28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

On my birthday last year, May 18, in case you were unaware, a Basquiat painting sold for $110,500,000 at Sotheby’s, becoming the most expensive painting sold at auction for an American. That sell puts the talented man, who unfortunately died at 27 years young, in the same class as Da Vinci, Picasso, Klimt, and Jackson Pollock—and that makes me feel super awesome because I’m such a huge fan. Also, it’s pretty big deal for a black artist some considered a “featherweight,” at the height of his career.

Born in Brooklyn December 20, 1960, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the product of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. A brilliant kid from an early age, he knew how to read and write by four. By age seven, he was already a talented artist. He spoke French, Spanish, and English fluently by the time he was 11.

Basquiat made cartoon-like drawings inspired by Alfred Hitchcock films, automobiles, comic books, and the Alfred E. Newman character from Mad.

“He was always so bright, absolutely an unbelievable mind …. He drew and painted all of his life from the time he was three or four years old,” said his father, Gerard Basquiat.

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“Untitled,” a Basquiat painting from 1982, sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction

He was hit by a car in 1968 and sustained several injuries. Because of this, he was infirmed for a time, and studied what would become a great source of inspiration for his work, religiously: Grey’s Anatomy, the definitive medical reference for the human body. Later that same year, young Basquiat would be torn between his mother and father, as his parents split and he moved to East Flatbush with his dad and two sisters.

When he was 15, he ran away from home and slept on park benches in Thompkins Square. He came back home shortly after due to the harshness of being homeless.

After Basquiat dropped out of school, his father banished him from the household, leaving the young man to make a way out of no way. He thusly found refuge with some friends in Brooklyn.

In 1976, Basquiat and a friend, Al Diaz, began putting their skills to work with graffiti across the city. They named their team SAMO (pronounced like Same-Old). He also sold t-shirts with his artwork on them to make his way.

 

By ’78 and ’79, New Yorkers were already taking notice of the talent of the two, and a chance spot on the public access show TV Party, put the artist into the crosshairs of many respected people in the art world and beyond. He would continue to appear on the show for several years until his celebrity status grew out of control.

When Basquiat was 19, he met the Pop artist Andy Warhol, and the two men formed a close connection, going so far as to deface each other’s works, one painting over the other. This would be the catalyst for not only a strong bromance between the two that would endure until Warhol’s death, but it would introduce the world to Basquiat in a way he’d never imagined. He was on the grand stage, which is where he would stay for the rest of his young career. Several years after being homeless, he would one day command upwards of $25,000 per painting. Life was getting sweeter and sweeter.

In June of 1982, Basquiat, at age twenty-one, was the youngest of 176 artists invited to participate in the international exhibition “Documenta 7” in Kassel, West Germany. His work was shown with that of such established artists as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, A. R. Penck, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol, in addition to that of younger artists Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Lee Quinones, and David Salle. Among the paintings shown are Acque Pericolose (Poison Oasis) and Arroz con Pollo. This also happened to be the year he briefly dated Madonna.

 

One of the principal things of importance with Basquiat is how pivotal his rise to stardom was to the world of graffiti art. Because he was young and he was black and because of the strong themes of suffering, oppression, and colonialism that were in his paintings, people took note of a world they normally would have ignored or been too afraid to dive into: street graffiti. Me, personally, I am just sorry I didn’t find out about his amazing influence and talents until I was an adult. I was raised around art, but mostly European figures, and mostly those who’d been dead for centuries.

He once said, “Black people are not portrayed realistically…not even portrayed in Modern Art.” And his method of madness, his brilliance, helped give those unheard a loud voice.

In 1983, Basquiat produced a 12″ rap single featuring artists Rammellzee and K-Rob. Billed as Rammellzee vs. K-Rob, the single contained two versions of the same track: “Beat Bop” on side one with vocals and “Beat Bop” on side two as an instrumental.[29] The single was pressed in limited quantities on the one-off Tartown Record Company label. The single’s cover featured Basquiat’s artwork, making the pressing highly desirable among both record and art collectors.

After his mentor, Warhol, died in 1986, Basquiat, a pretty-consistent drug-user, got even deeper into his heroin habit. After an attempt at sobriety, with an escape to Maui, he succumbed to his scourge. His death in 1988 was not sudden or necessarily unexpected. Many felt the talents of a man that great, with the message his paintings told, could not last long in a world bound by hate and bigotry.

 

Shortly after his death, the New York Times indicated that Basquiat was “the most famous of only a small number of young black artists who have achieved national recognition.”

And the outpouring didn’t stop there: Poets like Kevin Young, who wrote a book about Basquiat’s life, documentaries, a variety of musicians like the band Living Colour and Jay-Z and Frank Ocean all mention the talented young man and his contributions, his message and the effects his inspiration held in their lives.

One of the strongest examples of black excellence was given to us briefly, and we embraced him at the time—sadly, many still don’t get the recognition and respect he hoped his art would bring to communities in such desperate need of it. But, and I say this with full hope for the future, I believe it’s coming soon. Long live black excellence!

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.