Last night I watched a DVD documentary on the 1980s artist Jean Michel Basquiat, called “The Radiant Child”, which included footage from an interview done in 1985 in LA. The picture above is from another interview, I’d guess around 1982, and I just liked it cause he’s unexpectedly wearing the Wesleyan shirt (my alma mater).
In recent years I’ve come to appreciate his work more and more. He grew up in Brooklyn in relatively well-off circumstance, but apparently had quite a complicated relationship with his businessman father, and ran away from home several times. He ran away for good at age 17 in 1978 to Manhattan, and his initial efforts were doing graffiti with a friend under the name SAMO. This was not standard graffiti – SAMO had messages for the world which were legibly written on building walls in block letters. Despite being mostly homeless, he had a strong desire for fame and seemed to find his way into it remarkably quickly.
His painting shares similarities with the SAMO work – it’s mostly flat, often features words and lettering, and is frequently covered over with various layers of paint – almost like a building wall that’s been partially painted over and then more graffiti applied later. The colors and images are stark and striking. The last one I remember seeing in person was at the Pompidou in Paris, and it nearly jumped off the wall in comparison with most of what was in the gallery.
His work dealt with many aspects of art and racial awareness and his black heroes. Unfortunately in life he was apparently derailed by the sudden fame and money and hangers-on. By 1988 when he died, he was feeling almost washed up already, though some of the late work is just as strong as ever.