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Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist. He began as an obscure graffiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed Neo-expressionist and Primitivist painter by the 1980s. Jean-Michel Basquiat used a mix of text and image in his work, creating paintings that are based in the language of grafitti art.

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1987-Riddle-Me-This-Batman-759x787 Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1987 – Riddle Me This, Batman – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

From the streets of New York to the walls of its most prominent galleries, young graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was catapulted to international fame in his early 20s and was gone by age 27. The subject of a feature film by fellow artist Julian Schnabel, Basquiat is one of the most admired artists to emerge from the 1980s art boom.


Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1984-Trumpet-759x758 Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1984 – Trumpet – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

In keeping with his background as a grafitti artist, Basquiat’s paintings are typically covered with text and codes of all kinds: words, letters, numbers, pictograms, logos, map symbols, diagrams and more. Another common theme in his work is the human body. His mother gave him a copy of the anatomical reference book, Gray’s Anatomy, while he was in the hospital at age seven. It remained influential in his depictions of internal human anatomy, and in its mixture of image and text. Despite his work’s chaotic appearance, Basquiat very skillfully and purposefully brought together a variety of different traditions, practices, and styles to create a unique kind of visual collage. His art reflects both his urban origins and his African-Caribbean heritage as well as his experience of an era (the 1980’s) in the grip of extraordinary change, including the emergence of hip-hop music and culture. Basquiat once said that his main themes were “kings, heroes, and the street.”

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1984-Sienna Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1984 – Sienna – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

“In contrast to most artists, Basquiat created his best paintings at the beginning of his career. Untitled 1981 unites all the elements of energy, freedom and boldness that one looks for in Basquiat. The market has been waiting a long time for a work of this caliber and freshness, therefore we expect it to set a new record for Basquiat, an artist who is in the process of being recognized as a classic of Post-War American Art alongside Warhol, De Kooning and Pollock.”

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1983-The-Nile-759x361 Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1983 – The Nile – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

Artistic styles:

Continuing his activities as a graffiti artist, Basquiat often incorporated words into his paintings. Before his career as a painter began, he produced punk-inspired postcards for sale on the street, and became known for the political–poetical graffiti under the name of SAMO. On one occasion Basquiat painted his girlfriend’s dress with the words “Little Shit Brown”. He would often draw on random objects and surfaces, including other people’s property. The conjunction of various media is an integral element of Basquiat’s art. His paintings are typically covered with text and codes of all kinds: words, letters, numerals, pictograms, logos, map symbols, diagrams and more.

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1983-In-this-Case Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1983 – In this Case – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

A middle period from late 1982 to 1985 featured multi-panel paintings and individual canvases with exposed stretcher bars, the surface dense with writing, collage and imagery. The years 1984-85 were also the main period of the Basquiat–Warhol collaborations, even if, in general, they weren’t very well received by the critics.

A major reference source used by Basquiat throughout his career was the book Gray’s Anatomy, which his mother gave to him while in the hospital at age seven. It remained influential in his depictions of internal human anatomy, and in its mixture of image and text. Other major sources were Henry Dreyfuss Symbol Sourcebook, Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks, and Brentjes African Rock Art.

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1982-Boy-and-dog-in-a-Johnnypump-759x428 Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1982 – Boy and dog in a Johnnypump – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat doodled often and some of his later pieces exhibited this; they were often colored pencil on paper with a loose, spontaneous, and dirty style much like his paintings. His work across all mediums display a child-like fascination with the process of creating.

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1982-All-Colored-Cast-Part-III-759x758 Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1982 – All Colored Cast (Part III) – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

Description of some Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork:

Scull, 1981:

Basquiat was a precocious child, and at the age of seven, his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which he later used as a reference to create his masterful and deconstructed figures. In this painting, Basquiat presents us with a face in the shape of a skull. Although complete with eyes, a nose, and teeth, the painting gives us the illusion that the face is incomplete, and the bones from underneath the surface are coming through just as plainly as the colors in the background. The head is filled with Basquiat’s illusory graffiti, giving the impression there are forms and figures within the face, but upon closer inspection, the face is a shambles of abstract lines and shapes.

