Jean-Michel Basquiat: the myth endures

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled (Scoreboard), oilstick on joined sheets of paper, 22 ¼ x 30 ¼ in. (56.5 x 76.8 cm.). Executed circa 1981-1982. Auctioned by Christie’s on Nov. 16, 2017 for $468,500. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Streetwise teen runaway. Visionary graffiti artist. Heroin addict. Auction record holder.

In the 29 years since his death from a drug overdose, Jean-Michel Basquiat has attained near-mythical status. He still tops the American art market and evokes enduring fascination. Museums feverishly compete to exhibit his work, including London’s Barbican Art Gallery, which hosted the first large-scale, UK exhibition of Basquiat’s art in late 2017.

Born on Dec. 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat produced a remarkable and pioneering body of work that sizzles with powerful creativity.

From an early age, Basquiat demonstrated a talent for drawing, which his mother Matilda Andrades — also an artist — shared and encouraged. She often took him to the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Using paper that his father, Gérard Basquiat, brought home from his job at an accounting firm, young Jean-Michel would spend hours making sketches inspired by his favorite TV cartoons. At age 7, he was seriously injured when hit by a car and spent a month in a hospital. To help pass the time, his mother gave him a copy of the iconic medical tome, Gray’s Anatomy, which later inspired much of his art, from anatomical drawings to prints. As a further homage, in 1979 he co-founded a band which he named “Gray.”

Basquiat first achieved fame together with his friend Al Diaz. Known as “SAMO,” the informal graffiti duo wrote enigmatic epigrams on buildings around the cultural hotbed of Lower East Side Manhattan. Each of their works incorporated the name SAMO, and when their friendship ended in 1979, the final inscription, left on a SoHo building, said “SAMO IS DEAD.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Fair use of low-resolution version of copyrighted photo by William Coupon, used solely for illustrative, educational purposes

Basquiat’s sources of inspiration included his diverse culture heritage (his father was Haitian; his mother, Puerto Rican) as well as TV shows and music. The latter figured prominently in his work, especially jazz. “The jazz comes up strongly, because I know he liked Miles Davis, and he adored Bird — Charlie Parker. I am told that the reason he loved Charlie Parker so much was because Charlie Parker looked like me,” said his father, in the book Gérard Basquiat in His Own Words [by Jeffrey Deitch, Franklin Sirmans, and Nicola Vassell, Eds., Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street; New York 2007].

“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.” (Jean-Michel Basquiat)

Often focusing his art on perceived dichotomies like integration and segregation or wealth and poverty, he used social commentary as a way to explore deep individual truths. Basquiat was no stranger to such concepts, having been both homeless and penniless, reportedly sleeping on a park bench prior to his being “discovered” by art dealers, critics and collectors. In his Neo-Expressionistic style, Basquiat took his views of the world around him, stripped them down to their essence and using a combination of collage and colorful scribble-like markings to create works of art that, to this day, speak to those who view them.

“I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” (Jean-Michel Basquiat)


Sotheby’s set a new auction record for a work of art by an American artist in May 2017 when it sold Basquiat’s 1982 painting, an untitled oil stick, acrylic and spray paint work on canvas, depicting a skull, for $110.5 million. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s

On May 18, 2017, at a Sotheby’s New York auction, an untitled Basquiat painting from 1982, created with oil stick and spray paint and depicting a skull, set a new record high for an American artist at auction, selling for $110.5 million. Offered at Sotheby’s, the work was purchased by noted collector and entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, The painting will eventually be housed in a museum in Maezawa’s hometown of Chiba, Japan.

In a May 18, 2017 Sotheby’s post-sale press release, Maezawa was quoted as saying, “When I saw 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 around the world – regardless of age or background or whether they are a collector or not. One day the painting will be a centerpiece of my museum in my hometown Chiba.” The previous record for a Basquiat painting was set the year before when Maezawa bought a 1982 painting of horned devil at a Christie’s auction for $57.3 million.

In a round of contemporary art auctions in mid-November 2017, other works by Basquiat brought robust prices. From the collection of Yoko Ono, a signed oil stick and acrylic on canvas, CABRA, 1981-82, brought $10.9 million at Sotheby’s; while Christie’s sold an untitled 1986 work of wax, crayon, glue and coffee stains on paper for $612,500. Six months earlier, Christie’s had achieved a $34.9 price for Basquiat’s La Hara painting.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), La Hara, 1981, signed, inscribed, titled and dated ‘JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT N.Y.C. 81 “LA HARA”‘ (on the reverse), acrylic and oilstick on wood panel. 72 x 47 3/4 in. (182.9 x 121.3). Auctioned by Christie’s in 2017 for $34.9 million. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2017

And to think, Basquiat’s first sale, in 1981, netted him a mere $200. The buyer? Another fast-rising star of the early 1980s New York arts scene, Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry.


Click to read Michael Wines’ Aug. 27, 1988 New York Times article titled Jean Michel Basquiat: Hazards Of Sudden Success and Fame.