In Manhattan, you can walk around SoHo on any Saturday and find his disciples. The artists are easily spotted – extravagant dreadlocks, serious pouts, canvases smeared with slogans and primitivist cartoons. These are imitators of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the painter who died, on Aug. 12, 1988, of a heroin overdose. In life, Basquiat had been the rare high artist to acquire mainstream celebrity. Upon his death, he became, as The New York Times once put it, ”the art world’s closest equivalent to James Dean.”
Like ambitious hustlers from Norma Jean Baker to Robert Zimmerman, Basquiat was much his own invention. This Brooklyn-born son of an accountant preferred to pass himself off as a street urchin. In fact, he had merely run away from home a few times but was, by his late teens, a drug addict. He was also a high-profile street artist. Working with a friend and using the tag SAMO(c) (a contraction of ”same old s – -”), he decorated downtown neighborhoods with self-promotional graffiti. For instance: ”SAMO(c) as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics, and bogus philosophy.” For young Basquiat, an idolizer of Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, art was entwined with the idea of excess. As Phoebe Hoban, author of Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, says: ”The more successful he became, the less able he was to resist self-destructive behavior.”
He turned to painting and got successful fast. In the ’80s, the prices for art climbed higher than Ivana Trump’s beehive. The emerging vogue for identity politics made it a fine time to be young, black, and polemical. He dated Madonna. He found a mentor and collaborator in Andy Warhol, becoming a fixture in Warhol’s Diaries. Nov. 13, 1983: ”…Jean Michel didn’t have anything to write his phone number on for Richard Gere except this painting of mine, so he wrote it on that and gave the painting to Richard.” Warhol further reported that his protege, after reading a biography of John Belushi, started to fear he’d flame out in a similar way. Which he did.
His legacy? In the 1996 biopic Basquiat – directed by Julian Schnabel, a fellow painter and a friend – Jeffrey Wright’s hero is a bit of a mystic. In some quarters, Basquiat’s considered a lightweight, the product, as the critic Robert Hughes wrote, of ”a money-glutted, corrupt and wholly promotional art-marketing system.” And in the streets, despite the sadness of his death, he’s a model for art stars waiting to be born.