How Jean-Michel Basquiat Inspired GQ Season’s Look



Jean-Michel Basquiat Inspired GQ season’s Look in his style of equal parts classical and street. Here’s how the artist who blew away Warhol and seduced Madonna did it.

There’s video footage, for a long time thought to be the only that existed of Jean-Michel Basquiat, shot in 1982 at his studio on Crosby Street. He’s 21 years old and still basking in the success of his fame-elevating and critically acclaimed museum show at P.S.1 the year before.

Marc Miller, an art critic, is talking to him, microphone in hand, about the recent reception to his work. Basquiat is wearing a Wesleyan jersey; his hair is dragged up into a pair of lopsided pigtails. Arms crossed, he rocks slightly between the balls and heels of his feet and maintains, for minutes on end, a bored smile.

There’s a moment a few minutes into the tape when Miller asks Basquiat to respond to what other critics have called “some sort of primal expressionism.” Basquiat, still smiling, eyes glassed over in gentle and almost invisible disdain, says, “Like an ape? A primate?” Miller, surprised and embarrassed, stammers back, “I don’t know.” Basquiat, voice no louder than before, responds, “You said it, you said it.”

The exchange is awful to watch. As a viewer, you’re vicariously offended on behalf of Basquiat and defensive on behalf of Miller (who was, after all, only quoting other people). But the parrying, besides for animating a thicket of issues—ageism, racism, the powerlessness of the journalistic subject, the self-loathing of the critic—also shows, better of course than any still image, Basquiat’s seductive blend of antagonism and comic self-regard. It’s not inconceivable that a person could watch the short video and fall in love with him.

Looking at archival photos and footage of Basquiat provokes in the viewer a hyper-awareness that’s immediately familiar to anyone who was uncool in junior high. Nobody has a keener eye for detail than the striving adolescent. They notice how their peers cuff their jeans; where at the ankle they break their track pants; and that it’s somehow possible, on the popular kids, for pimples to seem well-placed. To observe Basquiat, even posthumously, is to remember what it was like to be in the presence of people whose clothes and cadence seemed excruciatingly natural.

Where did Basquiat even get his clothes? A denim tank top? A nautical tunic fastened with toggles? Opera-length puka shells? Everything he wore looked borrowed, maybe even found—perfect but impermanent, less clothes than incidental ornament.

There is nothing more attractive to a woman than a man who does not shop, whose clothes just happen. A man who appears to be—in the biblical, not the aesthetic ense—immaculately dressed. We all know these men. Often they’re poorly put together: faded socks, oddly fitting pants, one of those weirdly ubiquitous sweaters with the single horizontal stripe across the chest. And that is charming in its own way. But there are also those men, similarly impossible to imagine shopping, who look like aristocrats even in rags. Basquiat was one of them.

His paintings, which now routinely sell for close to $50 million at auction, are beloved for their ease of gesture—a phrase that sounds as though it would appear in a bogus press release but is actually true in the case of Basquiat. With layers of color, smudged text written (and often crossed out) with a ham-fisted hand, frenetic figures drawn with a childlike urgency, and aggressively large canvases, Basquiat’s paintings are, more than most other artists’, impossible to forge. They are so clearly the physical product of a particular person’s energy that the question of whether they are even any good is more or less irrelevant. They are cool—which, in the context of art criticism, is usually a derogatory word meant to imply bad faith, lack of technical ability, or a suspiciously canny understanding of an already insular social order. But why should it mean that? Basquiat’s cool—like Miles Davis’s cool and Lou Reed’s cool—is not incidental to his work: In many ways the two are synonymous.

For a century now, at least since Duchamp submitted a urinal as sculpture, art has been, for better or worse, usually nothing more than what a person can convince others is art. And what is that ability if not a certain kind of charisma, a weaponized (and eventually monetized) form of cool? It’s something more magnetic than intelligence, more ambitious than kindness, more confrontational than good taste. It’s an elusive property, but not necessarily one that, in and of itself, is any more rare or complex than what makes a prepubescent kid popular. Basquiat had it, and it’s as evident in his paintings as it was on his body.

Dead, like so many twentieth-century icons, at 27, he seems, especially in retrospect, like a fictional character from a Tom Wolfe novel. Isolated by his celebrity, addicted to heroin, victim to the culture industry’s soft but persistent racism, Basquiat was an on-the-nose embodiment of his era.

