When the artist becomes the art

By  Yayona Bangura

There he was, in a massive black and white print. The photos showed the artist on a bare mattress on a wooden floor surrounded by his works, or “Reclining Nude” as the exhibit titled. They looked real and uncut. Most shots contained the artist’s genitals on full display.

Paige Powell, the late artist’s former girlfriend, took the photos in an Upper Westside apartment in New York City in the 80s. The big opening of the exhibit took place at the Suzanne Geiss gallery in Manhattan on January 16.

At the time of his death from a heroin overdose at age 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat left behind thousands of paintings and drawings worth over $25 million individually, both unfinished and completed.

Basquiat was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent and hailed from Brooklyn, New York. He left his home and complicated family life at 15 to begin life in the NYC streets as an artist, working with friend Al Diaz. The two did graffiti art on buildings that held messages of oppression and dark humor, working as the anonymous acronym SAMO, meaning Same Old, well take a guess.

He soon introduced himself to artist Andy Warhol, who took a particular liking to him. The two formed a close friendship and Basquiat met countless art dealers who were willing to let the roaming artist work in their studios to help give an outlet to his talent.    Basquiat became extremely successful in a very short amount of time. He rattled the then posh art world with grittily painted images and texts channeling racism, classism, life ironies and the celebration of Black culture. However media pressures, discrimination in the industry and his rapid rise to fame took a toll on him.

After Warhol died, Basquiat grew depressed and began using heroin more frequently than occasionally. In an attempt to quit, he vacationed in Hawaii. Although the trip seemed successful, he overdosed two weeks later in his art studio and died on August 22, 1988.

There was Basquiat in his element. Watching television, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by newspapers and paintings, on the bed just relaxing. There were objects such as steel buckets and cigarette butts strayed about and an old television, that he appeared to be watching in some of the shots, sat in a corner on a bare steel bar crate.

In some photos he appeared to be pondering something. In others, he looked directly at the camera with a huge grin.

This collection of candid photos appeared to have been taken during the middle of a break from painting. Basquiat was known to sometimes start pieces and go back and forth, moving on to the next before finishing the first.

25 years later, Basquiat’s influences can still be found in our art world, from musicians like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and A$AP Rocky name dropping him in their song lyrics, to clothing inspired by his art along with an entire Swizz Beatz Basquiat Reebok sneaker collection. Biopics and documentaries, including “Jean-Michel Basquiat- The Radiant Child,” can be bought or seen for free online.

Basquiat was known as a very prominent artist of our generation. He shook things up with his raw primal images and explicit messages depicting real issues. In the 80s where minimal and clean-cut pop art ruled, Basquiat brought a new loudness and expression to the scene.


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