Four Seasons Announces Artists for 2022-23 Season

By Tamara Shiloh

It was early summer 1980. More than 100 performers converged on an abandoned four-story building at Seventh Avenue and 41st Street in New York City that had once served as a massage parlour. Among those in the group was Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). His exhibited work is believed to have been his first painting on canvas.

Although the exhibition, dubbed “The Times Square Show”, attracted critical attention, it boosted the 18-year-old Basquiat’s career as a painter. His contribution, a mural painted on a piece of wall, was described by Art in America as “a striking combination of de Kooning and subway paint squiggles.”

The path to this shuttered massage parlor and its rise to success in the 1980s as part of the neo-expressionist movement was not without difficulty.

Basquiat was born into a middle-class family in Brooklyn. Her father, Gérard, a Haitian immigrant, was an accountant. His mother, Mathilde, was a housewife. Despite her frequent hospital stays for depression, Mathilde spent countless hours at the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum with Jean-Michel, encouraging her interest in painting.

Gérard, physically violent, was not involved in his son’s career. Biographies and movies have chronicled the strained relationship between the two, according to DNA Info.

Basquiat often said he “felt friendless and misunderstood”. After his parents separated, Gerard moved with his children to the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. When he was 7, Basquiat’s mother was diagnosed as mentally ill and eventually committed. This part of his life troubled him greatly.

At 17, Basquiat dropped out of high school. Gerard then threw him out of the house. He stayed with friends, slept in Washington Square Park, and lived in run-down hotels.

That’s when he teamed up with other graffiti artists and created the character, SAMO, which means “the same old sh––”. For money, he begged and sold sweatshirts and postcards marked with his designs. He made do with “cheap red wine and 15¢ bags of Cheetos.”

Without formal training, Basquiat created a body of work combining graffiti and signs with a gestural and intuitive approach to abstract expressionist painting.

He expressed his personal angst in highly stylized self-portraits. In the early 1980s, race first entered his work as a reflection of a “growing awareness of his own position in the New York art world”.

His painting, “The Death of Michael Stewart”, commemorates the murder of the young black artist by the New York transit police. “Black people are never really portrayed realistically…. I mean, not even represented enough in modern art,” Basquiat had said.

Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988. Towards the end of his life, his works sold for around $25,000 at the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.

Earlier however, both museums had rejected his work.

Be inspired by Basquiat’s paintings, read “Life Doesn’t Scare Me” by Maya Angelou, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Sarah Jane Boyers.

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