The son of an accountant, Basquiat was private-school-educated and a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum. His later semi-homelessness and attendant feral appearance were both voluntary and performative. After running away, at the age of 17 (from a three-story brownstone in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, worth about $4 million today), he decamped for downtown Manhattan. He shaved his head into a sort of trompe l’oeil male-pattern balding (“I thought it would be a good disguise”), couch-surfed, and graffitied the city streets with the tag SAMO©. He subsisted on a Cheez Doodles-heavy diet and made a substantial percentage of his paltry income by searching the floor of the Mudd Club for dropped change. It’s a testament to the potency of Basquiat’s flash that he was able to overcome such a biography. I mean, Jesus. Imagine meeting a person like that today.

The hardscrabble existence didn’t last long. By 1981, Basquiat had a critically acclaimed solo show, and within only three years his paintings were selling for upwards of $25,000 to S. I. Newhouse, Richard Gere, Paul Simon, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was only 23. Basquiat’s youth, which would constitute the entirety of his short life, was almost parodically of-the-moment: He produced a record with Fab 5 Freddy, played in a band with Vincent Gallo, dated Madonna, walked in runway shows for Comme des Garçons, lived with Larry Gagosian, starred in a Blondie music video, and was close friends with Andy Warhol. Any one of these circumstances would be the most memorable of another person’s life. Henry Geldzahler, the late curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described his “very attractive” personality as both “charming and disdainful.” Maripol, the creative director of Fiorucci, recalled that girls were “glued” to him.

Of course they were. He lived like a rapper decades before rappers would have the social capital to name-check his work and the real capital to buy it at auction. Basquiat painted in—and subsequently ruined—$800 European suits; threw wads of cash out limousine windows; was known to drop $30,000 on drugs in a single night; bought 1961 Lafite at Sherry-Lehmann (“cheaper than drugs”); and drank Kir Royale at Mr. Chow. He had what seems to have been a lifelong propensity for throwing food on authority figures (a cream pie in the face of his high school principal, a bowl of cereal upon the head of a predatory art dealer), and once conducted a studio visit in a girlfriend’s black dress. “There was a period of about a year and a half when it was impossible to wake up in the morning and not hear about Jean-Michel Basquiat,” gallerist Mary Boone told The New York Times in 1985. When he died of an overdose in 1988, the year after Warhol, his memorial, in Manhattan, was attended by more than 200 people.

In an effort to both telegraph cultural savvy and appropriate his effortless style, Reebok released sneakers with his signature chicken scratch, and Supreme has put out shirts and hoodies emblazoned with Basquiat’s iconography.

The look he created—in his paintings and his person—didn’t vanish with him; it proliferated. A person could spend years trying to re-create Basquiat’s wardrobe. Many a misguided art-school student probably has. Desired items would include pleated ecru linen pants; a flannel shirt, washed to a mint green blur; a herringbone blazer short in the sleeves; a thin Jimmy Cliff-style polo shirt with a too long placket; one of those oversize black leather jackets that inexplicably brown rather than gray with age. Unsurprisingly, contemporary streetwear brands have attempted to capitalize on—in the most literal of ways—Basquiat’s urban appeal. In an effort to both telegraph cultural savvy and appropriate his effortless style, Reebok released sneakers with his signature chicken scratch, and Supreme has put out shirts and hoodies emblazoned with Basquiat’s iconography.

It’s a sad but true fact of the world that, just as anything looks good on a thin woman, anything looks good on a confident man—even, regrettably, heroin-induced skin lesions, tooth rot, and bloat. Picture Basquiat—paint-splattered, smiling—jaywalking across Broadway with a pocketful of singles supplied by his first gallerist, Annina Nosei, to get lunch at Dean & DeLuca. Or better yet, with a bouquet of lilacs en route to Bianca Jagger’s birthday party. Before he himself would become an icon, Basquiat painted them: kings, athletes, warriors. And like them, he was coronated. Though his dreadlocks changed length, from aloe-like spikes to horns to bramble, he is best remembered as existing beneath a head of hair that looked like nothing so much as a crown.

And like King Midas, who could turn anything he touched to gold, Basquiat was capable of transferring his magic aura not only to canvas but to completely arbitrary items. A suede Jacuru hat on his head, a tiger-print bandanna around his neck, even a docile Siamese cat in his lap—all are anointed merely by being chosen by him.


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I Love Warhol

I Love Warhol