The early 1980’s marked the dazzling evolution of the young New York prodigy, Jean Michel Basquiat. In his early twenties, he began imposing his urban style on the city through obscure graffiti murals that eventually made their way onto canvasses or wooden pallets. A pioneer of the Underground movement, his work is easily recognisable thanks to its clear graphics, strong socio-political themes and obvious interest in human anatomy. Let’s take a look at a few themes that inspired the ten most memorable works of the Basquiat era!

Death on the brain

Born in 1960 to a Puero-Rican mother and a Haitian father, Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn and was quickly immersed in the world of arts. His mother fed his artistic appetite and regularly took him to the museum. Before the age of ten, he was fascinated by anatomy. His first works show a rather surprising interest in death, which became a central part of his art for the entirety of his career. His depictions are not soothing but thought provoking. There’s an obvious violent streak that is conveyed through bright colours imposed on dark and gloomy backgrounds.

1. Dusthead, 1982

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dusthead (1982)

The inside-out body

When Basquiat was seven years old, he was hit by a car. Knowing he would have to spend long days in the hospital as part of his recovery, his mother bought him the Gray’s Anatomy medical manual. This did not quench his curiosity by any means. Rather, it allowed for a deeper exploration of the concept of death and the body’s transition throughout that process.

In addition to it being the “end all” for human life, it was also the scientific side of death that piqued Basquiat’s interest. Playing with the dichotomy of the interior and exterior, his art often depicts both the inside and outside of a face. Unlike in Dusthead (above), in his Skull depictions, Basquiat’s use of colour lies principally in the background and the darkness found in the jumbled scrawls on the head denotes the idea of death.

2. Untitled Skull, 1981

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled Skull (1981)

3. Untitled Skull, 1982

This 1.8 by 1.73 metre canvas reached a record high at Sotheyby’s New York in 2017 by selling at $110.5 million after over ten minutes of bidding. The estimate was originally set at $57 million.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled Skull (1982)

Representing the Black Community

African-American and Carribean culture is a predominant theme in Basquiat’s art. He did not try to obscure the political messages therein and proudly promoted his Creole heritage. His works also highlight legendary figures in African-American history such as Cassius Clay (Mohamed Ali), Sugar Ray Robinson and Malcom X. These figures of importance were all given a crown of sanctity which became Basquiat’s trademark.

In spite of the racism that surrounded him, Basquiat never stopped denouncing the oppression of the black community in America. His struggle wasn’t all for naught as his art has remained culturally relevant almost four decades later at an age when racial tensions are higher than ever. Whether he depicted black heroes in the community, athletes or musicians, their inspiring lives inspired the artistic giant that was Jean-Michel Basquiat.

4. Irony of a negro policeman, 1981

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Irony of a negro policeman (1981)

5. Untitled (boxer), 1982

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled boxer (1982)

6. Hollywood Africans, 1983

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood africans (1983)

7. In Italian, 1983

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, In italian (1983)

8. King Alphonso, 1983

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, King Alphonso (1983)

A Collaboration like no other with Andy Warhol

We couldn’t talk about Jean-Michel Basquiat without mentioning his life-long friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. Their friendship was explosive and from their collaboration, we have around a hundred works. This partnership was uncommon since their styles and worlds were seemingly opposite at the time. But it is in situations such as these that true originality is born.

There were some that strong criticised their relationship and even accused Warhol of using young Basquiat to gain notoriety. Their friendship was nonetheless authentic but ended tragically. Warhol passed away in 1987 under mysterious circumstances following a “routine” medical operation. This loss deeply affected Basquiat who died one year later from an overdose at the age of 27. His creations during his last year of life were marked by melancholy and eeriness.

9. Win $ 1’000’000, 1984

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Win $ 1’000’000 (1984)

10. Riding with death, 1988 (his last work)

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Riding with death (1988)