10 February 1985: Jean-Michel Basquiat appears on the cover of the New York Times magazine, sitting in his studio in Great Jones Street. His stares idly into the lens while his hand grasps his brush like a weapon. His bare feet, resting on an overturned chair that looks like an animal carcass, are in sharp contrast to the formality of the Armani suit where you can just see the hem of his trousers streaked with paint.
He is light years away from his early days when, having removed himself from the bourgeois indifference of his father and his mother’s psychic instability, he chose his path, the underground world of graffiti and new wave music, of clubs, but above all the walls of New York where he gave vent to the “80 per cent of anger” that fed his hunger for success. From the anonymity of SAMO – the label he adopted to brand the skin of a city still hostage to racism and urban decay – Jean-Michel went on, in just a few years, to co-sign paintings with Andy Warhol.
Today he is the most famous black artist, the first to become internationally famous, a goal he really wanted to achieve and single-mindedly worked towards. But it quickly became a label he couldn’t shake off, in the gilded cage that the art establishment seemed to have put him in, from which not even his excesses and perhaps his last desperate attempt to escape – a return to his origins, to the African destination on the air ticket found in his pocket at the time of his premature death at 27 – would manage to save him. A contradictory temperament in a time of contradictions, Basquiat personally experienced a whirlwind of stimuli, a maelstrom of emotions that he then poured out onto his canvas and any other support to hand: words, images and sounds were magically recomposed into a new form that makes him one of the greatest visual poets of the 20th century.