Jean-Michel Basquiat died on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27 years and 234 days. The cause of his death was ruled an overdose of heroin mixed with cocaine in the form of a speedball. Basquiat was a multi-talented artist, musician, activist and near prodigy. He is something of an anomaly in the forever 27 club because of his variety of talents, and the posthumous success of his work. Yet he also is the perfect example in many ways of the classic tragic arc of many members of the club – a precocious early life, a troubled adolescence, a rapid rise to prominence and stature in the arts community, and a descent into addiction and death.
Basquiat was born in Brooklyn to a father from Haiti and a mother with a Puerto Rican heritage. By the time he was 4 years old he could read and was demonstrating his artistic talents, which his parents recognized. By the age of 11 he had become fluent in Spanish, French and English, and was learning the skills needed for creating art. He suffered a traumatic accident when he was 8, and his parents separated the same year. After living in Puerto Rico for a couple of years and then returning to the states, Basquiat witnessed his mother becoming extremely mentally ill, and she was committed at that time. He left high school and his father’s home in his youth and began his life in the arts as a graffiti artist.
At the age of 16, Basquiat and a friend made news as their striking graffiti began appearing in Manhattan. An article in the Village Voice about his art was his first exposure to the public eye. He formed a band named Gray with, among others, the actor and artist Vincent Gallo. In 1980 Basquiat was introduced to Andy Warhol, who was impressed with the work he was shown, and the two became friends and collaborators on a number of projects over the next few years, including film and visual arts. In 1982 he worked with David Bowie for a brief period, and had his paintings featured in hip local galleries. Involvement in the world of hip-hop came in 1983 with his production work for rappers Rammellzee and K-Rob.
By the mid-80s, Basquiat had attained a measure of success with his art – he was selling enough to live on and had become well-known in the arts sphere and in the music world. His work with Warhol came to an abrupt end in 1987 when his collaborator died, and he was reportedly despondent over the loss. His use of heroin increased, and this despite his attempts to kick the habit. His death at 27 by overdose was not a surprise to close friends.
Basquiat’s paintings have become increasingly valuable in the lofty world of art collecting. His works have sold for tens of millions of dollars in the first decade of the new millenium, and his father is heavily involved in controlling and cataloging his legacy.
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