Jean-Michel Basquiat
By: Franklin Bruno | Categories: HiLo Heroes


Even if Brooklyn-born JEAN­MICHEL BASQUIAT (1960-88) had never taken brush (or spraycan) to canvas (or wall, or door panel, or helmet), he would merit a berth in New York cultural history for producing K-Rob and Rammelzee’s “Beat Bop,” a 1983 12-inch that brought together the city’s No Wave and hip-hop undergrounds. But paint he did, in a disarming, graffiti-inflected style informed by both high-modernist and “primitive” uses of flatness, while exploiting an intricate iconography that drew on his Puerto Rican-Haitian family background and the response to urban chaos symbolized by his hero Charlie Parker. His ascent into the international artworld was fed by his uneasy association with Neo-Expressionism, the movement of the moment; his precipitous decline, like Parker’s, by heroin. Though an early, reputation-making review termed him “The Radiant Child,” tributes since his death have complicated the tragic (and lucrative) image of Basquiat as a holy fool: friend Julian Schnabel’s 1996 bio-pic casts him as a victim of gallerists’ machinations, while poet Kevin Young’s 2001 volume To Repel Ghosts draws liberally on the block-lettered verbiage that often dominated the paintings’ surfaces. These works are flawed but telling signs of the ongoing fascination with a figure whose only compromise with convention lay in the Romantic arc of his self-destructiveness.


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Franklin Bruno is the author of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces (Continuum, 33 1/3 series). His current band is The Human Hearts. Twitter: @humanfranklin.