Basquiat: who was he and why is his art so valuable?


The artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat is unmistakable. Anybody who is familiar should instantly recognise his giant visually abundant works, painted in an almost childlike scrawl. His works are full of frenetic energy and cultural motifs that bring his art to life while injecting each piece full of vibrant soul and a story.

Basquiat provided a new energy to the world of art in the 1970s. His neo-expressionist work was a finger on the pulse of the American political landscape, exploring identity politics through his own relationship with race and cultural heritage within a society entrenched in colonial roots. It was through his ability to engage in conversation with the viewer with his raw and provocative art that pioneered his rise to fame during the 1980s.

Basquiat was a black, Puerto Rican, American artist who began as a graffiti artist in the 70s working on the streets of downtown New York under the pseudonym ‘SAMO’ in his late teens. Yet a decade later, he was collaborating with icons such as Andy Warhol, with paintings selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One of the most iconic figures in contemporary art

The surrealist movement hugely influenced Basquiat’s style of portraiture. He painted contorted, disfigured heads and bodies layered with words, symbols, and images that communicated motifs of power and imbalance within the political hotbed of New York, such as the dichotomy between rich and poor, depicting an ‘absurd reality’ that decompartmentalised and criticised contemporary America. His use of cultural indicators within his art such as traditional African iconography and famous black individuals created a visual language that celebrated Afro-Caribbean art. This exemplified Basquiat’s exploration of power dynamics and identity through a narrative imagery that pioneered the neo-expressionist movement. 

One may question how an artist whose career stemmed from counterculture and anti-state ideology, became so sought after in the aristocratic upper-class industry of art collectors as tokenistic ‘outsider art’. While it is no question that Basquiat’s paintings are revolutionary – both stylistically and culturally – it seems during the 1980s his art was being adopted by an industry engrained with racist ideals; revealing the lack of political awareness within the upper class and a certain irony stemming from Basquiat’s work.

Art critics described his artwork as ’primitive’, proving Basquiat’s point that America was still attached to its colonial roots, further proving the contemporary necessity for introspective movements like neo-expressionism. 

Impulsive, yet meaningful mark-marking in conjunction with bold, confrontational blocks of colour

It wasn’t until Basquiat’s sudden death in August 1988, aged twenty-seven, that the value of his art skyrocketed. Upon his death the production of his paintings ceased, making his fifteen hundred drawings and six hundred paintings hugely coveted and thus produced a surge in their value.

The auction of his untitled painting of a sketchy black skull on a bold, azure background culminated in a one hundred and ten million dollars price-tag in May 2017, making him the most expensive American artist at the time and a promising investment potential. This acted as a catalyst for his resurgence on the art scene, propelling his average selling price from three point two million dollars to twelve point four million dollars.

However, a long and widely unseen self-portrait dubbed Self Portrait As A Heel (Part Two) (1982) went to auction this year in Sotheby’s, New York on 15 November. It was estimated to fetch between forty to sixty million dollars, soaring past his previous paintings’ average worth, let alone the value his work sold for when he was a living artist. The painting was last on public display at auction in 1999, emphasising the exclusivity of his works, where it sold for seven hundred and seventy-two thousand dollars.

Full of frenetic energy and cultural motifs

The New York Times argues Basquiat’s art is worth so much due to ‘a combination of sheer talent, compelling biography and limited supply’. Moreover, the price is only increasing due to his increased relevance and exclusivity in the art scene. 

In today’s market, his works’ value reflects the cultural significance of Black Art and its representation throughout history. His paintings are now recognised for raising important questions about classism, racism, consumerism, and colonialism rather than being collected as token or ‘edgy’ pieces for contextually naive collectors to enjoy.

However, Basquiat’s pieces are not just import for their culturally significant reflections. Basquiat is the perfect example of using impulsive, yet meaningful mark-marking in conjunction with bold, confrontational blocks of colour in order to create evocative works of art. They encapsulate passion, intensity, anecdote, and culture. This unique style makes Basquiat one of the most iconic figures in contemporary art.

Image credit: WikiArt (Self-Portrait as a Heel, Part Two – 1982)


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