Why you should care

Because 25 years after his death, his oeuvre is still more vital than half the stuff out there. 

We’re inherently distrustful of media-generated narratives that ply the lottery-ticket tale of ”instant discovery” because many rags-to-riches stories conveniently misplace the well-placed uncle or the intergenerational wealth of the discoveree. So it sort of makes sense not to believe the hype.

Until you should.

Until you remember (or learn) that before Banksy there was the Haitian-Puerto Rican American Jean-Michel Basquiat, a 10th-grade high school dropout who, after getting kicked out of the house for dropping out of high school, slept on park benches and made manifest his talent for art. How? By scribbling all over the New York subways of the late 1970s under the name SAMO. As in Same Ol’, his irked response to art-world resistance to art. Specifically his.

Basquait painting on a wall with a red shirt on

Basquiat paintsin St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1983.

Source Lee Jaffe

And for those living in New York then, the electric joy of watching the doors close and seeing a new SAMO spread across the top of the now-joined doors cannot be overstated. Trenchant observations. Snotty oblique asides. SAMO was a different kind of graffiti. It was literary, fer chrissakes. For example…

SAMO as an escape clause

”SAMO@ as an aoternative to plastic food stands…”

…were all very different from the reigning graffiti king of the era, Dondi.

From subway doors and walls to walls all over the city, Basquiat and friends were agit-prop without a cause.

”The subway back then was actually dangerous,” said Pilar Newton-Katz, animator, illustrator and artist. ”So [Basquiat’s art] was a nice break, and even as a kid it was different enough from the really florid stuff that I noticed.”

It was hard not to. And when it stopped with a notice that “SAMO is dead,” we all wondered what had happened.

The electric joy of watching the doors close and seeing a new SAMO spread across the top of the now-joined doors cannot be overstated.

Flashback to the instant discovery bit and let’s set the record straight: Andy Warhol was not actually the one who “discovered” him when Basquiat passed him hand-painted postcards one night when he saw Warhol supping. No. We’re going to give that glory to GQ’s style guy Glenn O’Brien who put Basquiat on his TV Party cable show in 1979. But in 1980 there was the Warhol meet, the instant affinity and the rocket ride to good things.

Andy Warhol, left, and Basquiat, right, with their backs to each other looking into the camera

Source Corbis

He forged friendships with Vincent Gallo, appeared in film (notably Downtown 81), dated Madonna back when that may have been kind of OK, and stretched into a whole raft of other cool crap: bands, DJ gigs, and appearances in Blondie videos. Through it all, courtesy of Warhol and art dealer Larry Gagosian’s patronage, he made paintings that killed. This despite detractors thinking his apparent casualness was an insult to the viewers, and others who thought the media’s constant connection of the trilingual Basquiat to his graffiti roots was driven by racial politics. No, nothing could stop the explosive creative force that got him on the cover of the New York Times Magazine a mere five years later.

Well, almost nothing.

By no stretch of the imagination is anyone considering “heroin” nothing. On August 12, 1988, after multiple attempts to get clean, Basquiat joined what Patti Smith once called “that stupid club” of music and art-world greats who died at age 27.

It did absolutely nothing to stanch the flow of the public’s estimation of his copious talents. Sales are still through the roof, lawsuits abound, his artwork on a record he produced is like the holy grail now, and Jay-Z and Frank Ocean namecheck him.

And his art? Outside of being completely unaffordable by most who appreciated SAMO, it is still showing, selling and delighting anyone who cares about Not the SAMO. If you’re in the neighborhood, you can see his work included in an exhibit titled 30 Americans, along with a screening of the Schnabel bio-film at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, through January 12, 2014.

”He represented, for a lot of us, a way to completely sidestep the establishment who decides what’s artistically valuable and what’s not,” said street and canvas artist Eddie Lagapa. ”And when they came calling, he had the chops to back up all the noise he had been making. Which, as far as I am concerned, is what genius is.”

And Jean-Michel was very precisely that.

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