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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34 Responses

  1. I had known about Andy Warhol from studying him in my art classes during elementary school but i had not known about Jean Michel-Basquiat until reading this article. It was good to read that Jean was able to meet and work with his hero to develop a relationship with him. It must have been hard for him when Andy passed and its a shame that Jean died of an overdose. This was such a good article and very descriptive of the relationship that was developed between the two. Well done!

  2. This article was very interesting, I have always been fascinated by art and painter, however this article opened my eyes to a lot more things. Although Michel died from a drug overdose, his work was truly inspiration and amazing. I belie Michel used painting as an emotional outlet to portray or try to release some of his emotions on a canvas, and he made beautiful things. Great article truly one of my favorite.

  3. I did not know anything about Michel or Andy before reading this but it was honestly so amazing. I love art and how it effects people in such different ways. The impact of art can be so powerful and helpful for some people. It was upsetting to read that Andy died but the things he had to go through must have been devastating. I am glad to know that Andy had Michel and the art.

  4. I grew up loving art and finding different pieces to be so beautiful. This article was very well written and it was very beautiful. Its sad that he had passed away from a drug overdose but I feel his art was very impactful on people and it helped him be remembered by many. I love how he was able to put his emotions into his work that has always been one thing I loved about art.

  5. Such a sad ending for such a promising artist in Jean Michel Basquiat. This is definitely not the way that Andy Warhol would have wanted to see him go after his death but everyone has a different reaction when they’re in mourning. Nelly Perez did a great job summing up the rise and fall of Basquiat, including subtle hints of the artist’s heroin addiction being the reason he died. Overall, it was a great read and it will lead to looking more up more information into Warhol, Basquiat, and the visual pop movement as a whole.

  6. hearing of deaths dealing with drug abuse and overdoses is always tragic, especially to me from personal conflicts. Despite Michel-Basquiats death, is flattering to now his art work was all over the city of New York for everyone to see. His dream took him to incredible places, and although graffitti can be seen as vandalism, I think its a fantastic way to express yourself. Great article and interesting story.

  7. It is really inspiring, how much of an influence Andy Warhol was on Michel-Basquiat and I really liked how he was a great mentor to him, trying to help with his drug addiction, and give him great advice on his artwork. It is also interesting how successful he was despite being a high school dropout. He found what he loved to do and what he was passionate about, and he created great artwork that many people will remember him for.

  8. Despite how saddening this story is, it’s no surprise that Michel-Basquiat dealt with such intense drugs issues. Most artists deal with demons that inspire their works but also torture them for most of their lives. It seems like both Warhol and Michel-Basquiat would have changed the course of American art history had they both not died so soon. Together they had a unique and revolutionary art style that very well might have been more revolutionary had it’s creators survived long enough to continue.

  9. The article really helped give information about the meaning behind art for some people and how it helps them cope with issues. It is really sad that Michel died at such a young age. His mentor was able to help but I couldn’t imagine his pain once Andy passed away. The article states how Michel had struggles with his drug addiction and mental issues which unfortunately was too much to handle once tragic things came at him.

  10. I didn’t know much about art but it was a really great article and opened my eyes to it. Its sad that he passed away from a drug overdose. However I think that the work that he did was great. He was able to release some of the emotions that he had inside on his art. That is why I think people consider his art to be so good. He was trying to show what he had inside in a way that people could appreciate.

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