Portrait of an Artist 4: Jean-Michel Basquiat


I had actually never heard of the name until I watched the documentary “The Universe of Keith Haring” where he was briefly mentioned, then it led me to the movie “Basquiat” and the documentary “Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.”  just last year.  It was from there I came exposed to the whole new world of street art and Neo-Expressionism.  Until then I only limited myself to Impressionism and Modernism ala Picasso, who undoubtedly inspired the whole new generation of modern and contemporary artists, among them, of course, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

From what I’ve read and learned, Basquiat was the quintessential ‘bad boy’ of the art world.  The fact that he was of Afican American descent only added fuel to the fire, as African American artists attaining worldwide fame were so rare in the field back in the day.  Having made his start as a graffiti artist during the 80s under the pseudonym ‘SAMO’ his unique style inspired by primitive art translated in mad frenetic blend of various medium on whatever surface he fancied himself with.  Much of his works are resonance of his mostly cynical views on the society’s elites (who ironically bought most of his work), coming to terms with his own heritage and his place in the white-dominated world, and his obsession with spirituality and death.  He was the kind of guy who could care less what others perceived him to be, he remained steadfast to his own and achieved far more star power than he could ever hope for, though it was cut of short by his untimely death at age 27. And just like James Dean who also died at even younger age of 24 just as he was rising to the top of the Hollywood game, Basquiat has become an enigma of modern art, and continues to intrigue and inspire to this day.

when I see his work for a moment I couldn’t believe people would actually pay millions of bucks for what is pretty much a piece of junk.  But I could think that’s his way of poking fun at the bloated high society and self styled art connoisseurs (maybe he was thinking the same thing; he purposely makes junk art and laughs quietly at the elitists who marvel at the value of it) and as much as he abhors their apparent pretenses and masquerades he enjoys being in the middle of its spotlight, even joining in the parade. (Kind of hypocrite me say). His work takes time and considerable amount of intellect to read and decipher the meanings in the chaotic torrent of symbols and texts and cartoonish figures that mostly seem randomly placed. As much as it look like absolute trash I have to admit he is truly a genius and accomplished in his techniques and cryptic narratives, for someone with very little formal education. It’s humbling sure, and I know I’ll never be as good as he is, but then I’m not trying to outdo any great artists. I will continue studying his work and the movement he was a prominent member of, and learn to incorporate them into my own artistic endeavors.

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