Jean-Michel Basquiat was truly an enigma. In terms of modern visual artistry, one would argue that there hasn’t really been anyone who has instilled such a complex mesh of ideas into their pieces of work. An intensely cerebral artist, Basquiat took as much inspiration from the civil rights movement as he did from the likes of Leonardo da Vinci.
Born to a Haitian mother and a Puerto Rican mother in New York, 1960, you could perhaps argue that Basquiat’s existence as a mixed-race person in New York was also an element that inspired the web of ideas that permeated his artwork. His artwork used a mix of ideas and materials, and together they showed that he was a perpetually restless thinker, as a lot of his works seem to represent, at their core, many contrasts. His famous untitled artwork featuring a sky blue canvas ripped open by an imposing skull is the best example of this notion.
Another interesting facet of Basquiat’s life was the fact that he had no formal training in art. Instead, he learnt his craft by listening to his father’s jazz records and took visual inspiration from frequenting the city’s galleries such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art with his mother. As a child, he would also draw his own versions of comic books, cartoons and even scenes from the bible as a means of passing the time.
The most significant part of Basquiat’s early life was when he was hit by a car when playing in the street, aged eight. Whilst he was hospitalised, his mother bought him a copy of the medical encyclopedia, Gray’s Anatomy, to keep his brain occupied. This gift would have a transformative effect on the young Basquiat, and it would inform all the skulls, sinew, teeth and guts that appeared in his work.
Aged 17, he cut his teeth as part of the mysterious graffiti duo SAMO (Same-Oh) alongside school friend Al Diaz. They adorned parts of Lower Manhattan in cryptic pieces of art that were both humorous and solemn. This soon caught the attention of the city’s art scene, and it proved to be Basquiat’s way in to the world of art. He sold his first painting, ‘Cadillac Moon’, to Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry in 1981 for just $200. He then even appeared in the band’s video for ‘Rapture‘ later that year.
Basquiat was a true artist. Aside from being the most celebrated neo-expressionist of the ’80s, he was also a poet and a musician. Another critical feature of his visual work was the way that it was greatly inspired by literature.
Taking cues from the contemporary and historical African-American experience and the lives of the marginalised in society, this is the true majesty of his work. It had a social and literary flavour that no other modern visual artist has ever managed to achieve.
Luckily for us, he divulged the names of his favourite books across his life and career, and together they provide a vivid portal into the tempestuous mind of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the artist and the human.
If we note the colourful variety of books that influenced his artistry, it is easy to heed that Basquiat was a profoundly complex human being, whose background in history and art, not only provided him with the inspiration for the drawings in his paintings but also the choice of words he used in them.
Aside from Gray’s Anatomy, Basquiat picked classics as well as more niche titles relating to his unique outlook on life. One standout is a novel that seems to be a favourite of many “troubled” artists from across the disciplines, including musicians Kurt Cobain and Richey Edwards. This is William S. Burroughs’ 1953 debut, Junky.
Of the beat generation hero, Basquiat said: “He’s my favourite living author. Definitely. I think it’s really close to what Mark Twain writes, as far as the point of view. It’s pretty similar, I think.” Considered a seminal text on the life of heroin addicts in the ’50s, Basquiat’s love for Junky is a strange one looking back, as it would be heroin that he succumbed to aged just 27 in 1987.
This gives his love for Burroughs‘ work a romantic yet tragic edge and one that is all too familiar when discussing the artistic and social influence of the beat generation. However, it seems as if Basquiat’s love for the beats ran deep, as he also mentioned Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel, The Subterraneans.
A semi-fictional novella that recounts Kerouac’s romantic dalliance with African-American beat member, Alene Lee, the book’s backdrop of jazz and its discussion of race were clearly two things that Basquiat found solace in.
Another vital work listed by Basquiat was Robert Farris Thompson’s 1983 work Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. Historian Farris Thompson is an authority on the art of diaspora in the Americas and on hip-hop culture. Flash of the Spirit is arguably his landmark work. Of it, Basquiat once said that it was “probably the best book I ever read on African art.”
It explains how five African civilisations, Yoruba, Kongo, Ejagham, Mande and Cross River, have informed the aesthetic, social and metaphysical traditions (music, sculpture, textiles, architecture, religion) of black people in places such as the United States, Cuba and Haiti.
Another critical work favoured by Basquiat is Paul Richer’s 1889 effort Artistic Anatomy. This can be hailed as being a huge influence on the work of Basquiat, and it’s likely that without it, he wouldn’t have honed his very unique way of depicting parts of the human anatomy. Artists from Renoir to Degas have used it as a guide for drawing the human body, and it is widely hailed as the best of its kind since the days of the Renaissance.
Other important works in Basquiat‘s library include Herman Melville’s iconic 1851 novel Moby Dick and The Complete Notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, when you take the latter in tandem with Gray’s Anatomy and Artstic Anatomy, you get a succinct image of the foundations upholding Basquiat’s penchant for all things anatomical.
Thankfully, the good folk over at Radical Reads have collated the pieces of literature that Basquiat namechecked throughout interviews. It provides a glimpse into the influences that he fused to shape his personal creative identity.
Basquiat’s favourite books:
- Gray’s Anatomy by Susan Standring
- Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson
- History of Art by H. W. Janson
- African Rock Art by Burchard Brentjes
- The Complete Notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci
- Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss
- Artistic Anatomy by Paul Richer
- Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie’ Yardbird’ Parker by Ross Russell
- Black Beauty, White Heat: A Pictorial History of Classic Jazz by Frank Driggs & Harris Lewine
- Junky by William S. Burroughs
- The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac
- Work by Mark Twain
- Moby-Dick by Herman Melville