The Life and Work of Basquiat
By Victor Bockris

From Gadfly May/June 2000


Somebody once asked who Andy Warhol reminded me of. My answer, Muhammad Ali, tickled the artist so much that he used the statement in a book of his photographs. A good place to begin this article is, "Who does Jean Michel Basquiat remind me of?" The answer is four men who were his original role models and heroes—Muhammad Ali, Keith Richards, William Burroughs and Andy Warhol.

Like Muhammad Ali, Jean-Michel stepped into his role as the bad boy genius of his craft at the perfect moment. Painting was dead for most of the '70s, at least in the imagination of the public. A young artist, brimming with natural talent and confidence and steeped in the lives of his heroes, was needed to rekindle it. He would have to live, breathe, eat, sleep, dream and think of nothing but winning the championship crown. It had to be an artist who lived his life as if he were the writer, director and star of his own movie, as Ali had lived his.

Basquiat and Ali were a publicist's dream. Everything they did inside and outside the arena served to further their causes. Basquiat was both blessed and cursed by his ability to generate large amounts of cash quickly. As a fellow black man, he lived largely in a white world, working for white masters to make the white dollar. While he was able to project the image of a great hero, he didn't get away with it. An addiction to fame and money, for both Ali and Basquiat, proved to be their downfall—although each would go on to become even more famous after their careers ended.

Keith Richards also influenced Basquiat. Like Richards, Basquiat was a major contributor to an art form and a tortured artist racked with emotional pain. Both men made art from pieces of their shattered selves and hellish everyday lives. They were ladies' men who had powerful and tempestuous relationships with inspirational women. Basquiat, like Richards, found it necessary to consume large quantities of marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and heroin, in order to battle his way through the art world that delivered his paintings to the public and remain open to the visions that inspired him. He was so proud of the Richards' comparison that he bragged to an astonished friend, "Man, I take a hundred bags [of heroin] a day. That's more than Keith Richards, man, I'm strong."

Watching Basquiat paint was like watching Ali fight Frazier, Richards record Exile on Main Street or Burroughs write Naked Lunch. The audience was an important factor in his work, and he often painted in front of critics, dealers, collectors and friends. After rapidly achieving the financial success to live out his fantasies, his scenario rarely differed. Wherever he was, in his loft or in a studio provided by his gallery in a foreign city, two or three assistants would build his stretchers and prepare his canvases. Meanwhile, three large primed canvases, measuring anywhere from 8 by 6 feet to sometimes 15 feet long, would be set before him, flat on the floor or fixed to a wall. Wearing a new $800 Armani suit, elegant shirt and tie—but with bare feet—he would enter the brightly lit space, looking like Ali entering the boxing ring. Situated at convenient locations around the space would be a mound of top-quality cocaine on a large piece of tinfoil, several ashtrays containing the strongest marijuana which, like Burroughs on a writing binge, he would chain smoke and an open bottle of the best red wine costing about $500. Battered copies of his favorite books, Junky by William Burroughs, The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac and a biography of Charlie Parker, Bird Lives!, lay next to expensive art books on Cy Twombley and Leonardo da Vinci. A state-of-the-art boom box flooded the space with beautiful, pulsing jazz music by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and others.

While painting, Basquiat would move with the fluid grace of Ali, dancing like a butterfly, back-pedaling from one canvas to another, his hands at waist level ready to snap out a line or deliver a large punch of paint. Like Kerouac, he believed in spontaneous composition and would never change a line once he had started it. In this manner, while the mound of cocaine slowly disappeared, marijuana was crushed out in ashtrays, a bottle of wine was replaced by another and his new suit was splattered red, black, yellow and gold, Jean-Michel would paint until all three canvases were completed to his satisfaction. This often meant filling an entire canvas with a brilliant work, only to paint entirely over it, producing an even more brilliant work. He sometimes worked for as long as three days without stopping.

Like his heroes, Basquiat was a larger-than-life original who seemed to spring out of nowhere as a mature artist at the age of 21. He was unique. His life was the classic legend of the outsider who comes to the big city to make it and succeeds beyond his wildest dreams—but then loses touch with his original precepts. After being eaten alive by the very forces that produced him, he dies in a fog of terminal heroin addiction. His life raises a series of questions, the first being, "Jean, man, what happened?"

Basquiat began his career as a writer. Because his writing was an important part of his work and since, to an extent, his painting stifled and perhaps killed the writer, it is necessary to examine what he wrote.

