Today, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf are some of the most recognizable names in the world of art. In 2017, Basquiat’s untitled painting of a skull sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $110.5 million, the highest price ever paid for a work by a U.S. artist. The artwork of Keith Haring has become synonymous with the AIDS relief effort and his murals can be seen all over the world’s most prominent cities. Kenny Scharf is still taking the art world by storm at the age of 62, and recently collaborated on a clothing line with high-end brand Dior.
While many artists of past decades were born into the art world and trained under the tutelage of masters, these three artists come from far more humble beginnings. Each one got their start by selling art in the streets of New York City and by painting impromptu murals on the walls of SoHo and the East Village and in abandoned ad spaces throughout the New York City subway system.
The progressive and vibrant underground art scene of the 1980s gave these three street artists a home and allowed them to propel their careers to unthinkable heights. And the mentorship of one particularly well-known figure, Andy Warhol, helped to break down the barrier between the grungy New York graffiti culture and the world of fine art.
This is the remarkable story of how three young artists from different backgrounds stepped out of the dimly lit corridors of New York City subways and into the spotlight of the global fine arts scene.
While Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf would all eventually find themselves embedded deeply into the New York street art scene, the paths that led them there were very different. The remnants of their childhoods and early adulthoods can be clearly seen in each of their individual styles and subject matters.
Of these three artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the only one originally from New York City. Born in Brooklyn on December 22, 1960, to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian-American father, young Jean-Michel was exposed to a diverse range of cultural influences in his early years. He was fluent in French and Spanish as well as English, and his multilingual heritage would show itself all over his future works.
Basquiat’s father worked as an accountant and would often bring home pieces of paper, which young Jean-Michel would practice drawing on. His mother was always supportive of Jean-Michel’s interest in the arts and had him enroll as a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum at the age of just 6 years old.
At the age of 8, Jean-Michel was hit by a car while playing in the street. While he was recovering, his mother provided him with a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to read. This work of art and medical science would prove a persistent influence for Jean-Michel, who included a myriad of medical and anatomical references in his body of work.
Jean-Michel’s parents eventually divorced, and soon after his mother was declared mentally ill and institutionalized. Jean-Michel lived alone with his father for a number of years, but eventually ran away due to his father’s abusive tendencies and went to live with a friend’s family. He attended Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn until he dropped out in 1978 at the age of 17.
After dropping out of high school, Basquiat became immersed in the New York City graffiti scene. He began traversing the streets of New York with his partner Al Diaz, painting a character they called SAMO, which was an acronym for “Same Old Shit”. The SAMO works included large portions of text that relayed an anti-establishment, anti-political message.
During this period, Basquiat was more or less homeless, often sleeping in subways or on park benches. He did, however, find companionship in the underground artistic scene at nightclubs such as the Mudd Club and Club 57. It was in these underground clubs where Basquiat would meet future friends and influences like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf.
Keith Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on May 4, 1958, and spent most of his childhood near Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Haring’s father was an engineer who had a love for cartooning, and so young Keith spent a great deal of his early childhood drawing with his father. Keith was fascinated with the cartooning styles of Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, and the Looney Toons as a child, and learned technical cartooning skills by imitating these popular programs.
After graduating from Kutztown Area High School, Haring enrolled at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, a school for commercial arts. After two semesters, Haring realized that he was uninterested in pursuing a career in commercial arts and dropped out. For a while he remained in Pittsburgh, continuing to push forward with his studies and work. During this period, he became fascinated with the retrospective works of Belgian painter Pierre Alechinsky, whose influence is clearly visible in Haring’s body of work.
After exhibiting his work for the first time in Pittsburgh, Haring was instilled with the confidence to move to New York City, where he enrolled at The School of Visual Arts. It was at SVA that Haring would first meet Kenny Scharf, and the two of them discovered an alternative art scene emerging in the streets of New York.
Haring used the streets of New York City as a blank space for experimentation. In the words of Haring himself, “One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw.” Haring produced thousands of chalk drawings in New York City subways between 1980 and 1985, and he claimed that the feedback he received from passersby while he was working was largely responsible for the development of his artistic style.
Kenny Scharf, the third piece of the “unholy trinity”, as they would come to be known, was the only one of the three from the Western half of the United States. Born in Hollywood, California in 1958, Scharf was immediately surrounded by the flourishing pop culture of the decade. As a child, he would spend endless hours watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons such as The Jetsons, The Yogi Bear Show, and The Flintstones. Characters from Hanna-Barbera cartoons have appeared regularly throughout Scharf’s works and the illustration style of these cartoons has largely influenced Scharf’s signature squiggly characters.
In 1978, Scharf moved to New York City and enrolled in The School of Visual Arts. It was there he met Keith Haring, and not long after, he was introduced to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The three of them cliqued immediately and started to push each other’s work to continually improve.
