Notable Resident: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat

When he was found dead on August 12, 1988, in his East Village apartment, from what friends described as a heroin overdose, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) only twenty-seven years old. The New York Times, a few days after his death, looked back:

In a city that exalts successful artists in the fashion of rock stars Jean-Michel Basquiat seemed blessed. When he burst on the art scene in 1981, his paintings of anguished figures were hailed by some critics as works of genius. Admirers besieged him at Manhattan’s hottest night clubs. Sales of his art grossed millions of dollars.

The son of middle class Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, Basquiat quit school and left home at the age of seventeen to join a friend in the graffiti movement, writing cryptic social commentaries under the name “SAMO” on walls that would be seen by trendsetters throughout Soho and the East Village. Some were parables, others phrases such as “Playing Art With Daddy’s Money” and “9 to 5 Clone.”

Playing guitar in a band in clubs frequented by artists, Basquiat befriended Andy Warhol, and became his protégé and companion. He became the best known of the few young black artists who developed international followings in the 1980’s. His angry primitive figures, painted on canvasses, door, or refrigerators, were popular among collectors. By the age of twenty-four, he had sold paintings for $10,000 to $25,000 to the Whitney Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and to collectors. His works went at auction in the $30,000 to $100,000 range.

Spending money as fast as he made it, Basquiat entertained lavishly, gave money away, painted new works wearing designer suits, and became hooked on drugs. When Warhol died in February, 1987, Basquiat became something of a recluse, painting more while doing more drugs.

On November 6, 1988, a memorial service to the young artist was held at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on East 54th Street in Manhattan. More than two hundred of Basquiat’s friends and contemporary art enthusiasts attended. The New York Times eulogized him with this: “Regarded by many contemporary art experts as a genius, Jean-Michel Basquiat was remembered as a man who pursued every aspect of his life with drive and devotion, including those that were destructive.”

–from Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, New York’s Buried Treasure by Jeffrey I. Richman