On May 18th of 2017, a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat set a new record high for any American artist at auction ever, selling for more than 110 million dollars. That’s an insane amount of money, especially considering the fact that the first painting he ever sold only brought in $200. However, his first public exhibition was a big breakthrough moment, making him an overnight sensation. So, Basquiat made $200,000 in his first evening in the spotlight at Annina Nosei Gallery. Everything sold out immediately. His life was a classic “rags to riches” story about pursuing the American dream. By 1983 he had become an international superstar. As a result of this, Basquiat had stacks of cash stashed away everywhere in his home because he didn’t trust banks. He even started eating gourmet food and wearing Armani suits, although they would often become paint-spattered like the rest of his clothes. More to the point, Basquiat created the world-famous top dollar painting that I’m talking about, which is shown in the picture below. Again, it recently sold for a mindblowing $110,487,500. As such, the painting is currently the sixth most expensive work to ever be auctioned in the world. Plus, back in 2016 Basquiat officially became the highest grossing American artist at auction, generating 171.5 million dollars from only 80 different works. Moreover, his auction high has increased tenfold in the last couple of decades. The question is, what is it that makes Basquiat’s artwork so valuable?
Well, for one thing, his particular process was a rather bizarre sort of almost indescribable calculated improvisation. In other words, Basquiat worked in a way that was similar to beat writers or jazz musicians. Where they deconstructed and reconstructed words and sounds, he used similar kinds of cut-up techniques to remix his media, including spray paint, pencil, crayon, and oil stick. He repurposed and juxtaposed everything that he could, as well. For instance, when he couldn’t afford canvases he would just fashion them out of discarded pieces of wood, or whatever else he could find. Jean-Michel Basquiat was a neo-expressionist pioneer, who became one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. He was able to channel the energy of the zeitgeist of his generation and use it to effortlessly and spontaneously create radical new forms of art. When asked what his medium was he would often reply “extra large”. Basquiat was a very prolific polymath and polyglot, with a peculiar kind of genius. He thought way outside of the box. That’s why his work can appeal to anyone, including intellectuals. After all, he did brilliant things with his work like writing a word and then crossing it out to make people want to read it even more and simultaneously reinforce the negation of the concept. As part of this, he would often pull quotes from textbooks, comics, and even menus, which he kept open all over his studio floor while he was working. His studio was well-used, to say the least. Of course, this isn’t where and how he started out.
Basquiat’s life began in pre-gentrified New York in the year 1960. His father was from Haiti and his mother was from Puerto Rico, so he had a multi-cultural upbringing. More to the point, Jean-Michel spent his childhood making art in Boerum Hill, but never actually attended art school. He just learned about art by wandering around galleries and museums. Then he spent his free time scribbling out his own version of things from cartoons, comic books, and even the Bible. Of course, all that he had available to him at that point were scraps of paper from his father’s office. Then, when he was just seven years old, Jean-Michel was hit by a car. So, while he was in the hospital his mother brought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. This ignited an intense lifelong passion with human physiology, which served as a major source of inspiration in his work. More importantly, this is when he first developed his stylized forms and figures. This is also one of the reasons that his work is so valuable because he used the imagery of anatomy to explore the power and vulnerability of marginalized bodies. Sometimes his work was symbolic of the gutting of black men in white society. His work also often featured those who were the most ignored in society, like janitors and convicts. A great deal of his work was a social commentary on contemporary life, African history, and the Atlantic slave trade. He even occasionally painted as though he were somehow inserting himself into the legacies of the great artists that he drew upon. This included great masters like DaVinci and Picasso, to name just a couple. All of this made his artwork very unique. In essence, what Dizzy Gillespie did with a trumpet, Jean-Michel Basquiat was doing with a paintbrush.
Basquiat’s life story is a big part of his success. He was a teenage runaway living hand-to-mouth, panhandling and couch surfing just to get by, but by the age of 17, he had launched his foray into the art world. Jean-Michel began his career by spray-painting cryptic statements and symbols throughout the urban jungle of lower Manhattan, which he always signed with the moniker SAMO ©, meaning the same old shit copyrighted. This tagging was done very strategically throughout Soho’s art scene. So, long before Banksy, there was Basquiat. As part of his master plan, Jean-Michel and others had started a newspaper called Basement Blues Press, which featured an article about SAMO. Thus, rumors about the enigmatic artist spread quickly. Then, after revealing himself as the alter ego he had worked to create, Jean-Michel leveraged his success and used it to enter the art scene. Basquiat was a sort of child prodigy who more or less positioned himself at the epicenter of the art world right from the start. He became a revolutionary language oriented graffiti artist and street philosopher who exploded onto the scene, taking New York by storm. He called SAMO a “cosmiconcept” which he said could serve as the basis of a new religion. In line with this, the brilliant artist began to make t-shirts, postcards, and collages to support and promote himself. Basquiat sold his artwork in Washington Square Park and all around Soho. He even played in nightclubs with an avant-garde industrial sound band named Gray, which performed at the epicenter of the new wave genre. As such, he soon became a regular in the burgeoning downtown club scene, frequenting hotspots like Club 57, CBGB’s, Tier 3, and the Mudd Club, among other popular venues. Basquiat was a painter, sculptor, poet, rapper, actor, and so much more. One fateful day, Jean-Michel Basquiat even sold a couple of his postcards to Andy Warhol during a random encounter at a restaurant where he had been spotted. More importantly, Jean-Michel and the living legend soon became the best of friends. This was yet another all-important defining moment in Basquiat’s life. The point is that moves like this are what made him a world famous artist in both his time and in ours.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was arguably one of the greatest American artists to ever live, but like so many other great artists his life tragically ended at an early age. Despite his unsuccessful attempts at sobriety, Basquiat died in his studio on August 12th of 1988, from a heroin overdose. In true artist’s fashion, he was only 27 years old at the time, thus making him an official member of the “Forever 27 Club”, which includes famous artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. This only serves to make Jean-Michel Basquiat even more legendary. More to the point, as with many great artists, the monetary value of his artwork increased significantly after his death. This becomes that much more impressive when you consider the fact that he produced more than1,500 drawings, over 1,000 paintings, and numerous other sculptures and mixed media pieces. Plus, he did all this in less than a decade, with a tremendous sense of verve. Thus, his output accelerated alongside his meteoric rise to fame as a world-renowned cultural icon. So, although he may be dead and gone, his work still lives on. Just as he had planned all along, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art is now so acclaimed that he has become the most valued American artist in history.