In his short life, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a graffiti poet, political painter, and pop icon whose cult status and cultural influence made him one of the most mythologised artists of the 20th century.
Celebrated for the emotional intensity, originality, and complex fields of reference in his work, his trademark fascination with the human form began after being struck by a car as a child. While recovering in the hospital his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, and the young artist devoured its diagrams, keeping the so-called ‘surgeon’s bible’ at hand throughout his career.
Basquiat liked to have open books lying around when he painted, and developed his striking skull imagery by bringing additional source material – including Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Burchard Brentjes’ African Rock Art – into play.
I get my facts from books, stuff on atomizers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs.
Taking further inspiration from favorite writers like Herman Melville and Mark Twain – as well as Beat poetry and William S. Burrough’s cut-up technique – he’d play with words on canvas, using inverted spellings and crossing out and repeating certain phrases.
As a student of art history, world culture, and literary tradition, Basquiat’s extensive reference book collection informed his work’s heady blend of high- and low-brow influences. Collaging an extraordinary array of subjects together into a single composition, his beloved books give us a glimpse into his enigmatic influences.
From blues biographies to the history of African art, find a selection of Basquiat’s vast library below, as collected from museum guides, interviews, and auction catalogs. Dive into the reading lists of other iconic artists right here.
Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson
“Probably the best book I ever read on African art.” –JMB
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
Black Beauty, White Heat: A Pictorial History of Classic Jazz by Frank Driggs & Harris Lewine
“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.” –JMB
Work by Mark Twain