Home Magazine How Basquiat Became the Top-Selling American Artist: From SAMO® to ‘$22,486.40 Per Square Inch’.


I start a picture and I finish it.

I don’t think about art while I work.

I try to think about life (...)



As probably everyone has already heard, last Thursday's Contemporary auction at Sotheby’s exceeded all expectations as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) shattered world-records, sailing past its high-estimate of $60 million to sell for $110.5 million.

As stated by Grégoire Billault, Contemporary Art Curator at Sotheby’s, the work was created during the semester between the end of 1981 and the beginning of 1982, the peak of Basquiat’s creativity. The lucky winner of the 10-minute bidding war was Yusaka Maezawa, the 41-year-old billionaire and art collector, founder of e-commerce giant Start Today and virtual mall ZOZOTOWN. Maezawa is also the owner of the previous record-setting Basquiat, that he bought for $57.3 million last May.

The first steps in New York's art panorama

Born in 1960 from Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, after a troubled childhood Basquiat walked away from home in his teens. By the age of 17, he established himself on the New York City graffiti scene, expressing his creativeness on the walls of SoHo with his friend Al Diaz. The duo signed their works under the pseudonym of SAMO® (literally, ‘SAMe Old shit’): with a spray bottle and a permanent marker, they began propagandizing revolutionary and hermetic ideas. Considered by many the father of Street Art together with Keith Haring, he brought graffiti art to its highest point and closed the golden age of contemporary art that in the 1990s will move its epicenter from New York to London.

In the 80’s, his art began to attract the attention of the most influential artists of the New York art panorama, including the highly celebrated and eccentric Andy Warhol. Those are the years of the beginning of his friendship with Keith Haring, that will last until his tragic death, and of his hanging out in the underground scene and at exclusive inaugurations. 



From graffiti to canvas

Since the first years of 1980s, the sign ‘SAMO is dead’ appears on New York's walls: Basquiat has abandoned spray bottles to fully commit himself to painting on canvas. Influenced by the advice of Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente, he directs his style to a total freedom of expression. The ironic assembly of symbols of mass culture produces singular results: grotesque pictograms and infantile images - already present in the underground subculture and which for him make a clear reference to Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut - and sharp references to primordial images and jazz mythology. All this is combined with the iconoclastic immediacy of the pictorial gesture and a deliberately fragmentary and discontinuous syntax. This will make his works sophisticated and primitive at the same time.



The artistic relationship with Warhol intensifies through the years, to the point of starting to work side by side in the production of some four-hands works, in which Basquiat inserted expressions, slogans and scripts. An instinctive and primitive painting that was mixed with the serigraphic serial of Warhol. Their relationship had become almost symbiotic, but as it often happens, two dominant characters are fated to clash. When Warhol dies in 1987, Basquiat will be deeply touched and that event will deepen his depression. 

In New York, he lives in a small apartment on Lower East Side, where one day Jeffrey Deitch, gallerist and curator, pays him visit and buys five drawings for $250. That was probably his first sale. The following year Basquiat participates to the ‘New York/New Wave’ exhibit at PS1, where he will be noticed by the Swiss gallerist Bruno Bischofberger and curator Henry Geldzahler; the latter will buy one of Basquiat’s works for a higher value than that of the market: $2,000.

The beginnings of Basquiat's market are closely linked to some Italian personalities: first of all the gallerist Emilio Mazzoli, who, advised by Sandro Chia, buys ten works at $10,000 for an exhibit in Modena in 1981: his first personal European exhibit will score a huge success. In September of the same year, always at the suggestion of Chia, he starts working at Annina Nosei’s gallery, inaugurated the year before in SoHo, providing him with a space, tools and colors. She will place him in numerous collections with a simple strategy: offering to those who bought works for $25,000 to add $1,000 to $1,500 for a Basquiat.

When he returned to New York, he stopped working with Nosei - that is the occasion of his famous statement “I want to be a star, not a gallery mascot!” - and retired in creative isolation throughout the fall of 1982. Eventually, flattered by numerous galleries including Tony Shafrazi and Metro Pictures, he decided to join Mary Boone.

In 1984, Basquiat had his first personal exhibit at Mary Boone and in the same month he was included in the inaugural exhibition of the renovated MoMA. In the following spring, a work that was first worth $4,000 was sold at a Christie's auction for $20,900, five times as much. Production rhythms are now slower than in the period with Annina Nosei, creating around 30-40 paintings per year, divided between Mary Boone and Bischofberger, who represents him in Europe. Prices range from $10,000 to $25,000.

But success is dangerous and the pressure can be catastrophic. The last few years are marked by drug abuse. His collaboration with Mary Boone is interrupted and Basquiat exhibits with Vrej Baghoomian, cousin of Tony Shafrazi and his latest merchant.

On August 12, 1988, Basquiat dies of overdose in his Great Jones Street loft.  Art critic Gianni Mercurio, one of Basquiat's greatest experts and admirers, has dedicated studies and exhibitions to the Basquiat phenomenon. He estimates that today there are far more than 250 paintings and 200 drawings from Basquiat, a production made in just seven years of blatant career.

The myth is just at its beginning...


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