The Artistic Duo: The Inspiring Story of Jean Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint by Nelly Perez | September 21, 2019

Jean Michel-Basquiat was a high school dropout. Free from the responsibilities of education, he became a graffiti artist, and, at seventeen years old, walked around and painted on the streets of New York. He created art by spray painting different surfaces in the city, and always signed his work as “SAMO,” meaning “same old shit,” as he had done since he met an important friend of his, Al Diaz.1 Since he hardly had any money, he sold his art on clothing items and postcards at a high price. The profits he received from selling his art were often spent on typical needs and drugs. Although they were making good money, the duo split up in 1979 and Michel-Basquiat met Keith Haring. Although he didn’t know it then, Haring would one day help him meet his hero.

One of Jean Michel-Basquiat’s famous pieces, titled “Charles the First 1982” | Courtesy of Yann Caradec on Flickr

One night in 1980, Michel-Basquiat got his first break when he got to take part in the Times Square Show that was organized by Keith Haring at Club 57, an institution that allowed young artists to show off their work. Within the same year, the young artist finally got the chance to meet the well-known Andy Warhol at the Factory in New York. Jean wanted nothing more than to meet his hero, and knew that he could find some popularity through Andy and his influence, as popularity is one of the most important things to consider for an artist.2 They finally met in the fall at Andy Warhol’s famous art studio, the Factory. Jean approached his idol and handed him his portfolio, which was filled to the brim with postcards brandishing the different artwork that he created. Luckily, Warhol took interest in the street artist, and decided to take Jean under his wing.

Heart Attack Photo by Elias Rovielo | Courtesy of Flickr

A few years go by and Andy finds himself intrigued by the contemporary art scene. As he continued to teach Michel-Basquiat everything he knew, he also advised his pupil to live healthy by helping him recover from his continued drug usage.3 Michel-Basquiat had been using heroin and cocaine before he met Warhol, and over time it was clearly beginning to get the best of him. Warhol took it as part of his duties as a teacher to assist the young artist in getting control of his life through a rejection of drugs. As time went on, the duo created a variety of works, most of which are paintings on walls and graffiti with different messages. Their famed “Heart Attack” painting, for instance, relies heavily on the idea of “mixed media,” and is one of the most well-known and professional examples of it. In the face of their climbing popularity, the two decided to host an exhibit in the Shafrazi Gallery in New York City. Despite their best efforts, however, their art failed to sell very well at the exhibition, as only one of their works was sold. As a result of this tragic outcome, Michel-Basquiat became emotionally unstable and began to doubt his own artistic ability. As he occupied his thoughts by dealing with the failure of the show, he was caught completely unprepared for what was to come next in his life.

On February 22, 1987, Andy Warhol went into cardiac arrest and was declared dead after an unsuccessful gall bladder surgery.4 Although many mourned the death of the great artist, there were perhaps none as negatively affected as Michel-Basquiat. Warhol was his mentor and idol, and his death came with deep psychological consequences to his well-being. Near the end of 1987, the young artist expressed his negative emotions in a work of art that had a violent message, and was openly critical of society. He started to struggle with motivation, and subsequently turned to heroin as a cure, relapsing into an activity that his mentor had previously tried so hard to help him overcome. He started to experience loneliness.5

In August 1998, Michel-Basquiat died at a young age via heroin overdose.6 Though he had a rough upbringing and bleak aspirations for the future, most of his artwork is well-known today, and hangs in places outside of New York and the United States. His story is undoubtedly one of persistence, courage, and tragedy, and it is for this reason that he will always be remembered as the Radiant Child or as his alter ego, SAMO.7

Jean Michel-Basquiat’s Gravestone in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  1. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 2006, s.v. “Basquiat, Jean-Michel” by Nathan Kernan.
  2. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Live, 1999, s.v. “Basquiat, Jean-Michel” by Kenneth T. Jackson, Karen Markoe, and Arnold Markoe.
  3. In Activism and Reform, The Arts, Business and Industry, 2010, s.v. “Basquiat, Jean-Michel (1960-1988),” by UXL.
  4. The Sixties in America Reference Library, 2005, s.v. “Warhol, Andy,” by Sara and Tom Pendergast.
  5. Johnson William, “Pesos, Paparazzo, Pastry, Painting”, Film Quarterly 64, 2 (2010): 11.
  6. Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, 2007, s.v. “Basquiat, Jean-Michel” by Gary L. Anderson and Katherine G. Herr.
  7. Javaka Steptoe, Radiant Child: the story of young artist Jean Michel Basquiat (New York: Brown and Company, 2016), 32.

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35 Responses

  1. Hello Nelly! First of all, I want to just say you did a phenomenal job here. The story of Jean Michel Basquiat is most definitely a tragic one, from his early usage of drugs, to trying to better himself with the help of others, and eventually relapsing and feeling desolate; After reading more about his childhood, his upbringing was very traumatic but, through it all, he was able to find his passion and create wonderful art that many admire to this day. Something that caught my eye was the amount of impact his mentor had throughout his early adult life. He was able to guide him through his journey and the bumpy road that lied ahead. I have never heard of Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring, but I learned a lot from reading this well-written article.

  2. First off I really love how descriptive and detailed the article is for the reader to understand. I found this story to be very sad, drug abuse is something that nobody likes to see take down a brilliant mind. Its vital that people seek the proper help when needed before its too late because the consequences are tough.

  3. This story is so sad as he was such a talented artist. I love how symbolic and meaningful Michael-Basquiat’s art pieces have a lot of New York culture to them with the grafiti. It so sad to know his life ended at such a young age, I cannot believe the pain his friend might’ve felt from this but I know he was always there to support him with his success.

  4. It is heartbreaking to read that artist Michel-Basquiat struggled with drug use during this lifetime. Even though drugs are often used as a coping mechanism, it is important that drug abusers seek help and guidance during their hardships. The guidance that Basquiat received from Andy Warhol signifies the important role that mentors have on their mentee’s. This article reveals the true struggles that Basquiat experienced during his lifetime in an excellent way.

  5. This article was really insightful. I had no idea Keith Haring introduced Basquiat to Andy Warhol. I know some things about Warhol and Haring, but not from Basquiat. Even though I had heard his name, I had no idea he worked with Haring and Warhol. It is sad to see how the death of Warhol made him end up the way he did, it is sad because I personally like his work and feel like he had a lot of potential. Overall this article was informative and taught me a little bit more about art.

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