By the time I first heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat, he'd already been dead for 27 years. Which is kind of strange considering that he was one of the most celebrated black-American artists of the last 50 years - or ever - for that matter.
The irony is that for an artist most known for his insightfully penetrating depictions of race & culture in the USA, from a black perspective, almost all such celebrations take place in the very confined space of the nearly exclusively white - and elite - world of modern art. So outside of Manhattan (south of Central Park) and a few kindred cultural enclaves scattered across the country, I doubt that one in a hundred black Americans have heard of him to this day.
The cultural irony of Basquiat extends much deeper, though, since so few have ever been as plugged-in to the dichotomies of America's racial millieu as he, only to see such intuitive brillance leave him increasingly apart from the very world he so clearly illuminated.
Basquiat got elements of black & white America that usually escape most of the inhabitants of both environments, and by seeing the whole so clearly, effectively separated himself from each of its parts. His art was a bridge between two very different, yet completely inseparable cultural contexts; the irony is that that very skill prevented him from crossing to either side.
Arrival at Now
In a way I'm glad I discovered him now, and not then. The me of now gets Basquiat in a way the me of then never could've. Only in missing his life entirely was I able to fully appreciate it being lived at all.
In the end, Basquiat's leaving this life so early (he was just 27 when he died in 1988) was both a tradgedy and a blessing. He was one of those gifted in a special way that consumes all which gives it the ability to survive - and in so doing - bequeath's to the rest of us a greater capacity to endure.
Basquiat's was a pure burning flame that was closer to a meteor than a star. And while a meteor's path is traversed in mere moments, for those lucky enough to catch its light, it is as radiant as the center of any galaxy imaginable.