Feature

Basquiat: Making His Mark

A tarp from the artist’s early years hints at his limitless ambition.

Words by
Sarah Knight & Julia Price
Published on
November 07, 2022

In his 1981 article The Radiant Child, now remembered for its instrumental role in hurling Jean-Michel Basquiat towards ineffable fame, art critic Rene Richard wrote that “we are no longer collecting art we are buying individuals.” In reference to one of Basquiat’s famed SAMO© tags, with which Basquiat and fellow artist Al Diaz decorated downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, he pointed out that the graffiti wasn't just by SAMO, it was a piece of SAMO. Ricard’s astute claim about collecting attitudes still rings true thirty years later, particularly in the case of Basquiat. In Capsule’s upcoming Postwar and Contemporary Art sale, another such piece of SAMO– another piece of Basquiat– comes up for auction.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (SAMO© Tarp), 1979. Basquiat tagged this piece while it still hung between Edvins Strautmanis’ art studio and living space in SoHo.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (SAMO© Tarp), 1979. Basquiat tagged this piece while it still hung between Edvins Strautmanis’ art studio and living space in SoHo.
Capsule

The oil on tarp work is astonishingly unique on the market: rarely, if ever, do remnants of the artist’s early days as a graffiti artist make appearances at auction. The tarp originates from the estate of Vincent Strautmanis, son of first-wave SoHo artist Edvins Strautmanis. In 1979, the younger Strautmanis struck up a friendship with an eighteen-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat, who, at the time, was selling postcards to get by. When he wasn’t sleeping in Tompkins Square Park, Basquiat could often be found crashing at friends’ apartments, one of which was the Strautmanis loft on Greene Street. His SAMO collaborator Al Diaz was also a frequent visitor. 

On one of the days the artist spent at his friend’s SoHo dwelling, he took an interest in a paint-splattered plastic tarp separating Edvins’ studio from the living room. Much to the elder Strautmanis’ dismay, he dipped a nearby paintbrush into a vat of taxi-colored pigment and tagged the stretch of material with SAMO©. When Edvins replaced the marked tarp with a fresh one, his son saved the portion of the tarp with the tag along with a collage Basquiat gave him. That collage, entitled, He Was Crazy, was exhibited and sold at the Nahmad Gallery and was later featured in the documentary Radiant Child

A 19-year-old Basquiat painting the town in the film Downtown 81.
A 19-year-old Basquiat painting the town in the film Downtown 81.
New York Beat Films, LLC

Because the tag is so fraught with the jazz-like spontaneity that defines the artist’s oeuvre, it is no surprise that Maryellen Strautmanis, widow of Vincent and frequent visitor of the Greene Street loft, called the tarp “distinctly him.” The brushstrokes are frantic, their improvisational character in unmistakable accord with the mood of Basquiat’s larger body of work. In a letter authenticating the piece, collaborator Al Diaz agrees with Maryellen Strautmanis' characterization. "In my opinion this particular writing was undoubtedly created by Jean-Michel Basquiat," he wrote. A full copy of the letter is available for viewing here.

Despite SAMO’s nonchalance (it’s a stylized abbreviation for ‘same old shit’), Basquiat and the aforementioned Diaz cared deeply about the project, which they began in 1978. The tags were nearly ubiquitous at the time: in the first published review of Basquiat’s work, Jeffery Deitch wrote that “back in the late seventies, you couldn’t go anywhere interesting in Lower Manhattan without noticing that someone named SAMO had been there first.” Galleries, studios, and many buildings on the School of Visual Arts campus were marked with art world critiques. “SAMO© AS AN/ ALTERNATIVE 2/ "PLAYING ART”/WITH THE "RADICAL?/ CHIC'' SECT ON/ DADDY'$ FUNDS.../ 4•U…” read one message.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (SAMO© Tarp), 1979 (details). Flecks of paint from the tarp’s original incarnation as a protective curtain are still clearly visible under Basquiat’s tag.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (SAMO© Tarp), 1979 (details). Flecks of paint from the tarp’s original incarnation as a protective curtain are still clearly visible under Basquiat’s tag.

SAMO© quickly became a bonafide phenomenon. The Village Voice, along with several other New York City publications, dedicated themselves to hunting down the artists behind the pseudonym. Although the duo initially fed the mystery surrounding their work, they eventually decided to take off the mask. Basquiat eventually appeared solo on the public access television show TV Party as “SAMO.” 

In 1980, Basquiat announced “SAMO© IS DEAD” in paint all over SoHo. A year later, the artist was celebrating his first solo show, his celebrity on a stunning upward trajectory. In 2017, his untitled 1992 painting sold for $110.5 million, shattering the record for the highest price realized at auction by an American artist. Since then, Basquiat’s popularity has only continued to grow past its perceived peak. In recent years, a sea of exhibitions of the artist’s work have poured into galleries and museums all over the world without pause.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, 1982, seen here at an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Brant Foundation in 2019, sold for: $110.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2017, the highest price ever realized at auction by an American artist.
Andrew Sroka

Unlike many of his later endeavors, Basquiat’s SAMO© tags were meant to be ephemeral. They were anticipated to be washed away, erased, and covered up by those who wished that they hadn’t been there in the first place. The tag on Edvins Strautmanis’ tarp almost met the same fate– it too expected to be discarded.

The fact that it has survived for over forty years, that a piece of such a legendary artist’s beginnings is still with us, is a wonder.

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