In these years, Scharf continued to hone the style he referred to as “pop surrealism”. Scharf has said that his art comes from the subconscious mind, as all surrealist art does, but that his subconscious is filled with pop culture images.
Throughout the 1980s, Scharf frequented underground clubs like the Mudd Club and Club 57, and was soon ingratiated into the flowering alternative art scene that was emerging in the streets of New York City.
From the Subway to the Gallery
While these three underground street artists ran rampant through the subways and alleys of New York City, change was happening all around them. Riots were happening throughout the U.S. related to racial tensions and police brutality, the country was in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and the national crack cocaine epidemic was taking lives every day. The street art culture of New York City in the ’80s was both a reflection of the turbulent world around it and a call to reflect on the underlying causes of these problems.
A Call For Change
Once Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf all met in the underground nightclub scene of New York City, the three of them became somewhat of a posse. Though each had their own unique artistic style, the three of them pushed each other to work more and more. The sheer volume of works created by the trifecta on the walls of the East Village, on the sides of subway cars, and on abandoned billboards in the early 80’s is truly remarkable.
Together, these three budding young artists attacked the established art world and sought to bring down the barriers between fine art and street art. Their relationship could be described as both a rivalry and a deep friendship, exhibiting respect for each other’s works while constantly challenging each other to expand their boundaries.
It wasn’t only the fine art community that these three challenged, however. Through their use of visual language, they made profound commentaries on political power structures, racial identities, sexuality, capitalism, police brutality, love, friendship, and the human condition as a whole. Their works reflected an era of radical change in the world and forced their viewers to question longstanding paradigms that were beginning to crumble in the ’80s.
Kenny Scharf was one of the leading figures in the Lowbrow movement, which is said to have arisen in Los Angeles, where Scharf originated, in the 1960s. Lowbrow art, or pop surrealism, is said to often contain elements of humor, whether that humor is simply to get a laugh or meant sarcastically to elicit questions in the mind of the viewer. Scharf seeks to blur the boundary between fine art and pop art through his work. He uses lots of bright colors and images from the popular cartoons of his childhood and brings these images into surrealistic landscapes.
Keith Haring was a major proponent of the pop art movement, which sought to pull art down from the lofty artistic elite and make it accessible to the average person. Haring was convinced that art is for everyone, and so his works were almost always in a highly simplified and easy-to-understand visual language. He employed bright colors and cartoonish images to draw the viewer in and help them digest the commentary behind these seemingly simple images. Haring’s works were often in public spaces, and he opened the Pop Shop in downtown Manhattan in 1986 and offered products bearing his designs at low costs. As a result, his emblematic designs have become ubiquitous throughout New York City.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, in his short career, was propelled from being a graffiti artist selling t-shirts on the streets of New York City to arguably the most celebrated Neo-expressionist artist in the world in just a few years. He had a perspective that was unique in the high art world at the time, being a recently-poor man of color. His works communicated the differences between wealth and poverty, the manifestations of racism in the 1980s, historical power relations, and much more through his gritty, symbolic, and often violent style. Basquiat’s works often involved a great deal of text, which called the viewer to examine why these particular words would occupy the same canvas as the provocative images he juxtaposed them with.
The works of Scharf, Haring, and Basquiat started making waves in the art world throughout the 1980s, first in counterculture publications like Village Voice, and then with some of the top collectors and gallery owners in New York. In their journeys through the underground scene of New York City, these three artists formed relationships with creatives from all other types of disciplines who pushed them and inspired them. They also met one important mentor who undoubtedly deserves some credit for New York street art becoming a worldwide movement in the ’80s.
Warhol and the Underground Art Scene
While Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf are certainly most well known for their paintings, all three of these artists have experimented with a wide range of other artistic mediums. The underground scene in New York City in the 1980s was a hotbed for experimentation, and these artists often branched outside of their traditional mediums for collaborations with some pretty notable figures such as Madonna, Rene Ricard, Maripol, Grace Jones, Futura, Patti Astor, and many others.
More Than Painting
Basquiat starred in the film Downtown 81, which was written by Glenn O’Brien and produced in 1981, but not released until 2000. He also played the clarinet, guitar, and the Wasp synthesizer in an experimental band called Gray with renowned filmmaker Michael Holman. Basquiat was a profound poet, and there are countless volumes of his poetry scribbled in his signature grungy handwriting. There have also been rumors that Basquiat had a short romantic fling with Madonna in which he gifted her a number of his paintings.
Keith Haring worked on a project with Grace Jones for two live performances in the Paradise Garage in which he painted graffiti all over her body before she took the stage. He also collaborated with jewelry designer David Spada to design accessories for Jones. Haring also dabbled in the world of fashion, working with designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for their 1984 Witches collection, and even helped design the wardrobe for a live performance of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” that aired on international television.
