by Liz Dowling

The MFA in Boston has an incredible Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit right now.

The exhibit begins in the late 1970’s when Basquiat is 17 and spray painting graffiti on subways and buildings in lower Manhattan under the pseudonym SAMO (“same old sh*t”) with his friend Al Diaz.

Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960, the second of four children. His mother Matilde instilled a love of art in her son by taking him to art museums in Manhattan and enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Basquiat left school in 1978, started working at the Unique Clothing Warehouse in NoHo and, at night, continued to spray paint graffiti as SAMO on neighborhood buildings. The Village Voice published an article about his graffiti in December 1978 and he started showing SAMO montages, using color copies of his works, in 1979. Basquiat also painted clothes and the costume designer Patricia Field started carrying his clothing line in her upscale boutique in the East Village.

During the early 1980s, Basquiat made his breakthrough as a solo artist. He sold his first painting (Cadillac Moon) to Debbie Harry in 1981 for $200 and appeared in her music video “Rapture” in the role originally intended for Grandmaster Flash.

Basquiat painted many pieces on found objects, such as discarded doors and the “Fun Fridge” (above) 1982. There is a great book called “Widow Basquiat” by Jennifer Clement that is about Suzanne Mallouk, the almost constant companion of Basquiat from the early days on the Lower East Side. Suzanne sold their refrigerator (above) to Sotheby’s for $5,000 and subsequently, Andy Warhol bought it. Suzanne is not mentioned much, if at all, in this exhibit. She and Jean-Michel met at the Night Birds bar in 1980 when she was a bartender and they lived together on and off until his death in 1988. He called her Venus.

Suzanne is featured in many of Jean-Michel’s paintings – the letter “S” appears for her and the word “Venus.”

Basquiat become an accepted member of the upper echelons of a 1980s art scene ~Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Cy Twombly – and the youngest artist to ever take part in Documenta in Germany. His neo-expressionist paintings started being exhibited in galleries and museums internationally.

Larry Gagosian, the art dealer, invited Basquiat to work in the ground floor studio space of his Venice, California home. There, he created a series of paintings for a March 1983 show, his second at the Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood. Basquiat flew out his then unknown-singer girlfriend, Madonna, to accompany him to the show.

Basquiat loved Jazz, hip-hop, blues, Latin + African music and has said “my paintings are jazz on canvas.”

Diego Cortez was one of Jean-Michel and Suzanne’s first friends. He was an art curator and dealer who knew everything about the club scene and the art world. It was Diego who arranged Jean’s first show at a space in Long Island City and, it is said that without Diego, Jean-Michel might never have become famous.

Basquiat died in 1988 of a heroin overdose. He was 27 years old.

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