In May of 2017 a Basquiat painting sold by Sotheby’s for $110 million making it the most expensive work ever by an American artist, according to Fortune.
Who is Basquiat?
…you might ask. Jean-Michele Basquiat was first known as an American graffiti artist. Born to a Haitian Father and African-Puerto Rican Mother, he was raised in Brooklyn, NY. Under his Mother’s appreciation for artistic expression, she was an amateur artist herself, he sketched alongside her and they often visited The Brooklyn Museum of Art in his early youth. By the time he was 11 she was committed to a mental institution but his love of art did not stop there. By 17, Basquiat’s graffiti paintings could be recognized under the name of SAMO (Same Old Shit) on walls throughout SOHO.
Basquiat was also a gifted poet and musician. His band Gray played in NYC Night Clubs where they achieved moderate success. In 1980 he met Andy Warhol who became a mentor and artistic collaborator of Basquiat’s until Warhol’s death in 1987. It was in the early 80’s that Basquiat began to be known in the NY art scene, with his first public exhibition at The Times Square Show. Hosted in an abandoned building as a social movement to recognize urban diversity in the face of revitalizing the then seedy neighborhood, the shows organizing coalition, Colab (Collective Projects, Inc.), called on artists to depict the current state of Times Square through themes of sex, money and urban decay. This resulted in the exhibition being named “The First Radical Art Show of the 80’s,” by Village Voice critic Richard Goldstein. John Ahrean who through Colab initiated the show told the East Village Eye, “Times Square is a crossroads. A lot of different kinds of people come through here. There is a broad spectrum, and we are trying to communicate with society at large.” He went on to say, “There has always been a misdirected consciousness that art belongs to a certain class or intelligence. This show proves there are no classes in art, no differentiation.” From that vein street artists through neo-expressionism became to be the movement of a generation.
Basquiat sold his first painting that year and began to work full time as an artist. His paintings often included scenes of dichotomy of race and wealth and dealt with the prospect of possession which can be seen in the symbolic crown in a lot of his works. Untitled (History of Black People) is a figurative piece which specifically depicts the scene of racial tension that Basquiat undoubtedly felt as an artist in the 1980’s. He once told an interviewer, “I am not a black artist, I am an artist“. According to Professor of African Art History, Andrea Frohne, the multi-panel painting, “reclaims Egyptians as African and subverts the concept of ancient Egypt as the cradle of Western Civilization”.
Even at a young age, Basquiat showed propensity for genius. He could speak three languages: French, Spanish and English and read everything from classical poetry to Gray’s Anatomy. An interest in medicine may have been the result of a car crash which left him with internal injuries in childhood. As a teen, Basquiat struggled to get on with his Father. He left home at 17, originally taking to the streets of Washington D.C. before returning to New York. As he progressed in his artistic career, Basquiat said, “The more I paint the more I like everything.“. Even so, Basquiat turned to drug use in his 20’s which ultimately ended his life in 1988 when he was just 27 years old.
Jean-Michele Basquiat’s influences live on with the recent legacy of his work Untitled (1982) being the most expensive American painting ever sold. Acquired by the Japanese Internet entrepreneur and musician Yusaku Maezawa for $110 million earlier this year, Untitled depicts a multi-layered skull, said to be a self-portrait. Since being purchased for a private collection for $19,000 in 1984 the work hasn’t been shown in public until now. Maezewa is looking to change that. He told Sothebys that the paintings final destination will be in an art museum in his home town Chiba, Japan. “But before then,” he said, “I wish to loan this piece to institutions and exhibitions around the world”.