It has been thirty-three years since the Puerto Rican/Haitian American painter Jean Mitchel Basquiat died, young and beautiful, at 27 of a heroin overdose after a professional career that lasted only nine years. In that short span of time, he rose to success to become one of the most important artists of the 20th century.
Today, there is a Basquiat at Tiffany’s. But still, no one celebrates his Puerto Rican heritage and how coded it is in his art.
His rarely seen 1982 “Equals Pi” painting is the centerpiece of the new Tiffany and Co. “About Love” campaign that also features Beyonce (dressed like Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Jay-Z, and the infamous 128.54-carat yellow Tiffany Diamond, whose 82 facets mirror an ugly narrative of colonialism and white plunder.
The campaign has been met with a firestorm of controversy, but it has placed Basquiat and his legacy back on center stage.
Tiffany recently purchased the painting, which had been with a private collector and Sotheby’s had tried to auction twice and claims that its robin-blue background is an homage to the company’s signature hue (although there is no way to confirm that) and plans to display it at Tiffany’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York.
In an interview with WWD, Alexandre Arnault, Tiffany executive vice president, tried to connect the painting and the luxury jewelry brand. “The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage,” he said.
As with everything Basquiat, image travels more than the truth.
But, who was Basquiat, really? Was he an artist, an art star, or just a product of his generation, his parent’s provenance, and the New York City of the 1980s — a dangerous city emerging from bankruptcy but teeming with creativity among the rubble, graffiti, and debris?
Stephen Metcalf wrote in The Atlantic that the little that is known of Basquiat could be summed up as follows:
“An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work.”
The image we most associate with Basquiat is of a young anti-establishment graffiti artist in paint-splattered Armani suits, barefoot, suspended dreadlocks standing straight up in the air. He is referred to as the first international Black art star — an African-American artist — but very few even mention his Caribbean background.
Basquiat grew up in a city that was falling apart; his New York was made of Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods with Boricua flags painted on the walls, abandoned buildings, debris, and a crack and heroin epidemic. The streets and alleyways were his canvas — walls, doors, sidewalks — any object interesting enough to be made into something else.
This is where Samo@ (shorthand for same old shit) came to life, created between 1977 and 1980 together with his teenage friend, Al Diaz, another New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, to mock “bogusness” in a city they saw full of middle-class wannabes.
The Village Voice described the Samo@ tags as “the logo of the most ambitious — and sententious — of the New Wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs.”
A personal Samo@ tag favorite is “Samo@ for the So-Called Avant-Garde” or “Samo@ as an Alternative 2 ‘Playing Art’ With the ‘Radical Chic’ Section of Daddy’$ Funds.”
“It was supposed to be a logo, like Pepsi,” Basquiat told the British-American writer Anthony Haden-Guest.
So much has been written about Basquiat, yet so little is known about his Puerto Rican background and how this played out in his art. In fact, few people know that he was of Puerto Rican descent, even though Spanish words and Boricua sayings populate his work.
Any Puerto Rican would recognize the agility of Basquiat’s use of language, first seen in the cheekiness of Samo@ and later illustrating many of his paintings.
Basquiat’s mother was Matilde Andrades, a Brooklynite of Puerto Rican descent. His father, Gerard Basquiat, was born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. In this multicultural home, the artist grew up speaking Spanish, French, and English. But it is Matilde’s influence that can be felt in Basquiat’s brushstrokes.
His mother appreciated his talent and encouraged his interest by signing him up as a young member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, taking him to the Museum of Modern Art to see Picasso’s Guernica and to the theater to see West Side Story.
She also gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, the 19th-century medical textbook (after a car hit him when he was a young boy) and a book called “Junky” by William Burroughs — both appearing as touchstones in his work.
Some accounts describe Matilde as erratic that she beat him for wearing his underwear backward and threatened to kill her entire family by crashing their car while driving.
Basquiat said Matilde had “a worry line on her forehead from worrying too much.” He called her bruja. She was in and out of mental hospitals. He once told an interviewer that she went crazy “as a result of a bad marriage.”
The fact remains that she, and her Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean background, are present in the boldness of color, the African masks, his frenetic painting, the skulls and words in Spanish — such as in his paintings Sabado Por La Noche and Arroz Con Pollo.
I just wish more was known and celebrated of how much Matilde, and Puerto Rico, are responsible for the greatness of Basquiat.