Race, power, money the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat
A Basquiat painting has been sold for more than $100m, but nearly 30 years after his death his art is as painfully relevant as ever
In the spring of 1982, a rumour started swilling around New York. The gallerist Annina Nosei had some kind of boy genius locked in her basement, a black kid, wild and inscrutable as Kaspar Hauser, making masterpieces out of nowhere to the accompaniment of Ravels Bolro. Oh Christ, Jean-Michel Basquiat said when he heard. If I was white, they would just call it an artist-in-residence.
These were the kind of rumours he had to work against, but also the deliberate myth he constructed about himself, part canny bid for stardom, part protective veil. Basquiat was 22 by then, and could make up out of the whole cloth of his childhood experience all kinds of patchworked, piecemeal selves, playing off peoples expectations of what a grubby, dreadlocked, half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican young man might be capable of.
He had come to prominence as a graffiti artist, part of the duo SAMO, short for same old shit, who bombed the doors and walls of the Lower East Side with enigmatic phrases. The paintings started coming right at the moment that the East Village transformed from a burned-out wasteland inhabited by heroin addicts to the epicentre of a startling art boom. There was a marketable glamour to being a down-and-out prodigy then, but it was an act for Basquiat, as much a way of satirising prejudice as the African chieftain outfits hed later wear to the parties of wealthy white collectors.
He was a street kid, true, a teen runaway who had slept on benches in Tompkins Square Park, but he was also a handsome privileged boy from a Park Slope brownstone who had gone to private school, followed by a stint at City-As-School, a destination for gifted children. Though he didnt have a formal art education, he and his mother Matilde had been frequenting museums since he was a toddler. As his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk recalled of a trip to MoMA, Jean knew every inch of that museum, every painting, every room. I was astonished at his knowledge and intelligence and at how twisted and unexpected his observations could be.