Radiant Child Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat arguably the most celebrated American painter of the Neo-Expressionist art movement; best known for his primitive style and collaboration with Andy Warhol was born in Brooklyn, in December 1960; the second of four children of Matilde a Puerto Rican and Gérard a Haitian-American. His brother Max died before Jean-Michel was born, his two sisters: Lisane, and Jeaine, were born in 1964 and 1967.

Jean-Michel began drawing at an early age on sheets of paper Gérard brought home from the office. Matilde strongly encouraged to pursue artistic talents taking him to art museums in New York City.

At age 8, Jean-Michel was hit by a car, suffering various internal injuries, along with a broken arm. While hospitalised Jean-Michel received a copy of Gray’s Anatomy from Matilde making a lasting impression and influencing his later work.

His parents eventually separated, and he and his sisters lived with their father in Puerto Rico between 1974 to 1976. Matilde was institutionalised when Jean-Michel was 13 and was frequently hospitalized for the rest of her life.

As a teenager due to his mother’s illness and turbulence at home Jean-Michel ran away. After sleeping rough he was arrested and returned to Gérard’s care within a week.

”l had very few friends. There was nobody I could trust. I left home when I was fifteen. I lived in Washington Square Park.”

At 17 Jean-Michel dropped out of High School to attend an alternative high school in Manhattan; furious Gérard kicked him out of home. Jean-Michel stayed with friends in Brooklyn supporting himself selling T-shirts and homemade postcards. He first attracted attention for his graffiti under the name “SAMO” (for “same old shit”) in New York City.

Lacking formal training, Jean-Michel created highly expressionistic work that mixed graffiti with Abstract Expressionism; addressing his personal angst through stylised self-portraits alluding to African American cultural icons.

Around 1980 a group of artists including Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf held the Times Square Show in an abandoned massage parlour. A wall covered with the spray paint and brushwork of SAMO received favourable notices in the press and Jean-Michels started selling his paintings out of his apartment.

In 1981, Artforum published an article “The Radiant Child” by critic René Ricard cementing his breakthrough as an artist, along with his participation in the exhibition “New York / New Wave” in the P.S.1. 

He collaborated with David Bowie and Andy Warhol resulting in a combined show of their work in the mid-’80s. Jean-Michel died intestate aged 27 of a heroin overdose in August 1988 in New York City.

Gérard was named administrator of the estate; as Jean-Michel had no will, his parents split the estate. Matilde died in 2009 although she and Gérard were separated for more than 30 years, they never got a divorce. After her death, Gérard became the executor of her estate, which predominantly consisted of Jean-Michel’s artwork. Matilda’s estate was initially valued at $5 million, but was later appraised by Sotheby’s at $37 million.

After his son’s death, Gérard resolved Jean Michel’s tax issues and promoted his legacy. Exercising tight control ofbhis son’s copyrights, and stewarding an authentication committee that reviewed art purported to be by Jean- Michel.

Jean-Michel’s friend and fellow artist Kenny Scharf said that Jean-Michel felt that a big part of his unhappiness had to do with his father. Gérard didn’t approve of his lifestyle in SoHo, and shunned the artist’s friends. Ironically Gérard’s posthumous management of the estate is very different from his role as an absentee father who had little to do with Jean-Michel’s career as an artist.

Gerard Basquiat passed away in 2013 with an estate estimated at $45 million largely composed of Jean-Michel’s art. Gérard named Jean-Michel’s sisters administrators of his esreat leaving Lisane a painting of Jean-Michel by Andy Warhol. Gérard left his other daughter Jeanine a portrait of himself that Warhol also painted.

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