to the bottom left hand corner of the work. Aside from the eyes the mouth draws the eyes to the bottom because of the exaggeration of the deterioration of it. Square figures appear a lot in this painting. Toward the top of the head are a variety of cubes, these cubes give dimension to the head by making it seem as though it is sticking out of the canvas.
To keep the balance of the skull in the painting Jean Michel Basquiat filled it with rigid abstract shapes. These shapes give the skull a deeper message. It is implying the many things going on within the mind. The various shapes, such as squares, tiny lines, and circles are what fill the head of the skull and make the piece so detailed and intricate.
The subtle colors of the background make the skull really pop. The darker colors accentuate the lighter colors in the mouth area. This was done on purpose to create a focal point of the mouth. The entire skull is shown as decay, but the mouth is the most prominent of all of the decay. The colors of the painting are another contribution to the depressing mood of the painting. The lack of bright colors implies this.
The abstract lines, as well as the rigid lines inside of the skull give the painting composition. The downward look of the eyes and exaggeration of decay of the mouth of the skull cause the viewer's eyes to look to the bottom of the painting. Everything is balanced with the
rigid lines and abstract shapes. These are what fill the skull and bring it to life. The background
of the painting accentuates the mouth by making it the focal point of the piece. The mood of this
painting is definitely depressing and sad. This is concluded by the dark colors and somber and decaying look of the skull.
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