The graffiti artist turned painter became the star of the 1980s New York art scene. Since his death aged 27, his reputation has soared. On the eve of a major UK show, we speak to his friends
Its always tempting to mythologise the dead, especially those who die young and beautiful. And if the dead person is also astonishingly gifted, then the myth becomes inevitable. Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 27 when he died, in 1988, a strikingly gorgeous young man whose stunning, genre-wrecking work had already brought him to international attention; who had in the space of just a few years morphed from an underground graffiti artist into a painter who commanded many thousands of dollars for his canvases.
So perhaps I shouldnt be surprised that everyone I talk to who knew Basquiat when he was alive, from girlfriends to collectors, musicians to painters, speaks about him as special. Still, its noticeable that they all do. Basquiat even before he was acknowledged as an artist was seen by his friends as exceptional.
I knew when I met him that he was beyond the normal, says musician and film-maker Michael Holman, who founded the noise band Gray with Basquiat. Jean-Michel had his faults, he was mischievous, he had certain things about him that could be called amoral, but setting that aside, he had something that Im sure he had from the moment he was born. It was like he was born fully realised, a realised being.
He was a beautiful person and an amazing artist, says Alexis Adler, a former girlfriend. I recognised that from the get-go. I knew he was brilliant. The only person around that time I felt the same thing about was Madonna. I totally, 100% knew they were going to be big.
Basquiat the man and Basquiat the painter are hard to untangle. He lived hard and died harder (from an unintentional heroin overdose), and had more of the rock-star persona than the art aesthete about him, a cool celebrity sparkle that didnt always work in his favour. Some art connoisseurs find his work hard to take seriously; others, though, have an immediate, almost visceral response. To me, a non-art critic, his work is fantastic: it feels contemporary, with a chaotic, musical sensibility. Its beautiful and hectic, young and old, graphic, arresting, packed with ambiguous codes; theres a questioning of identity, especially race, and a sampling of lifes stimuli that takes in music, cartoons, commerce and institutions, as well as celebrities and art greats. (Not sex, though: though he had lots of partners, his paintings are rarely erotic.). You could stand in front of a Basquiat painting and be fascinated for hours.
Since he died, Basquiat has had a mixed reputation. There was a time in the 1990s when he was dismissed as a lightweight. Museums rejected him as a jumped-up wall-sprayer. But over the past few years, his star has been on the rise and even those who are snooty about his art cant argue with his cultural influence. A few years ago a Christies spokesperson described him, pointedly, as the most collected artist of sportsmen, actors, musicians and entrepreneurs. As one of the few black American painters to break through into international consciousness, he is referenced a lot in hip-hop: Kanye West, Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Nas and others cite Basquiat in their lyrics; Jay-Z, in Most Kingz, uses the most kings get their head cut off phrase from Basquiats painting Charles the First. Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz own his works, as do Johnny Depp, John McEnroe and Leonardo DiCaprio. Debbie Harry was the first person ever to pay for a Basquiat piece; Madonna owns his art and they dated for a couple of months in the mid-80s.