Kenny Scharf gained great notoriety in the East Village for his Cosmic Caverns exhibits, which were immersive blacklight and Day-Glo installations that also functioned as raging disco parties. He also created the cover art for the B-52’s 1986 album Bouncing Off the Satellites and released a pilot episode of a cartoon called The Groovenians on Adult Swim in 2002.
All three of these artists had interests and abilities that spanned far beyond just painting, and it was their opportunity to participate in and mold the cultural revolution in New York in the 1980s that helped them push their art to such great heights. One man in particular, however, was largely responsible for inducting Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf into the New York art scene and facilitating their development into some of the world’s most prominent artists. That man is Andy Warhol.
The Mentorship of Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol became a revolutionary figure in the world of art in the 1960s as a leader of the pop art movement, which was largely a commentary on the intersection between artistic expression, advertisements, and celebrity culture. Some of his most famous works were his silkscreen paintings 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, one of which sold for $11.7 million at auction. One of his works titled Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) also sold at auction for a whopping $105.4 million.
By the time Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf were emerging in the art scene, Warhol had been at the center of the fine arts world for over 20 years. Warhol took these three young artists under his wing, invited them to work in his studio The Factory, introduced them to other prominent figures in the art world, and helped facilitate their achievements of global recognition.
Out of the three young artists, Warhol seemed particularly fascinated by the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is said that Warhol began to take on a parental role in Basquiat’s life, while at the same time competing and collaborating artistically with him. Together, the two artists created thought-provoking pieces such as Bananas, Olympics, and New Flame. And in their individual works, they continually sought to out-do each other, pushing both of their careers to greater and greater heights.
Haring and Warhol did several collaborative drawings together, and it’s clear that Warhol was a source of inspiration and mentorship in Haring’s life. Upon Haring’s death, it was discovered that his personal art collection contained a vast number of pieces painted by Andy Warhol. Haring also painted Andy Warhol in his signature cartoon style in several of his pieces, depicting him with mouse ears, probably an allusion to Disney’s Mickey Mouse.
Warhol’s influence in New York City during his life was immense. His studio The Factory, located at first in Midtown Manhattan and then the Decker building at Union Square West, served as a venue for artistic collaboration, amphetamine use, intellectual thought, and some of the wildest parties New York has ever seen. Some of Warhol’s frequent guests, who he referred to as his “superstars”, included Lou Reed, David Bowie, Victor Hugo, William S. Burroughs, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and many other recognizable names.
When Andy Warhol died in 1987 following a routine gallbladder surgery, it was a huge loss for New York, but especially for the tight-knit circle of artists that had come up under his patronage. Basquiat in particular felt the impact of Andy’s death, as it’s rumored that the two of them had a falling out that they were never given the chance to repair. With his creative catalyst and parental figure gone, Basquiat’s life would soon take a dark turn.
The Rise and the Fall
With the help of Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf became some of the most influential figures in the world. Their works were displayed in some of the most prestigious galleries worldwide, and it seemed as if they had effectively broken down the barrier between street art and fine art. These three artists had truly come out of the New York City subways and infiltrated the world of high-paying art collectors. They quickly obtained celebrity status and lived the lives of rockstars. But, as quickly as these artists rose to unparalleled levels of success, so too would they fall in equally dramatic fashion.
The events that happened in the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat following the death of Andy Warhol are largely unknown. It seems that even before Warhol’s death, Basquiat had been struggling with drug addiction. His girlfriend during his final years, Jennifer Goode, reportedly urged Basquiat to enter a methadone program.
During the last 18 months of his life, Basquiat became increasingly reclusive, most likely as a way of coping with Warhol’s death. On August 12, 1988, he died of a heroin overdose in his NoHo apartment. He was 27 years old.
When Basquiat died, Keith Haring honored his legacy by painting A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat. However, in that very same year, tragedy would strike Haring’s life as well. Haring was openly gay and a strong advocate for safe sex; however, in 1988, he was diagnosed with HIV.
After his diagnosis, Haring continued to paint murals and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights but, on February 16, 1990, Haring died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 31.
Kenny Scharf, now age 62, continues to make art and display it all over the world. True to his street art roots, his murals can be seen throughout the streets of New York City, as well as in Culver City, Philadelphia, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo. Scharf still puts together captivating and provocative art exhibitions across the world’s galleries, and he even collaborated with Dior on a new clothing line this year.
The impact that these three artists have had on the world of art has been profound and lasting. Today, street art and pop art remain some of the most sought-after styles for art collectors, and the works of Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf still trade hands for astronomical sums of money. It’s safe to say that although Basquiat and Haring’s careers were both cut short, these three artists helped pave the way for a new generation of artists who continue to bridge the gap between the subway and the gallery.