The best books to read first about the celebrated and controversial American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Why am I passionate about this?

I ardently began research and writing on Jean-Michel Basquiat in grad school (2004), before his paintings demolished sales records and when he was still somewhat misunderstood and marginalized by perplexed art historians. Since then, his potency and intrigue have blazed a global pop culture inferno. I’ve conducted dozens of interviews, befriended those close to him, memorized his lines, colors, words, and spaces in books and real life, and re-read countless pages. Currently I’m writing and compiling a field guide to his work. All Basquiat publications are imperfect. I hope with sensitivity and intellectual intent, fans can move through their initial impressions to better understand his meaningful motives, inclinations, and artwork.

I wrote...

SAMO©...SINCE 1978: SAMO©...Writings: 1978-2018

By Mariah Fox, Al Diaz,

Book cover of SAMO©...SINCE 1978: SAMO©...Writings: 1978-2018

What is my book about?

Al Díaz and Jean-Michel Basquiat stoked public intrigue in 1978 as teenagers with their SAMO©… graffiti tags throughout New York City. The writings spoke to people, about people, and sometimes of nothing at all. What began as a cynical, clever joke amongst friends became a creative cornerstone for both artists and a hallmark of NYC art history.
Everyone asked, “Who is SAMO?” Basquiat’s path was laid when the pair gave up their anonymity to the press in December 1978 in exchange for $100. Within two years Basquiat was a famous painter, abandoning graffiti for blue chip galleries. Díaz became a percussionist in the NYC music scene. SAMO©… was dead. Ten years after, Basquiat was dead. But today, Albert Díaz is very much alive.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Widow Basquiat: A Love Story

Mariah Fox Why did I love this book?

This is one of my all-time favorite books.

Its prose channels the powerful yet painful relationship of Suzanne Mallouk and Jean-Michel Basquiat as seen through Suzanne’s wise sensitivity, artistic nature, and unconditionally honest heart. Clement is a rich, sentient, masterful poet, and close friend of Suzanne.

I love that the story reads with mysterious, potent fluidity and is peppered with odd, lesser-realized personality traits and historic Basquiat facts.

Widow Basquiat is the unfiltered story of lovers living amidst an 80s NYC cultural renaissance. Their small joys and quirky character traits feel heroically familiar while the poetic style traverses select, revealing content that strikes chords.

Having personally known Suzanne for many years as a scholar and friend, this book generously and deeply shares her authentic human experience.

By Jennifer Clement,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Widow Basquiat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The beautifully written, deeply affecting story of Jean-Michel Basquiat's partner, her past, and their life together

An NPR Best Book of the Year Selection

New York City in the 1980s was a mesmerizing, wild place. A hotbed for hip hop, underground culture, and unmatched creative energy, it spawned some of the most significant art of the 20th century. It was where Jean-Michel Basquiat became an avant-garde street artist and painter, swiftly achieving worldwide fame. During the years before his death at the age of 27, he shared his life with his lover and muse, Suzanne Mallouk.

A runaway from an…

Book cover of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Mariah Fox Why did I love this book?

This book makes the top of my list simply for the very practical reason that it gathers the majority of available images spanning Basquiat’s entire body of work.

Its small size makes it accessible and affordable, however for that same reason, the images are not reproduced as largely as in other art books. At a chunky 512 pages, this stylish art book is the definitive volume for seeing high-quality reproductions of all of Basquiat’s documented work organized in one volume. It also includes some decent text content.

As a scholar or collector this is a very useful book but it’s also fun for anyone who wants to see comprehensive, or key, specific Basquiat works for an affordable price.

By Eleanor Nairne, Hans Werner Holzwarth (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jean-Michel Basquiat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The legend of Jean-Michel Basquiat is as strong as ever. Synonymous with New York in the 1980s, the artist first appeared in the late 1970s under the tag SAMO, spraying caustic comments and fragmented poems on the walls of the city. He appeared as part of a thriving underground scene of visual arts and graffiti, hip hop, post-punk, and DIY filmmaking, which met in a booming art world. As a painter with a strong personal voice, Basquiat soon broke into the established milieu, exhibiting in galleries around the world. Basquiat's expressive style was based on raw figures and integrated words…

Book cover of Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street

Mariah Fox Why did I love this book?

