Jean-Michel Basquiat was a controversial and complex character, and as an artist, his work will no doubt be studied for years to come. His paintings all have an atmosphere of roughness, like wallpaper scratched by a cat. His biography, as stated in this book, places him in a comfortable middle class home in Brooklyn, from which he ran away as a teenager, living rough in the East Village. As discussed in the book Art After Midnight (Steven Hager, 1986), he was right at home among the starving artists and musicians of Alphabet City, where there was no money, but lots of life going on. It wasn’t a place to raise kids, but for a single man with no dependents, you were free to do as you liked.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, a great scholar of US history, provides a written preface in this book. He says that Basquiat was born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, which so far I know from al the other writings about him. He states that the artist grew up bilingual, which I’d assume, and that he frequented the Brooklyn Museum, which adds a bit of intrigue. His mother was often hospitalized for mental illness, and his Haitian father, an accountant, was a bit of a snappy dresser, yet as a boy he ran away from all this. Was he looking for “rougher” life? His art definitely shows a liking for frenetic things. Gates also says that the art was a fusion of influences. Was Basquiat torn between being a Haitian, a Black American, and a Puerto Rican?
The first piece of Basquiat’s is a drawing of Joe Lewis, with “St. Joe Surrounded by Snakes.” He definitely had education in classical art, he couldn’t have drawn something like this without it. We see his affinity for African American characters, only he draws this with a little more attention to modeling than in his other works. The next artwork, “Famous Negro Athletes,” has absolutely no attention to modeling or faces. The heads are merely black shapes with eyes and teeth gouged in, like primitive African masks. From the looks of it, he must have been full of energy at the time. There is, unlike both, a funny drawing of (what I assume is) a man named Leslie, lying in bed with a cigarette. It reeks of Bohemian life, almost reminding me of Oscar Wilde. In fact, it is completely unlike anything else he drew.
The artist’s “lost notebooks” reveal a lot about this man. He was a true “starving artist,” working with whatever art materials he had, on whatever paper he had, in this case a speckled notebook. The only thing missing from this book is the artist’s own words. He died in 1988, so there’s no way to ask him to talk about his work. The book doesn’t go into his relationship with Andy Warhol, which was another unusual aspect of his life, particularly since the two artists had absolutely nothing in common with each other. Then again, the sensitive and eccentric Warhol did have a liking for rough things. In the book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (Will Hermes, 2009) the 1970’s New York gay scene fell in love with the shaggy-haired and scruffily dressed Bruce Springsteen, in his debut at Max’s Kansas City (another defunct and lost New York spot.)
Perhaps Basquiat’s “starving artist” lifestyle was what Warhol dreamed of? We’ll never know.