The Jean-Michel Basquiat I knew…

Downtown 81 Jean Michael Basquiat

The graffiti artist turned painter became the star of the 1980s New York art scene. Since his death aged 27, his reputation has soared. On the eve of a major UK show, we speak to his friends.

Eleanor Nairne, co-curator of the show, explains why there hasn’t been a full retrospective until now. Although Basquiat was immensely prolific during his short life, institutions were slow to recognise his talent. “The time between his first solo show and his death was six years,” she says. “Institutions do not move that quickly.

New York City in the late 1970s was utterly unlike it is now: un-glitzy, rough, with many buildings burnt out and abandoned. “The city was crumbling,” says Alexis Adler, “but it was a very free time. We were able to do whatever we wanted because nobody cared.” Rents were cheap (or people squatted) and downtown New York was a grubby, exhilarating mecca for the artistic dispossessed. The punk scene, centred on the venue CBGB, was giving way to something more experimental, involving art, film and what would become hip-hop. Everyone went out every night, everyone was creative, everyone was going to make it big.

Reviews, however, were scarce. Basquiat’s push-me-pull-you relationship with the art establishment was becoming evident: the dealer he wanted, Leo Castelli, rejected him as too troublesome; there was prejudice against him for his youth, for having first worked as a graffiti artist, for being untrained, and for being black. His work was represented as instinctive, as opposed to intellectual, though he was well versed in art history; some held the patronising idea that he didn’t know what he was doing.

via: The Jean-Michel Basquiat I knew… | The Guardian