Jean-Michel Basquiat wasn’t a fan of interviews, and on the rare occasions he surrendered to them, his responses were terse—even cryptic. Despite this, the painter’s words reveal a great deal about his inspirations and his all-consuming process. They offer a window into his approach, in which he remixed references from art history, the streets of 1980s New York, and the tumult of pop culture with his Carribean heritage and his identity as a young black man.

In a unique television interview with ART/new york from early 1981, when Basquiat was 21 years old, curator Marc H. Miller asked the painter where the poetic smattering of words scrawled on his canvases came from. Standing in front of his 1983 masterpiece Notary, he answered succinctly: “Real life, books, television.” When pressed for more, he acknowledged the importance of spontaneity to his practice: “When I’m working I hear them, you know, and I just throw them down,” he said of the words.

Self-portrait
Jean-Michel Basquiat / Self-portrait, 1984 Gagosian
Jean-Michel BasquiatUntitled (Rinso), 1982 Hamilton-Selway Fine Art

But Basquiat’s work was also deeply thoughtful—the products of his ravenous observations of the world around him. “I don’t think about art while I work,” he told writer Isabelle Graw in 1986. “I try to think about life.”

While Basquiat only survived to be 27 years old, passing away in 1988 due to drug overdose, he left behind a body of work that indelibly transformed painting. He also gave us a series of interviews (however short-winded) that offer profound glimpses into his artistic development and drive.