Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1986, Image by © William Coupon/CORBIS

The Blunt Reality Behind Basquiat’s Abstract Expression

The highly hectic streets of 1960s New York City bred culturally invigorating artist Jean-Michel Basquiat who in his twenty-seven years of life re-shaped the white-dominated field of contemporary art. Basquiat’s radical work presented the blunt reality of racial issues, class division and socioeconomic disintegration.

Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1986, Image by © William Coupon/CORBIS

Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1986, Image by © William Coupon/CORBIS

Basquiat began his artistic ventures with fellow street artist Al Diaz during the latter part of the 70s under the name “SAMO”, both in their late adolescence and presumably frustrated with the state of poverty-stricken New York. Due to the city’s fiscal collapse, crime had surged drastically and lack of funding meant police forces failed to regulate the chaos emerging in the streets; New York was labelled “Fear City.”

The graffiti-style endeavour surged through New York’s boroughs with enigmatic statements that spoke of Basquiat and Diaz’s philosophies.

“SAMfor the so-called avant-garde”

“SAMO© as an end to the 9 to 5 “I went to college” “Not 2-nite. Honey”, Bluz, Think”

“SAMO© as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics and bogus philosophy”

The SAMO project accumulated fame among local residents and with that a young Jean-Michel revealed his identity as SAMO and branched out of the venture into his own independent career.

Artworks such as “Irony of Negro Policeman”, “Obnoxious Liberals” and “Dustheads” poetically displayed Basquiat’s thoughts on the prejudiced, socio-economic conditions of America. 

 “Irony of Negro Policeman”, the name alone infers that Black men who choose this occupation are ignorant and are actively participating in the racist infrastructure of law enforcement. Police brutality against Coloured men and women was notoriously high during the 1980s (and still is today). 

“Obnoxious Liberals” conveys similar messages with three figures, one dark and chained up, another with his arm in a victory stance whilst another figure has a dead expression on his face. The name of this piece speaks of the political climate of America: how many are oppressed and how very few reap the benefits; the dark figure representing black and coloured people being imprisoned or mentally enslaved. 

The drug epidemic that dominated the 1980s is present in Basquiat’s piece “Dustheads.” Millions of US citizens were addicted to Heroin and Crack, this affected all social classes and caused severe health implications.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, from a Haitian and Puerto Rican background, raised in 1960s America and heavily exposed to the failure and injustice of the political and socio-economic system expressed his views in his art, which was often abstract in expression, but blunt in reality. Basquiat paved his way to icon status as the most profound artist of the modern, neo-expressionist period.  

“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat

4 thoughts on “The Blunt Reality Behind Basquiat’s Abstract Expression

  1. What a great article and some important informations to know, Kashala! “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.” I think this quote is also quite important to understand the whole situation and the objective in his works.

    1. Great post! Very detailed information that helps when trying to understand the story behind the art. Keep the posts coming Kashala!

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