In 1977, when Basquiat was a high school junior in a special New York institution, City-As-School, he teamed up with a fellow student to invent a philosophy-cum-religion called SAMO. SAMO first appeared in a satirical sketch in the school's paper, Basement Blues Express, where it was introduced as a faith in which "we do all we want here on earth and then rely totally on the mercy of god on the pretence that we didn't know..." In an accompanying page of blurbs, one convert announces, "I used to be hooked on speed. Now that I found SAMO I found the truth."

Basquiat never graduated from high school. In a classic caper that introduced the rascal in him, before the entire audience of his fellow students and teachers, he pied the principal at the end of his commencement address. Afterward, he saw no point in returning for his senior year. Instead, after a period of incubation spent hanging out in Washington Square Park dropping acid and smoking pot, he devoted the second half of the year introducing the SAMO texts to the inhabitants of the Lower East Side and the burgeoning Soho art world. Appropriating the City-As-School concept, he spray-painted such SAMO sayings as "SAMO as an end 2 Vinyl punkery" and "SAMO as an alternative 2 placing art with the 'radical chic' sect on Daddy's $funds" all over the Lower East Side and Soho, turning their walls into his canvases.

Basquiat limited his early work to this format for two reasons. First, according to his own account, he was primarily a wordsmith whose original concerns were literary. At his purest, he was a poet. And second, after leaving home for good in 1978, he had no money to purchase painting supplies and was even forced to throw himself on the mercy of strangers for a place to live. The first period, which lasted into 1981, climaxed with his finest poems, including: "The whole livery line bow down/ Like this with the big money all crushed into/ These feet, pay for soup, build a fort/ Set it on fire. The Origin of Cotton"; and the sublime, "Jimmy Best/ On his back/ To the suckerpunch/ Of his childhood files."

This period, during which he also did hundreds, if not perhaps thousands, of drawings, using whatever materials he could find on surfaces he appropriated wherever he spent the night, is documented in a film, Downtown 81. It was made in December 1980 and January 1981 by a triumvirate of downtown punks: writer and underground TV talk show host Glenn O'Brien, photographer/director Edo Bertoglio and fashion consultant-cum-producer, Maripol. The film focused on the art-literature-music worlds centered around the Mudd Club, one of the many wombs from which Basquiat was born. It starred Basquiat playing a partially fictionalized version of himself as a writer and member of the art rock band, Gray, in which he played the clarinet and sang lead vocals. The tender, lyrical film follows Basquiat as he walks around the city. It creates a mood strikingly in tune with two of the greatest underground films of 1959-60: Ron Rice's The Flower Thief, starring Taylor Mead in the Basquiat role and Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy, starring Allen Ginsberg with a voice-over soundtrack by Jack Kerouac—which was eerily similar to the Basquiat voice-over soundtrack in Downtown 81. As Basquiat regularly stops to spray-paint poems in a large, primitive scrawl covering spaces approximately 8 feet wide and 5 feet long, he explains, "I'm a writer. Sometimes I feel I was written. Maybe I wrote myself."

In Gray, founded in 1979 with four other musicians, Basquiat developed what they referred to as "an aesthetic of ignorance." The idea was that by doing everything wrong, beautiful passages would oddly emerge. His main influence at the time, he said, was John Cage. This indicated a more sophisticated understanding of what he was about than critics, who would later label his work primitive, could have grasped.

From 1978-80, when Jean-Michel was bombing the downtown streets of New York with his poems and playing the downtown clubs with Gray, he was addressing an audience of his peers during the richest period in the history of New York's cultural underground. This was a magical interlude when William Burroughs and Andy Warhol reigned over a diverse population of writers, painters, musicians, dancers, actors, photographers, filmmakers, singers, songwriters, fashion designers and theater people. New York had been on the brink of bankruptcy only three years earlier but made a spectacular recovery, due not in the least to the infusion of large amounts of Eurocash into the city's teeming cultural hotbeds. The resignation of President Nixon and the end of the Vietnam Conflict also had a unifying effect. In this context, three generations of artists reached the climaxes of their careers. They consisted of, first, the re-born Beat generation, centered around the return of Burroughs to New York after 25 years of self-imposed exile from the United States; second, the reappearance of Andy Warhol, who only fully recovered from being shot in 1968; and third, the commercial success of Lou Reed, formerly the lead singer-songwriter of the Velvet Underground in the '60s, as a solo star in the mid-'70s and the enormous energy of punk rock, particularly in the Patti Smith and Richard Hell bands, plus Blondie and the Talking Heads.

