Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rise to fame in the art scene of 1980s New York was nearly as fast as its decline. Born to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat’s late teens and early 20s were spent living on couches or the streets, all while he developed his voice as an artist. Despite this period of financial struggle, Basquiat’s undeniable talent was earning him a reputation as both an impish street-artist and an up-and-coming voice in NYC’s art community. Within a few years, Basquiat’s pieces were selling for tens of thousands of dollars, attracting collectors from all walks of life. But by the age of 27, Basquiat was dead from a cocaine and opiate overdose.
Demand for Basquiat’s work has risen since his death, as his legacy continues to endure among new generation of art collectors. Here’s a few reasons why Basquiat’s legend continues to grow.
Basquiat’s “Untitled” painting was just auctioned off for a record-breaking $110.5 million.
Basquiat’s talents escaped the radar of many major museums during the 1980s, leaving many of his works in the hands of private collectors. Basquiat’s short career means there is a limited supply of his works available, many of which are unknown, even among avid collectors and those closest to him.
The record-breaking “Untitled” painting was so underground that even his sisters had no idea it existed until this year’s auction. The New York Times reported the painting was originally purchased for $19,000 in 1984.
Basquiat’s Puerto Rican mother helped influence Basquiat’s love of the arts.
At a young age, Basquiat’s mother, Matilde, took him to museums and the theater. By the age of four, his desire to create art was completely on display. A freak car accident sent Basquiat to the hospital. To keep him occupied, his mother gave young Basquiat a copy of the medical diagram book “Grey’s Anatomy.” Later in life, these drawings would play an important role in Basquiat’s paintings.
Basquiat gained a reputation during his homeless period in Washington Square Park.
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When he was 17 years old, Basquiat ran away from his home in Brooklyn, ending up in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, where he slept and worked, New York magazine reported. Basquiat became well-acquainted with LSD, and other drugs, while making ends meet by selling postcards, sweatshirts, and jewelry to passersby. In Washington Square Park, Basquiat cut an imposing figure, sporting a bleached blond mohawk, no shoes, and a trenchcoat. “His eyes could eat your face,” Phoebe Hoban wrote in her book, “Basquiat.”
Around this same time, Basquiat was also developing his skills as a street artist.
Basquiat and a few friends would scrawl poetic messages (like the one above) on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge under the name SAMO©. SAMO stood for “Same Old Shit” and was meant to call out bogus aspects of society. His street artistry earned him a reputation among the underground art scene.
Though he was initially known for his street art aesthetic, Basquiat’s paintings were recognized for their neo-expressionist qualities.
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Neo-expressionism, which caught on in the 1970s, combined recognizable images, like bodies and faces, with extremes in emotions. Critics of neo-expressionism said the movement was fueled by “angst.” Thomas Lawson, the editor of Real Life Magazine, told the New York Times, ”You can’t tell what the artist is reacting to. It’s not very reflective.” Whether or not neo-expressionism was a fad, the reality is that museums slept on Basquiat during his life, leaving them with few of his works in their collection.
Ann Temkin, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which does not have a Basquiat work in their collection, told the New York Times, “It’s an artist who we missed. We didn’t bring his paintings into the collection during his life or thereafter.”
Basquiat quickly became one of the hottest stars of New York’s — if not the world’s — art scene.
By 1980, art curator Diego Cortez, a fan of Basquiat’s work, began turning other art collectors on to the young artist. In just a short period of time, Basquiat went from making a few hundred dollars for his work to pulling in upwards of $10,000 for a single piece. Many collectors, who could not afford the extremely expensive artists of the day, were likely to shell out the smaller prices for Basquiat’s work.
Basquiat’s art was displayed in shows around the world — London, Zurich, Paris — earning him more fans, more money, and access to more drugs.
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As his reputation grew, Basquiat’s personal life became increasingly turbulent. Though he was extremely productive during this time, tales of excessive drug use were extremely common. It was said that Basquiat would work with piles of cocaine next to his latest works. Many of Basquiat’s acquaintances chalked up his drug addictions to his artistry. Andy Warhol, himself sober, who had become friends with Basquiat, tried to discourage the young artist’s excessive drug use. Though Basquiat idolized Warhol, he would often go on destructive binges. These episodes only added to Basquiat’s reputation, which often drove the price of his works among collectors.
Basquiat’s drug overdose at 27 meant that he left behind a limited selection of works for collectors to fight over. And if the most recent, record-breaking auction is any indication, Basquiat’s legend will likely grow among collectors for generations to come.