The Basquiat Boom

Who was Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York. His father was from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother was of Puerto Rican lineage. From 11, he could speak and read in English, French, and Spanish. He was exceptionally artistically inclined and a Junior Brooklyn Museum member.

In 1968, Basquiat was hit by a car. His mother bought him the “Gray’s Anatomy (1858) publication. These illustrations would later play a large part in his art subject matter.

In 1978, he collaborated with Al Diaz and began spray painting buildings under the moniker SAMO (Same Old Shit). In 1983, Basquiat found his way into the circle of former Met curator Henry Geldzahler. A discussion between the two labeled the now-famous key elements of Basquiat’s work as royalty, heroism, and the streets. As a result, he emerged as a significant force in unifying street art with painting and bridging the gap between high and low art. By the time Jean -Michel Basquiat died at 27 in 1988, he had become one of the top artists working in New York.

Basquiat Isn’t for Everyone

Basquiat RoomJean-Michel Basquiat’s work features skulls and anatomical drawings inspired by the copy of Gray’s Anatomy his mother gave to him in 1968. His collection may appear quite juvenile when you first view it, but there is tremendous depth and forethought in each scribble and line made by the artist.

“He may have been one of the most successful young artists of the 20th century, but his work was imbued with the spirit of a young man beyond his years.” –

A year after Basquiat’s death, Herbert and Lenore Schorr offered the Museum of Modern Art in New York a Basquiat paintin g from their collection as a gift. The museum replied, “that having a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat was not worth even the cost of the storage.”

He painted in media like oil paints, acrylics, and spray paints. He painted on various surfaces like canvas, linen, and wood and did not let the world forget his roots: spray painting buildings. He created around 600 paintings and over 1000 drawings.

Top 5 Most Expensive Basquiat Paintings

Basquiat’s paintings are among the most expensive in the world. Works from the early 1980s are among the most desired on the market. These years mark Basquiat’s explosive transition from being a graffiti artist to a fine artist. Here are his top 5 most expensive works ever sold:

5. Dustheads, 1982

This piece represents the ultimate tour-de-force of expressive line, color, and form. Set on a backdrop of intense, inky blackness, the bright figures have come to represent the artist’s iconic painterly oeuvre. In 2013, Dustheads sold at Christie’s for over $48 million. This smashed the $35 million estimate and set a record for the artist. Unfortunately, the buyer of the painting sold it in 2016 at a $13 million loss to a Connecticut hedge fund manager in a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s.

4. Versus Medici, 1982

The subject of this painting comes from Basquiat’s fascination with the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola who overthrew the Medici dynasty in 1494. It is a challenge to the Western canon of art and was painted during the coveted year 1982. This piece sold at Sotheby’s for $50.8 million in May 2021.

3. Untitled (Devil), 1982

Japanese collector and e-commerce entrepreneur Yasaku Maezawa purchased this epic piece in 2016 at Christie’s for $57.3 million. It measures more than sixteen feet wide and is almost eight feet tall – it is one of the largest canvases painted by Basquiat. It is said to be a heroic self-portrait, with Basquiat depicting himself as a devil rising. An homage to his change in career from street artist to studio. As a view, you are hypnotized by the devil’s stare. Maezawa offered this piece at auction in May of 2022, where it sold for $85 million at Phillips.

2. In This Case, 1983

This was the last in Basquiat’s trilogy of large skull works from 1981-1983. It echoes his fascination with the human anatomy from his childhood. The acrylic and oilstick on canvas
brought $93.1 million at Christie’s in May 2021 – almost doubling its $50 million estimate.

1. Untitled, 1982

The auction record for a work by John-Michel Basquiat was smashed in 2017 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art evening in New York when Untitled (1982) sold for $110.5 million. This record is still maintained. This intensely outlined skull set against a cerulean blue background is the second most expensive auctioned work by an American artist.

Basquiat is forever characterized by his loose brushstroke and geometric shapes that depict abstract subject matter. He utilized various symbols, icons, and motifs in combination with letters and numbers to draw attention to pertinent socio-political issues and various dichotomies such as rich and poor, wealth and poverty, and inner and outer. In addition, he touched on racial aspects and stereotypes. Basquiat has earned his place in history as one of the most highly valued artists in the art market. His work continues to bring sky-high prices at auctions with no sign of slowing down.

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