New York City graffiti prodigy Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) had honed his signature painting style of obsessive scribbling, elusive symbols and diagrams alongside mask-and-skull imagery by the time he was 20. He sold his first painting in 1981. Although he received extraordinary exposure and acclaim as a painter, the Brooklyn-born artist was also an accomplished poet and musician. But his meteoric rise as a multi-genre artist was cut short when he died from a heroin overdose at age 27*.
In the early 1980s he fell under the spell of Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated on a series of paintings. Some say he entered into an intimate relationship with Warhol, his idol and mentor, but Basquiat’s sexual relationship with fellow East Village artist David Bowes is better documented. However, no matter how fluid his sexual orientation has been described by art historians, most of his sexual relations were with women.
Although Basquiat’s Caribbean heritage provided ample subject matter (his father was Haitian and his mother of Puerto Rican descent), his art incorporated influences from African-American, Aztec and African cultures. Contemporary heroes such as musicians and athletes factored into his paintings, as well. Basquiat was often associated with Neo-Expressionism, and his works were shown at NYC’s most prestigious galleries and events. Tragically, a rapid descent into drug culture eventually stunted his creativity and artistic output.
Untitled (1982): $10.5 million at auction
At a Sotheby’s art auction two months ago (May 18, 2017) Basquiat's “Untitled 1982" painting depicting a face in the shape of a skull, created with oil stick and spray paint, set a new record high for any U.S. artist at auction, selling for $110,500,000. Not a typo. The pre-sale estimate had been $60 million, aligned with the previous Basquiat record that had been set last year at $57.3 million, also for a skull painting. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maesawa now owns both.
A 2009 documentary film, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” was shown at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and on PBS television in 2011.
*Basquiat is buried at Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery, alongside other gay and bisexual luminaries Leonard Bernstein, Dr. Richard Isay, Jean Moreau Gottschalk, Fred Ebb (of the Kander & Ebb song-writing team) and Paul Jabara. See their individual posts in the sidebar.