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Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career was explosive - defined by a visual style that combined childlike imagery with issues of race, culture and celebrity. Though his career was short, Basquiat’s explosive painterly style, exploration of race and culture, and standout childlike iconography has secured his status as one of the most successful street artists and African American painters of the 20th Century.
Born in 1960 to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, Basquiat was raised in the Boerum Hill area of Brooklyn and showed promise in his artistic talent from an early age. His mother encouraged him to draw and paint, and together they visited many museum exhibitions in New York. At the age of six, the young Basquiat was even enrolled as a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum.
Until the age of 15, when he decided to run away from home for the first time, Basquiat attended school sporadically and eventually left his father’s home at age 17 to be adopted by family friends.
Basquiat’s first works were his graffiti projects, which he created with his high school friend Al Diaz under the name SAMO. Throughout the late 1970s the pair would paint cryptic epigrams across Manhattan’s Lower East side, phrases such as '9 to 5 clone' or 'As if the oppressor was never a child As if heroin was never a flower.'
Despite the artist’s later reflection that SAMO was 'just teenage stuff,' a 1978 article on the duo in the Village Voice and the Soho Times saw SAMO thrust into the spotlight. This allowed Basquiat to enter the circles of avant-garde artists and celebrities such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, both of whom expressed a real interest in the quippy, yet critical tone of SAMO and Basquiat’s solo work.
In 1981, Mudd Club co-founder Diego Cortez hung Basquiat’s work in the 'New York/New Wave' show at MOMA, which propelled the artist to fame despite being known at the time largely for his street art. Following the attention he gained from publications related to this show, Basquiat sold ten paintings to Italian art dealer Emilio Mazzoli that same year. He also sold his first painting Cadillac Moon (1981) to Blondie singer Debbie Harry for $200 and also starred in the video for their song 'Rapture'.
Following this introduction to both art-world and pop fame, Basquiat participated in a number of high profile shows throughout the early 80s. In 1982 he became the youngest artist ever (aged only 21) to take part in Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and in 1983 he was the youngest artist to exhibit in the Whitney Biennial exhibition of Contemporary Art at 22.
One of Basquiat’s most recognisable paintings is his 1982 work Warrior. Selling for $41.8 million in 2021, this painting depicts a gladiator figure, sword raised against a blue and yellow backdrop. The skeletal marks on the figure's body, his commanding stance and the violent suggestion of the artist’s harsh brushstrokes all indicate his power. Described as semi-autobiographical, 'championing his creative vision as a black artist,' this painting epitomises Basquiat’s recurring exploration of his identity as an African American in the art world, and the violence that underpins race relations in the USA.
'I never went to art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school. I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it.'
Basquiat’s love of art stemmed from his early childhood, where his mother would take him to visit New York’s local art museums. When he was hospitalised at age seven after being hit by a car, he was given a copy of Grey’s Anatomy to occupy himself. The illustrations and mechanical annotations would go on to inform Basquiat’s later iconography in both graffiti and paintings, most notably in his Anatomy print portfolio (1982).
Despite their visual eclecticism, by the mid 1980s Basquiat had established a repetitive motif in his paintings, that of the three-pointed crown. Often depicted on the head of a black, oracle-like figure, the crown is often read as Basquiat’s attempt to recognise his own position in the art world as an up and coming black artist, or perhaps as a form of logo.
Basquiat's desire to explore his heritage - the role that his own experience of black diaspora has had in shaping his work - also led his focus towards other black cultural icons, such as legendary jazz musicians Sugar Ray Robinson and Dizzy Gillespie. In this sense, the crown is also often read as a celebration of black majesty or sainthood.
Basquiat’s unique style combined gestural brushstrokes, poetry, abstraction, childlike and anatomical iconography and bold, bright colours. His expressive, more ferocious dashes of paint, particularly in his later works are intended to demonstrate his subjects' inner emotions, or real selves. By using this mode of expression, Basquiat avoided the fetishisation of the black male body and, equally, the juxtaposition between his childlike imagery and the brutality of his subject matter means that his paintings maintain their multifaceted potential.
When collaborating with Andy Warhol between 1984-86, the artistic process would typically comprise of Warhol painting first with Basquiat layering imagery on top, sometimes even using silkscreens. Works such as Ten Punching Bags / Last Supper (1985) or Paramount Pictures (1985) demonstrate this. Indeed, Warhol’s death in 1987 greatly affected Basquiat’s work, with him producing a series of works featuring apocalyptic imagery.
When SAMO ended in 1980 due to a falling out with Al Diaz, Basquiat was frequently homeless, sleeping with friends or in public parks and selling drugs, begging and also selling hand painted postcards and T-shirts to support himself.
Following his breakthrough in the early 1980s, Basquiat became associated with the emergence of a new wave of young experimental artists in New York, including Keith Haring, with whom he maintained a competitive friendship. His celebrity was perpetuated by his relationship with singer Madonna and his collaborations with Andy Warhol from 1985.
With increasing fame and pressure came increasing personal problems, and Basquiat’s rising paranoia, isolation and drug abuse concerned those around him in the later 1980s. Basquiat died at the age of only 27 in 1988 due to a heroin overdose and following his death, his works have increased in value. Basquiat’s poetry, movies, artworks and popular imagery are still hugely relevant and commercially successful today.
In 2017, Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) sold for $110.5million, surpassing its $60 million prediction and becoming both the most expensive of Basquiat’s works to sell at auction and the most expensive American painting sold at auction. With its giant skull, red undertones, gnashing teeth and sharp linework, there is an indication of violence here, under an ostensibly simplistic image - a feature typical of Basquiat’s oeuvre.
The artist and his layered explorations of black culture and the American experience continues to draw massive engagement to this day, with a 2018 retrospective exhibition in Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton being the second most visited contemporary art show globally that year.
Untitled © Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982
On 8 May 1984, New York collectors Jerry and Emily Spiegel bought Basquiat’s Untitled from Christie’s for US$19,000. Fast forward to 18 May 2017, the painting was once again at auction – almost 33 years to the day of the previous sale – this time at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction.
Bidding started at US$57 million and, after more than 10 minutes of intense back-and-forth over the telephones, Untitled sold for US$110.5 million – setting a new record price for Basquiat and for American artists. The buyer was billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who also snapped up another masterpiece by Basquiat at Christie’s a year earlier. “When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible,” the Japanese collector wrote on Instagram after the sale.
Only 10 other works had broken the US$100 million mark at the time. Untitled remains the most expensive artwork by Basquiat sold at auction.
image © Christie's / In this case © Basquiat 1983
Curator Fred Hoffman wrote that what drew Basquiat to depicting the human form was ‘his fascination with the face as a passageway from exterior physical presence into the hidden realities of man’s psychological and mental realms.” The artist's monumental work In This Case is a testament to this.
Painted when Basquiat was just 22, there is a sense of immediacy and urgency here, amplified by the deep palette, jagged linework and overlapping sketches that have become so associated with the artist's style. In this Case recently sold for £65.7million at Christie’s New York on May 11th 2021.
Untitled © Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982
“Where should we open this? 32 million dollars!” announced the auctioneer to a packed Christie’s saleroom in New York on 10 May 2016.
A bidding battle for Basquiat’s Untitled quickly commenced. The huge landscape painting – created when the artist was only 22 years old – eventually sold for US$57.3 million with fees, a new auction record for Basquiat at the time. The buyer was later revealed as Japanese billionaire and collector Yusaku Maezawa who, a year later, would go on to set another Basquiat auction record with a purchase at Sotheby’s in May 2017.
Image © Sotheby's / Versus Medici © Basquiat 1982