Boom for Real: Jean-Michel Basquiat was Here

Originally published on Autostraddle.com

Puerto Rican. Haitian. Brooklyn. Graffiti tags on SOHO buildings turned high concept neo-expressionist art gathered for retrospectives in the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This is the legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat. But I look at him like he could have been my grandfather, who was also a man of color imbued with multiple talents. My grandfather was a skilled carpenter, pastry chef, opera singer, Nintendo player and also a poet. He did all of the things you do when the you exist amidst the spirits of enslaved islanders crash landing into a culture that still wishes to devour every ounce of other left on your skin. Basquiat lived that existence in his own Brooklyn born, Renaissance man, tortured artist kind of way.

jean-michel basquiat

Starting with striking poetic one-liners bombed all over NYC under the tag SAMO — as in “same old shit” — Basquiat left an early mark on the bloated belly of 1980s New York. A runaway, Basquiat bummed around in epic fashion, living in boxes and on the dance floors of crowded clubs, before Giuliani sterilized New York City, when it was still just as raw and vibrant as the people in it.

Basquiat did not just bomb tags. He played cacophonous music in a band called Gray, named after the book Gray’s Anatomy. His mother had gifted him the famous book after he’d been hit by a car as a child. It’s like tragedy was written into his destiny. Shit, Lil Wayne got shot in the face as a kid and that’s why nothing gets Weezy down. As a prologue to that type of cliché rap bravado, Basquiat took his licks, his anatomy book and eschewed his “fuck you” art in every way possible. He technically couldn’t play any instruments, but his dedication to art and his vision got him onstage and made Gray a hot act in the city. He was a movement. Basquiat made friends with Fab 5 Freddy and Debbie Harry before he ever sold a painting, before I was born, and before the internet came and made everyone famous for nothing. He catapulted himself into megastardom with an insane work ethic, painting around the clock while still maintaining a presence in the party scene. A high profile friendship with Andy Warhol added to Basquiat’s mystique and propelled him into the upper echelons of the white elite art world. Not that they understood him anyway, not like that kept them from describing his work as “primitive” and him as a “child” and the Whitney wouldn’t even display his art until AFTER he died. Still Basquiat was a living art legend, a one-time boyfriend of Madonna and just a dude trying to find his place in the world.

Madonna and Basquiat

I won’t go into a complete retelling of his life — that’s what Wikipedia is for, right? No seriously, I won’t out of respect because others have done it better. Tamra Davis’ documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Genius Child and Basquiat, a film by fellow artist, Julian Scnabel, both do a breathtaking job of chronicling his meteoric but brief life.

It’s ART ATTACK so I have to discuss his art but I’m nervous. I’m just some chick from the Bronx writing poems on trains, biting my nails and trying to keep my deadline extension. I’m not an art major and don’t know the right words. I do know what moves me and Basquiat does.

"ernok"

Real talk: I don’t even know what “Ernock” is. I just know that it makes me feel uncertain, moved, frightened, and I kept it as my desktop background for almost a year. (The honor of modern day reverence…)

Basquiat pulled in references from every discipline, every remarkable moment/person in history (ranging from Charlie Parker to Batman and Robin) and his entire life as an artist and man of color. He dissected blackness, Afro-Latino heritage and racism by pulling them into the forefront of consciousness through graphic purposeful art. Basquiat refused to describe his pieces because it was like asking “Miles [Davis], how does your horn sound?” So I’m going to respect that and share with you my favorite pieces.

untitled (head of a madman), 1982 -- a nod to "self portrait" by van gogh

horn players, 1983

per capita, 1981

philistines, 1982

One last note on Basquiat — he died the way rock stars usually die: way too fucking famous and from a heroin overdose. August 12, 1988 was his last day on this earth. Basquiat left behind over 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings. He was the youngest artist ever to participate in Documenta VII (an exhibition for modern & contemporary art held every five years in Germany) and one of the highest grossing artists of his time. Here’s the thing though, I hate writing this because I feel like even though it’s the truth, it adds to this myth that living hard and dying young is cool. It also glamorizes and upholds this idea that in order to be remembered as a significant artist, heroin and death need to be involved. I’m over that, like so so over it. The worlds that foster our talents also tend to unabashedly consume us for our gifts, and then spit us out onto a bed of needles and empty baggies.

So out of care and randomness, I’d like to share this brilliant discussion on the trap of celebritizing, exalting and isolating artists and their work. It’s a TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert and as corny as it sounds, it’s something Basquiat and others like him, like you, like me, need to hear. Our art is worth living for. And before you come running at me about how I’m ending this post on a brilliant man of color with some white lady talking about hippie fancy love stuff, just know that I get it, but it’s still an important talk. So dig it and know that I come from a place of love, always.

Nobody loves a Genius Child. Kill Him – Let his soul run wild.
-Langston Hughes

Tell me things I don’t know about Basquiat. I count on you, the awesome reader homos, to know all the other things like you

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