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Why is Jean-Michel Basquiat so famous?

Updated: May 23, 2020

Jean-Michel Basquiats life and career as a painter are flourshied in the riddles of the art world in the 1980s. His rise to fame has been unparalleled. The graffiti sprayer, who left mysterious and witty statements on the walls of East Village and SoHo using the pseudonym SAMO, became a celebrated star, holding court in the explosive art scene at the time. He was brought in and in the end worn down by an art market that saw unimaginable heights followed by increasingly cutthroat and economic laws. He was driven by hunger for recognition, fame and money yet plagued by self-doubt, shyness and self-destructive impulses. Jean died of an overdose on August 12th, 1988, aged just 27. He flashed through the creative heavens, work sold by prominent art dealers and he flickered out suddenly, before his artistic star could reach its full genius.

But Basquiat's fame is not cemented simply in cultural schemata and obsolete ideas of genius. Next to the actual quality of his paintings, we must remember the situation of the art world when Basquiat entered the scene in the early 80s. In the US, artistic developments and the art market in the 1970s were dominated by the Pop art scene including Andy Warhol, as well as the rise of the Concept art and Minimal art. The nations museums and galleries didn't pay much attention to new ideas or movements. It wasn't until galleries looked hopefully to Europe, where a renaissance had begun to challenge the decades old notion that painting had died. Then Germany gave rise to a movement known as the Young Wild Ones and helped to popularize a Neo-expressive, figurative style of painting. A younger generation was responding to the intellectuals that did not fear to conjure romantic images of the world, and that didn't disguise their debt to the idealism of German Expressionism. All this came at a time when the art market began to boom. Buying art was chic and art became an object of investment. A new lifestyle began to flourish and gave rise to an absurd situation, in which artist started producing according to the laws of supply and demand. It became sell sell sell and most of these works got bought by private collectors just to make it into a gallery 2-3 years later with an obusured price tag.

Understanding the situation of Basquiat is difficult, insofar as we cannot assume that he ever held control over the marketing of his own work. It was not just his work that was marketed, but also the image of Jean-Michel Basquiat himself, as the only black artist to achieve the Olympian pinnacle of international painter stars, in an art world defined mainly by price tags. Without a doubt, a large part of his initial success, as well as of his later downfall, can be traced to the latent racism of the New York art scene at the time.

He was in the right place at the right time with the wrong ending. In our opinion Basquiat painted for himself but his career was being driven by others. His rise to fame was supported by private collectors, galleries and friends in an art world that was just beginning to boom and still booming today. RIP King.


Leonhard Emmerling - Basquiat

Larry Warsh -The Notebooks

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