Jean Michel Basquiat is proof that you can make an impact in a short time. Intuitively, you know you can change the world in an instant. What can you learn from his work ethos?
Brooklyn-born Basquiat produced a body of work comprising of over 2000 artworks and sketches over a span of 10 years. Imagine it. 200 artworks per year. 16 artworks or sketches per month. He amassed it all by the time of his death in 1988 when he was 27 years old. A great role model, Basquiat created all the time.
Your takeaway, Basquiat’s lesson, is to be yourself, do the work, pursue your craft, and fly high.
He was fortunate to be nurtured by his artistic mother, even though she suffered from mental illness fostered his love of art. She exposed him to the breadth and conventions of image-making, taking him to The Met, Brooklyn Museum, MOMA when he was young. He was familiar with the various forms of art and curricula in these formative years. His playground was the museum and his backdrop was the city. As you know, like many artists, he lived through thunder and lightning.
He jumped into the graffiti scene when it was seeding, forming a short-lived collaboration with Al Diaz under the name SAMO (Same Old Shit). Then, they drifted apart over creative differences, despite local success. Fortunately, they reconciled. In a Vogue interview, Diaz stated that Basquiat gifted him a painting with the text “To Samo, from Samo.”
Basquiat had ambition with the aim to be a recognized artist, who exhibited internationally. That is what he did. His dazzling study of sadness is profound. Being so clear, he formed strong bonds and friendships. The kinship he had with Warhol seemed precious and true.
There is a lot online that you can discover about Basquiat. The more you learn about him. The more you like him. His artwork is considered neo-expressionistic and interplays the visual language of art and graffiti and intermixed with doodles, caricature, and illustration. His use of objects, texts, and symbols convey his creative vision effortlessly. The crown was his signature icon. His work often draws on his cultural identity and roots within the confines of the world, referencing, history, music, art, and society. If you already know Basquiat’s work, you might not yet know of the film Downtown 81 that featured him as the lead. It is definitely low-budget but captures the playfulness and fearlessness of the underground art and music scene of the 80s. Basquiat plays a poor young artist in the pseudo-documentary fairy tale, written by Glenn O’Brien and directed by Edo Bertoglio. Pulled out of archives, Downtown 81 was only released in 2000. A camera follows Basquiat as he wanders around downtown New York and tries to sell his art to pay his overdue rent. It features Debra Harry as a modern fairy princess around 100 minutes into the film.
What is great about Basquiat’s technique is that he crosses words out on canvas. Scratches parts out. You get to see what he was thinking. It’s not a mistake to change your mind, to consider another word or image. Doodles and sketches are important. His artwork is wonderfully freeing. Yet, you know that his artistry is strategic and profound. He said that he applies this technique deliberately:
“I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
Sketch it, Draft it, like Basquiat
Sometimes, you think that it’s too late to do your dream project. But it’s never too late. You can do a lot in an hour. You can do a lot in a year. Basquiat painted on any surface, any walls, any object, any canvas. He did his art in every moment. A sketch, a draft is part of your research.
Books on Jean Michel Basquiat: