Basquiat’s walk from Haitian and Puerto Rico descent to fame

“Untitled,” Basquiat painting sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction.

In 2017, a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Neo-Expressionist painter, named “Untitled” showing a “skull” was sold at Sotheby’s auction for an amazing $110.5 million, and a new record was set for an American artist sold for such a high price.

Credit 2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, via Sotheby’s Jean-Michel Basquiat (French, December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was born in Brooklyn NY to Matilde Andrades, of Puerto Rican origins and Gérard Basquiat, of Haitian ancestry.

His mother has encouraged his love for drawing and painting, even from childhood, taking him to art museums and “enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art”. His parents moved to Puerto Rico and after two years they came back to Brooklyn. His life changed when his mother started to be in and out of mental institutions all the time, and he was in his father’s care. He ran away from home, dropped out of high school at 17 and became a rebellious child.

He was not accepted anymore by his father to live with him why he moved in with some friends and started to sell greetings cards and T – shirts painted by him to support himself.

His fame was first as a graffiti artist in Manhattan’s East Side, where he and his partner wrote “enigmatic epigrams” on walls under the name of “SAMO” in a time when “hip hoppunk, and street art” cultures had its glory. SAMO …. “marked the witty sayings of a precocious and worldly teenage mind that, even at that early juncture, saw the world in shades of gray, fearlessly juxtaposing corporate commodity structures with the social milieu he wished to enter: the predominantly white art world”. In 1978 he was working for a “Unique Clothing Warehouse” whose owner hired him after he saw him spraying houses in the vicinity of his store. An article was published about his graffiti in a newspaper in Greenwich Village, a part of lower west side Manhattan. When his friendship with Diaz, his graffiti companion was over he wrote on the walls of Soho in Manhattan “the epitaph SAMO IS DEAD“.

Starting in 1979 he was part of the “show TV Party“ and in the same time he put together a band named “Test Pattern” – “which was later renamed Gray” and was playing at Arleen Schloss’s open space, “Wednesdays at A’s”, where Basquiat exhibited, “his SAMO color Xerox work”.

He showed his work in “The Times Square Show”, with other artists and was noticed by several art galleries and art critics.

Emilio Mazzoli, “an Italian gallerist” was very interested in his work and, proposed him a collaboration in Modena, Italy where he opened his “solo show” in 1981, and after one year he had his first solo exhibit in USA.

Madonna, the singer who will became later on very famous, was Basquiat girlfriend.

When he was working on his second Italian exhibit in his friend’s house in Venice, California he brought over to live with him his girlfriend. Larry Gagosian, his friend was concerned about the girl coming to live with them why he asked Basquiat about her. He said, ‘Her name is Madonna and she’s going to be huge.” Basquiat had a premonition about the success that Madonna was going to have in short time. She spent few months with them and they got along very well as a “big happy family”.

Basquiat and his girlfriend Madonna


Andy Warhol, the Neo-Expressionist, Contemporary Art painter has collaborated with Basquiat for a couple of years until 1985,

Their collaboration was not seen as a good thing by the art critics. When their exhibit opened in Soho in 1985 it got such bad reviews that their friendship some how was over. Always Basquiat was painting over the nicely silk-screened art work of Andy Warhol. The death of his friend Andy Warhol in 1987 affected him tremendously and Basquiat and his fight for his life as a drug addict just started.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, “Third eye” 1985 painting,

acrylic on canvas, 205 x 327 cm. (80.7 x 128.7 in.)

Looking at Basquiat’s work your imagination flies to some kind of internal fight inside his soul which he poured on each of his canvases. The harmony and order are dismantled and the” monster king” is predominant in his world but with no result in doing something extraordinary, only existing as childish entity with a helpless desire to just do anything to show off.

In his last painting called “Riding with Death” a brownish figure is riding on a falling apart skeleton which has a lot of empty space around making the viewer think about the “pre Renaissance gold-leaf heaven”.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Riding with Death”, 1988, acrylic, crayon on canvas

Neo-Expressionism style, 249 x 289.5 cm


The artist who “often painted in expensive Armani suits and would even appear in public in the same paint-splattered clothes” died of a heroin overdose (speedball) in 1988, in his house on “57 Great Jones in downtown Manhattan”, at only 27 years of age. A lot of museums in SUA and abroad had retrospective shows on his work as: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992 -1993, Menil Collection, Houston; the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama; the Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2005, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, the Barbican Centre in London.  Also, the artist started to be a “source of inspiration for a younger generation of contemporary artists all over the world”.


Sirmans, Franklin. (2005) In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip-Hop Culture from the book Basquiat. Mayer, Marc (ed.). Merrell Publishers in association with the Brooklyn Museum.

Author: Rozalia Mos

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