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Basquiat, Jean Michel (1960-1988) in 1982 by James Van Der Zee

Like a Hollywood star on a fast track, the life of Basquiat was meteoric to the point of flame out. His evocative paintings that started out as graffiti in NYC were soon embraced by the elite that his works were railing against. Using African themes and multimedia Basquiat was able to use his art as a message against the excesses in the eighties.

He was so groundbreaking that even though he was known for a scant decade, a film of him and his life was made after his untimely demise.

Basquiat was the celebrated "SAMO" (same old shit) tagger, whose graffiti appeared all over lower Manhattan. Using a magic marker, Basquiat would write statements like "SAMO as an end 2 playing art with the 'radical chic' on Daddy's$funds" on billboards or walls. Included in his usual itinerary were the walls proximate to the gallery of Mary Boone, who was to the art business of that time as Michael Milken was to investment banking. Basquiat's ploy was to write anti-materialism messages in plain view of some of the worst materialists around. This was not only a key to his rise to fame, but a stunning reflection of the tendency of the bourgeoisie to co-opt cultural opposition. As Thomas Frank puts it, "The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on ever-faster cyclings of the new; its taste for self-fulfillment and its intolerance for the confines of tradition now permitting vast latitude in consuming practices and lifestyle experimentation."

When some of Basquiat's early work, which was a combination of painting and graffiti, first appeared in an "alternative" Lower East Side gallery, he was discovered by Henry Geldzahler, Mayor Koch's Commissioner of Cultural Affairs who had an eye for "transgression." While he was using his clout to elevate the career of a minority graffiti artist, his boss was using his bully pulpit to attack the city's black and Latino community as "criminal elements". Those well-versed in the city's economy understood that the rise in crime was related to cuts in social services and job opportunities for ghetto youth. Those cuts were being orchestrated by social forces represented on the board of directors of art museums that Geldzahler sat on. Citibank executives, et al, might be convinced of the need to put a Basquiat on the wall as a cheap substitute for hiring high school graduates from the South Bronx.

Within a year or so, Basquiat had developed his highly marketable style. It combined Afrocentric themes mixed with graffiti based on his own hermetic universe of symbols. Painted on unconventional media, including objects retrieved from the junkyard, Basquiat seemed to be attacking bourgeois society. A good example is the evocatively titled "Hollywood Africans" at While ostensibly directed against racism, the painting is so much the product of Basquiat's private imagination that one can not possibly interpret it as a specific critique of anything. Anything too close to the bone would obviously not fit into the décor of Upper Manhattan or European apartments, where most of his work ended up.

Basquiat 2
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