Previously in America, the new generation of artists automatically killed off the old, as the Beats did to the Partisan Review crowd; Pop Art did to Abstract Expressionism; and rock did to jazz. From 1975-85, however, the outspoken admiration and homage of the punks for the Beats (in which category I include Warhol) and their elders' simultaneous acceptance and celebration of Punk (in which I include Reed) created a rare artistic milieu based on collaboration.

If one had to select one person who benefited most from the marriage of Beat and Punk, it would undoubtedly be Jean-Michel Basquiat. He loved everything about William Burroughs. He wanted to become friends with artist Andy Warhol. Musically, he was more attuned to jazz (Charlie Parker was his role model), rap and hip hop, but Jean-Michel's attitude was to painting what Debbie Harry's was to music—he was the number one punk! And in turn, he received the support and encouragement of the Beats and the hands-on support of the Punks. Apart from the makers of Downtown 81, Diego Cortez, one of the chief architects of the Mudd Club, was the first person to organize, catalogue and sell Basquiat's work. Diego was his first, and in many ways, his best dealer. If Jean had followed his vision, he may have had a different career and might still be alive.

Because he started his career spray-painting his poems on the walls of the city and signing them SAMO, Jean-Michel was originally seen as a graffiti artist. This helped him gain his first attention in the press because graffiti was experiencing a revival when he came along. But graffiti was to Jean-Michel what folk music was to Dylan, and he did it very well. He was noticed in four seminal group shows: the Times Square Show; the PSI New York/New Wave show, curated by Cortez; and two shows of drawings at the Mudd Club in 1980-81. However, as soon as Jean-Michel was paid several thousand dollars for starring in Downtown 81, he embarked on the second stage of his career, using the money to buy paint and canvases and pay for a place to live.

Art critic Rene Ricard, who played a vital role in establishing the major art stars of the 1980s, referred to Basquiat's initial burst of painting as "The Revolution of 1981" and bestowed upon him the immortal title of "The Radiant Child." Basquiat's paintings exploded on canvas in 1981, as he took off on a three-year streak that would establish him as one of the best artists in the world. With a painter as good as Basquiat, it isn't the content that grabs your attention but the shock of its strength and the ferocious conviction with which it is delivered. In the concluding chapter of her biography, Basquiat, A Quick Killing in Art, Phoebe Hoban writes: "The SAMO sayings were a distilled version of the themes he would repeatedly return to in his later work: racism, materialism, capitalism, pop culture, mortality....

"Basquiat's work, like that of most of his peers, was based on appropriation rather than draughtsmanship. In contrast to most of his peers, the images he appropriated—whether they were from the Bible or a chemistry textbook—became part of his original vocabulary, alphabet letters in an invented language, like notes in a jazz riff, or phonemes in a scat song. Basquiat combined and recombined these idiosyncratic symbols throughout his career: the recursive references to anatomy, black culture, television and history are his personal hieroglyphics.... Critics have compared his aesthetic to sampling, as if this child of the media were a highly tuned antenna who received, and then broadcast, urgent bits of his message, loud and clear."

Although Basquiat reminds me of Ali, Richards and Burroughs, his similarity to Warhol is astounding. Both men believed their original impulse for art came from their mothers. Each had a serious childhood illness that kept him out of school for a significant period of time. Like Warhol, Basquiat had his spleen removed as a result of a violent accident. Both came to the privileged art world as invaders and started their careers as painters with three-year runs, unloading their image banks and becoming internationally famous in the process. As Warhol had done, Basquiat painted a stunning series of approximately 1,000 paintings in a span of three years, knocking out all contenders on the way to his title. By their third shows, they were featured in some of New York's premiere galleries of the period. Warhol polarized the art world; Basquiat did the same. He could not be ignored, and people either loved his work and him—or hated both. Just like Warhol, Basquiat enjoyed an even more spectacular success in Europe and Japan than in America. And they both owed their success in part to the clever positioning of their work by international dealers.

Basquiat told friends his first ambition was to be rich and famous, then he'd take care of the painting. This was his biggest mistake. From the outset of his painting career, Basquiat developed the habit of painting fast, demanding cash for his work and then abdicating responsibility. If his paintings were his children, he was a prolific—but neglectful—father. All his dealers were white and comparatively rich. Rather than reasoning with him to build his work and reputation with a view into the future (as Diego Cortez had tried to suggest), they gave him what he wanted in order to ensure he would continue to give them what they wanted, which essentially was money.

But Basquiat was a difficult person to deal with, despite his charm and regal grace. Suspicious, paranoid and deeply conflicted by nature, his actions and reactions were constantly fueled by a complex cornucopia of drugs making it difficult to know what was going on inside his head. Consequently, his dealers treated him a bit like a wild animal appearing in a circus. They kept throwing him large pieces of money meat in the hopes he would survive long enough to bring a nice bundle of cash in the form of paintings.

Like the writer Stephen Crane, who lived not far from Basquiat's various addresses on the Lower East Side, Basquiat's sense of living in New York was comparable to living in constant war, where one could be killed tomorrow. He lived each day as if it were his last, drinking from the deepest cups of pleasure, making the greatest art possible.

From 1981-83, Jean-Michel made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. By 1985, at 25 years old, he was making just over a million a year.

In the beginning, he had a wonderful time and created excellent work. However, unknown to one so young, despite his talent and intelligence, he was developing a series of addictions that would lead to his death. The most prevalent was an addiction to heroin, which soon replaced the mounds of cocaine that fueled the feverish nights and days of work. But as Burroughs pointed out (and Basquiat failed to grasp), heroin addiction is a metaphor for control. Basquiat soon became controlled by his addictions to money and fame in a similar way to Ali. If both men had possessed the ability to stop when they were at the top of their games (Ali in '75, Basquiat in '83), take stock and re-think their campaigns, their lives would obviously have turned out differently.

Of course, making such judgments is easy in retrospect. At the end of 1983, it looked as if the best was still to come. In 1984 and 1985, he had two solo shows at the Mary Boone Gallery (the top gallery at the time) in Soho, crowned by a New York Times Sunday magazine cover story in February 1985 that finally confirmed his fame in such concrete terms that even Jean-Michel was momentarily satisfied. Better still, his beauty, genius and wealth, not to mention his style, charm and passion, provided him with a passport to just about everyone and everything he could have desired. A pictorial parade of the women who passed through his bed would include a gallery of downtown's most beautiful glamour queens.

In 1982, he fulfilled his dream of meeting and painting a portrait of Andy Warhol. By 1983, he had embarked on a series of collaborations with him (something Warhol had never done) and became his best friend. To see Warhol and Basquiat enter a nightclub at the height of their relationship was like watching movie stars. Charisma radiated from them in waves. The entire room felt like it levitated 6 inches off the floor. This was an international scenario, played out in Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Milan, St Moritz and Los Angeles. Wherever Basquiat landed he became the center of a tornado.

By 1984, Jean-Michel had done what so many artists rarely recover from; he lost sight of his original precepts. The words that made him originally a writer had (at the suggestion of his first gallery owner) long taken a backseat to the pictures that sold paintings. And now the images were becoming a poor parody of the ferociously beautiful but hard-cutting early works. He had sold out without having realized it.

Some of his collaborations with Warhol are striking, but they simply do not come close to Basquiat at his best. Suddenly, his statement he had done Warhol better than Warhol had done him rang true. Warhol was in a creative cul-de-sac when he met Basquiat. By 1984, he was once again one of the most important artists in the world. Meanwhile, Basquiat was on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files. And on top of that was the effect of three years of heroin addiction.

Keith Richards is the best example to illustrate that, if you are an artist with unlimited financial resources, protected from the laws that govern the rest of us and able to acquire the best available material, under these rare circumstances for a certain amount of time, usually three years tops, heroin may help an artist fulfill his visions. By cutting him off from the cares and woes of life, by insulating and isolating him in a comforting womb, it can give him the long periods of uninterrupted concentration and focus that are often required to reach beyond his dreams, to perform the impossible, to harness the stars. But after the initial period, often referred to as "the heroin honeymoon," the drug has a reverse effect. The artist discovers, to his horror, that not only does the drug no longer deliver this ethereal passport, but worse still, it now has virtually no effect except to dull his senses. Meanwhile, he must continue to take great quantities of it just to feel normal. Keith Richards made four great albums while he was using heroin, Beggars Banquet, Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed and Exile On Main Street, but the Rolling Stones followed them with the band's three worst albums, Goat's Head Soup, It's Only Rock'n'Roll and Black and Blue.

