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Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Collector’s Guide

5 things to know about Jean-Michel Basquiat, a flame of the art world who rose from humble beginnings as a street artist to an art prodigy with a legacy still burning, today.

Works featured on offer at West Chelsea Contemporary.

Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio

From the streets to the galleries, Jean-Michel Basquiat revitalized the New York art world in the 1980’s at barely 20 years of age. Often associated with Neo-Expressionism, Basquiat received massive acclaim in only a few short years and came to show along artists like Julian Schnabel, and Francesco Clemente, and even collaborated with Andy Warhol.

Read on below to discover five things every art collector should know about Jean-Michel Basquiat.

  1. Born on December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat never finished high school but had an ardent passion for art in his youth. This was partially curated from the many museum visits he and his Mother would pursue, as well as his Mother’s encouragement of his art-making at a young age. In the late 1970s, Basquiat had established his signature painting style of rigorous marks and gestures, elusive symbols, and idiosyncratic imagery that emerged first through his graffiti sprayed on buildings and trains, under the infamous pseudonym, “SAMO”. The SAMO pieces were mostly text based and communicated a dissenting and rebellious tone through anti-establishment, anti-religion, and anti-politics messages. The text of these messages was accompanied by imagery that would later echo in Basquiat’s work, particularly the three-pointed crown. Basquiat is accredited with being largely responsible for elevating New York street artists into the gallery scene. Although often regarded as child-like because of the simplistic and juvenile rendering of imagery and mark-making, Basquiat’s work has subject matter of profound gravity and depth that abandons conventional and traditional abstraction.
Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio
  1. Often associated with Neo-Expressionism, Basquiat received massive acclaim in only a few short years and came to show along artists like Julian Schnabel, and Francesco Clemente, and even befriended Andy Warhol. The Neo-Expressionism movement marked the return of painting with a re-emergence of the human figure in contemporary art making. Basquiat quickly rose to fame and was befriended by many celebrities and artists, including Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated and developed a close friendship. Rene Ricard’s Artforum 1981 article, “The Radiant Child”, solidified Basquiat’s position as a rising star in the wider art world, with his wider recognition coinciding with the arrival of the German Neo-Expressionism movement in New York. Subsequently, 1982 was a significant year for Basquiat, as he opened six solo shows in cities across the world and became the youngest artist ever to be included in Documenta, the prestigious international contemporary art extravaganza held every five years in Kassel, Germany. During this time, Basquiat created approximately 200 works and developed a signature motif: a heroic, crowned black oracle figure. Legendary and pop-cultural figures such as jazz musician, Dizzy Gillespie, and boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali were among Basquiat’s inspirations during this period. 
Ed Ruscha, The Music from the Balconies (1984)
  1. Basquiat drew his subjects from his own Caribbean heritage and a convergence of African-American, African, and Aztec cultural histories with Classical themes and contemporary heroes like athletes and musicians. Aside from referencing his heritage and various cultures, Basquiat’s work is also punctuated with political issues, pop culture icons, and other motifs to explore various contexts and contemporary issues. Images of the African Diaspora and classic Americana also infiltrated Basquiat’s work, some of which was featured at the prestigious Mary Boone Gallery in solo shows in the mid 1980s.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boxer Rebellion (1983) on view now at West Chelsea Contemporary
  1. Remnants of Basquiat’s time as a street artist can be found on his graffiti-inscribed canvas’ that are bombarded with juxtapositions of text and imagery, each communicating a unique multitude of narrative and ideology. Basquiat infuses his works with dynamic sources of influence that are external and internal, creating a forum for diverse dialogue between his audacious gestures and the themes they help communicate. Through the ferocity of his technique, references, and imagery, Basquiat creates a visual synergy of familiarity and unfamiliarity that demands to be explored among his rampant marks that confront the canvas as much as the viewer.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Trumpet (1984).
  1. Before his tragic death in 1988 at the age of twenty-seven, Basquiat produced approximately a thousand paintings and two thousand drawings that expressed his boundless creative energy. Over the decades, the study of Basquiat’s paintings and drawings has offered textured insights of the 1980s and reflections on Black experience against an American and global backdrop of the white supremacist legacy of slavery and colonialism. At the same time, Basquiat’s work celebrates a variety of subjects that includes histories of Black life and art, music, and poetry, as well as many others. Most of Basquiat’s works have multiple meanings, some of which the artist discussed and others that remain open to viewers’ interpretations. In his work, Basquiat sought radical collisions of imagery and words, massive influxes of information and stimuli that manifest the living experience of our surrounding world. In his short life, Jean-Michel Basquiat nonetheless came to play a historic role in the rise of the downtown cultural scene in New York and Neo-Expressionism, more broadly. His legacy is maintained among his works continuing presence in the art world and through the artists that make work inspired by or in direct reference to his iconic portfolio.

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What’s on now at WCC:

West Chelsea Contemporary’s nearly 8,000 square-foot gallery offers the opportunity to highlight work on a monumental scale. From 16-foot originals by RETNA and Cey Adams to colossal sculptural work—including a larger than life mixed media shark and painted aluminum spaceman—the gallery is activated by art world giant’s not only in a metaphorical sense. 

By contemplating ground-breaking movements from the past six decades, Icons & Vandals allows viewers to rediscover and redefine the art world’s most iconic and contentious house-hold names. These artists have left their mark on the development and progression of contemporary art by subverting the norms of their own time.  Through this show it becomes clear that these two labels are not mutually exclusive but in fact ingrained in their interconnectedness. 

Works from ICONS & VANDALS will be on display and for sale at West Chelsea Contemporary in beginning May 15.

Reach out today to inquire or acquire.



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