With a range of strong personal essays by some of Basquiat’s closest friends, family, and business colleagues, this elegantly designed art book is a good balance of early Basquiat art, documentary photography, and attractive film stills.

It is extra special because it centers on and helps explain the ways Basquiat and his artist peers were influenced by the streets and hyperactive socio-cultural experiences of the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City. This includes the rich and fascinating music, art, club, and gallery scenes.

The book features wonderful reproductions of some of Basquiat’s most stunning early works (both written and figurative). I enjoy having this book on my shelf due to its high-quality presentation, uniqueness, and historic appeal.

By Jeffrey Deitch, Diego Cortez, Glenn O'Brien

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1981 Jean-Michel Basquiat made the momentous transition from the street to the studio. He had attracted considerable attention with his Times Square Show the summer before, and reinforced that nascent notoriety with a wall of phenomenal works in Diego Cortez's New York/New Wave at P.S. 1, which opened the following winter. A few months later, the dealer Annina Nosei offered Basquiat an independent space in which to prepare work for her September group show, Public Address. He was only 20. Between the world of spray-painted poetry and what critic Peter Schjeldahl called "New York big-painting aesthetics" lies a fantastic…

Book cover of Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art

Mariah Fox Why did I love this book?

I am conflicted recommending this book. I detest this bestselling biography’s gossipy tone concerning Jean-Michel Basquiat’s personal and professional drama.

Yet many of these disturbances are unpleasantly true, and Hoban extensively, tediously researched her book. When I forget key names, or need to reference milestones, I look in the glossary and chapters. Chronologically it is helpful, but loosely delivered.

A revised edition would make a lot of sense, with so much discovery since its publication. The expansiveness, thoroughness, and ambition keep this book useful to me. Readers should take this exhaustive bio with a grain of salt, because of its biased fixation on the negative curiosities of Basquiat’s legacy.

In addition, with so much new information being revealed, researchers must cross-reference all facts taken from this title.

By Phoebe Hoban,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Basquiat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The tragic story of the talented painter Jean-Michel Basquiat details his turbulent childhood, explosive dealings with the elite art world, relationships with such figures as Andy Warhol and Madonna, and rise to fame, which led to his death from a drug overdose at the age of twenty-seven. 12,000 first printing.

Book cover of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©

Mariah Fox Why did I love this book?

No single book on my list is the perfect gateway to Basquiat, but taken as a group, you have a strong primer.

This recommendation includes abundant personal memories, photos, ephemera and artworks from the private collection of Jean-Michel Basquiat, his family, and close associates. After so many publications without input, Basquiat’s sisters finally come out here and share some personal experiences.

Research-wise this book is somewhat useless as his estate was not able to catalog much detailed substance. Yet the works within, which Basquiat withheld in his personal collection—are some of his most brilliant, especially the drawings, dated or not.

The book is also list-worthy because its accompanying KING PLEASURE © exhibit is recent, making this catalog one of the newer Basquiat collectibles available now.

By Lisane Basquiat (contributor), Jeanine Heriveaux (contributor), Nora Fitzpatrick (contributor) , Ileen Gallagher (contributor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jean-Michel Basquiat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Organised by the family of Basquiat, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue feature over 200 never before and rarely seen paintings, drawings, ephemera, and artifacts. The artist s contributions to the history of art and his exploration into our multi-faceted culture incorporating music, the Black experience, pop culture, African American sports figures, literature, and other sources are showcased alongside personal reminiscences and firsthand accounts providing unique insight into Basquiat s creative life and his singular voice that propelled the social and cultural narrative that continues to this day. Structured around key periods in his life, from his childhood and formative years,…

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Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

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What is this book about?

This book is very different from other, more general jazz books. It is packed with information, advice, well researched and includes experiences from jazz musicians who gleefully add their rich voices to Sammy's in-depth research. All genres, from hard bop to be-bop, vocal jazz, must instrumental, free jazz, and everything between is covered in one way or another and given Sammy's forensic eye. There is social commentary and discussions of careers in jazz music. The musical background of those in the book is rich and diverse.
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