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Jean-Michel Basquiat

The American legend on display at Milan’s Mudec Museum

Graffiti: “A form of visual expression and artistic experimentation typical of urban spaces. It originates from the spontaneous and illicit act of using spray paint to create designs on walls in urban areas and on trains used for local or metropolitan transport” (Enciclopedia Treccani).

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Porto Rican mother. At the age of four, he began drawing cartoon characters; at 11 he was able to read, write and speak English, French and Spanish, all to a good standard.

In 1976, after his parents’ divorce and his first experiences of life on the street, Basquiat began attending City-as-School in Manhattan, a school for gifted teenagers who were unsuited to conventional schooling. Two years later, he dropped out of school, believing it to be useless.

Together with Al Diaz, a young graffiti artist, Basquiat began taking LSD, doing hard drugs, and spray painting graffiti on the streets of New York, signing off their work with the pseudonym SAMO, an acronym for “Same Old Shit”.

In his work, we find many depictions of the human anatomy, his knowledge of the subject derived from reading the famous book Gray’s Anatomy as a child. “Gray” was also the name of the band he put together with Vincent Gallo and with whom he would perform in the most popular venues in New York.

His meeting with Andy Warhol, who was amazed by some of the post cards he produced in order to make a living, would be the turning point of his life. The two of them would become one of the most esteemed creative duos in contemporary art. However, it seemed as though Basquiat had suffered from being considered “Warhol’s sidekick”.

His first solo exhibition was here in Italy: in Modena, 1981, in the Galleria Mazzoli art gallery, a new chapter in the history of art was written. Despite the amount of attention paid to the young American, his work did not earn him the success he had hoped for.

Italy helped Basquiat once again in 1982 as the gallery owner Annina Nosei, by setting up a solo exhibition in New York, shone light on his coarse and direct style.  That year marked the beginning of Basquiat’s journey towards securing his place in the pantheon of all-time great artists.

A glittering career, but it ended just as suddenly as it had begun. Like his idol Jimi Hendrix and other stars, Basquiat died on 12th August 1988, aged just 27, killed by his heroine abuse, a drug he had been addicted to for years. The death of his friend and mentor Andy Warhol the year before had caused Basquiat’s addiction to get worse. And like his heroes before him, fame only arrived following his death.

“I had some money, I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.” (Jean-Michel Basquiat)

All photos in the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Mudec Museum are curated by Jeffrey Deitch and Gianni Mercurio. With approximately 100 pieces, this is one of the most complete retrospectives of the artist. From 28th October to 26th February. Info 0254917 / mudec.it/eng/jean-michel-basquiat.

Federico Flamminio