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1981-Scull Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1981 – Scull – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

Irony of the Negro Policeman, 1981:

Basquiat’s Irony of Negro Policeman is a sharp critique on members of his own race. By depicting a Negro policeman, he is making a conscious effort to show how African-Americans are controlled by the white majority in America. Basquiat found it utterly ironic that any African-American would be a policeman, working to enforce rules that were meant to enslave themselves. The figure in the paintings is a totalitarian black mass, with a mask-like face and hat resembling a cage. On the right of the painting are the words “Irony of Negro Policeman,” and to the bottom right of the panting is the word “Pawn,” clearly stating Basquiat’s opinion on the ridiculous position of a Negro Policeman.

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1981-Irony-of-the-Negro-Policeman Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1981 – Irony of the Negro Policeman – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

Boxer, 1982:

This painting, which depicts a black boxer in the foreground of a white graffiti-filled backdrop, was sold at auction for $13.5 million in 2008. It had been held as part of the private collection of Lars Ulrich, the drummer for the heavy metal band Metallica, who decided to sell this painting along with Basquiat’s other masterpiece Profit I in order to raise funds to build a house for his family. This painting is a typical example of Basquiat’s bold graffiti style, used to enhance a heroic art piece into a full examination of the character’s figure and stance, from the skeleton -like smile to the disfigures musculature in the arms and laces of the boxing gloves.

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1982-Boxer-759x619 Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1982 – Boxer – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

Profit I, 1982:

Created in Italy in 1982, at the height of his fame, Profit I is one of Basquiat’s most masterful works. In this painting, Basquiat mixes the precedent of historical painting with urban graffiti to create a heroic character that is part self-portrait and part voodoo shaman. This painting, since creation, has been in the collections of two art galleries, as well as the personal collection of Lars Ulrich, from the heavy metal band Metallica. Ulrich, who fought to buy the painting from the Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, reluctantly sold the painting at auction in 2002 in order to raise funds to build a house for his growing family.

Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-1982-Profit-I-759x415 Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

1982 – Profit I – © Jean-Michel Basquiat

About – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean – Michel Basquiat [1960-1988] became active as an artist while still a teenager and was world-famous by the age of twenty-three. He was considered an exceptional creative talent by any standard and at a young age gained great fame and became a cultural hero to younger artists. His father is an accountant from Haiti. His mother is of Puerto Rican descent. After leaving home Jean-Michel explores music and art. He begins selling hand-painted postcards and T-shirts, and forms the band Gray with friends. He has his first show, a group exhibition with other artists, and is soon discovered by New York art critics. Now famous in the art world, Jean-Michel has exhibitions in New York, California, Europe and Japan. He continues his avid and spontaneous picture-making, painting on canvas, paper, and found objects like refrigerators, books and other things. Jean-Michel becomes friends with Andy Warhol. They collaborate on several projects but none are well-received by art critics. He sets up a studio on a rented ranch in Maui and often travels there. He also travels to Africa several times and has an exhibition in Cote D’Ivoire. He also shows his work in Germany, often becoming the youngest artist to exhibit at major galleries.”

  • Today, his legacy is secure with major works in many distinguished public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Andy Warhol Museum, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Fukuoka Art Museum, the Daros Collection and the Rubell Family Collection.
Neo-Expressionism-Figurative-Painting-By-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-759x771 Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat – © Jean-Michel Basquiat


Name: Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting
Type: Painting
Dimensions: Varies
Theme Colour: bright colors
Year: 1980-1988
Technique: Acrylic on canvas, Acrylic on wood, Crayon on canvas

The people:

Artist: Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) – Brooklyn, New York, United States
Text Description: © Courtesy of miravistaschool, freeartsminnesota, wikipainting
Images: © Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Neo-Expressionism Figurative Painting / Jean-Michel Basquiat
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