Basquiat, in similar fashion, did his best paintings while he was using heroin, but he followed them with a stream of works—and this was at the moment of his highest exposure, during the two Mary Boone shows—that paled in comparison. In short, they were a big disappointment. (These examples do not mean that anybody who takes heroin for three years will be a great artist. Richards and Basquiat shared the common traits of possessing great talent, workaholic personalities, unlimited financial resources and access to the finest materials. They were not junkies in the common sense of the word. They experienced little of the danger inherent in purchasing the drug on the street or using it cut with poison.) Ultimately, heroin led to Basquiat's death. Richards was saved from the death that loomed over him for years by being in a group. The other members of the Rolling Stones pulled him out of it because they needed him. Basquiat suffered from having no one to answer to and no one to make him stop. Warhol tried, but the last thing heroin robs you of is the ability to make decisions.

After the collaborations with Warhol were shown in New York in 1985, Basquiat came out poorly in the reviews as "Warhol's mascot." Jean-Michel cut off his friendship with Warhol. Meanwhile, by the height of his success from 1982-85, Basquiat had alienated many of his real friends, the ones who helped him succeed. He now found himself in a triple bind: he was alone, he had no one to whom he could talk on an equal level and no one to tell him to stop, just an entourage of fans along for the ride. At the same time, he had run out of ideas. And because he had withdrawn, locking himself up in his house, he wasn't getting any new ideas. Worse still, by turning inwards he discovered his reward for everything he had done was an unchanged, bad relationship with himself.

Through 1986-87, he continued to work, having shows around the world. He was so good and so regal that even a poor Basquiat, looking a little under the weather, was superior to the majority of other artists around that nobody realized how far gone he was. He went to Hawaii several times to clean up, but as soon as he returned to New York, he started drugs all over again. Now he hated the city that had once made him feel like the Emperor of Egypt and on whose walls he had found himself as an artist. Perhaps he could have stopped this, but disaster struck from the most unexpected source.

In February 1987, Warhol died in the hospital in the aftermath of having his gallbladder removed. Warhol's shocking death was a blow from which Basquiat never recovered. A year and a half later, in August 1988, Basquiat was found in his bedroom, dead from an accidental heroin overdose, while his obedient entourage patiently waited for him to emerge so their day could begin. To Basquiat's credit, his work has gone on to enjoy a splendid life without him. Paintings he sold for $2,000 to $3,000 in 1982 are selling for a quarter of a million dollars and more at auction.

In the 12 years since his death, much has been written about him. His colleague, Julian Schnabel, even made a film about him. Unfortunately, it left out all that was great about him, concentrating instead on his downfall. However, the impulse for this article came out of the recent release of three of the most rewarding works on him to date.

The Tony Shafrazi Gallery, which showed the Basquiat-Warhol collaborations in 1985, has frequently shown Basquiat's work since and is becoming his major New York gallery. The gallery just released an outstandingly dictionary-size volume, Basquiat, which contains superb reproductions of the majority of his best and most famous paintings. A painstaking work, many years in the making, it is the ultimate Jean-Michel guide, containing seven incisive essays by, among others, Ted Joans, Keith Haring, Henry Geldzahler and Rene Ricard. It also has the best chronology of Jean-Michel's life. Meanwhile, Penguin has just released a paperback edition of Hoban's biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. Hoban skillfully extricates her complex subject from a series of exceedingly complex worlds and in the process pulls off a very rare thing—a sympathetic book about a heroin addict.

Finally, there is Downtown 81. This tasty underground document fixes forever the magic years of 1980-81. At the time the film was made, no one could release it. Now, however, due to diligence on the parts of O'Brien and Maripol, it will be shown at film festivals in the United States and Europe this summer. Downtown 81 is far more accurate and caring than Schnabel's film and is the best place to enter Basquiat's life. At its magical ending, Debbie Harry is a fairy princess who, in one of the greatest prophetic scenes in a movie, blesses Basquiat with a suitcase full of cash with which he buys a Cadillac Eldorado and drives off into the sunset.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is, like the legends he admired, a rich subject that one can explore repeatedly, always finding something new; always finding the painting beneath the painting and the words beneath that. "I am a writer," he said. "Sometimes I think I was written. Maybe I wrote myself."

Make up your own mind, but don't miss the trip. As Glenn O'Brien writes succinctly in his essay in the Shafrazi book: "He was a great and powerful magician. In the faces he put on canvas are the liberated spirits of the African masks that are held in what Ishmael Reed termed 'Centres of Art Detention.' He was not the greatest black artist of his time; he was the greatest artist—period. Andy knew it. I knew it. Miles Davis knew it. John Lurie and Arto Lindsay and Diego Cortez knew it. Jean knew it and was correctly humble in his kingly manner. It was so obvious."