Jean-Michel Basquiat Paintings: From Graffiti to the Most Expensive American Artist

From Graffiti to the Most Expensive American Artist

Jean-Michel Basquiat – a lucky street boy or the genius of his time? In this article, you will find out what he is famous for and get to know his creative style through the milestones of his short life. Most contemporary art enthusiasts would be familiar with Basquiat art. At the same time, he is often presented as a vagabond who came to sudden fame. However, the artist’s story is much more interesting than that. Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 27, so his biography is rather short, but his legacy is so great that even now you can find some of his previously unpublished diaries, photographs, or even works of art in some exhibitions. We invite you to plunge into the biography and work of this artist to find out why he is one of the most important creators of the 20th century.

The artist was born in New York in 1960, where he lived the first 14 years of his life. He never went to art school but was a frequent visitor to museums and galleries in New York. It was there that he found the first sources of inspiration, and even became a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum. In 1974 his family moved to San Juan, the largest city in Puerto Rico. However, Basquiat quickly adapted and studied at school. Jean-Michel was fluent in English, Spanish, and French, which helped him learn quickly by reading literature in different languages. Two years later, his family returned to Brooklyn, but nothing was the same as before. Jean-Michel’s parents got divorced, and Matilde, his mother, ends up in a psychiatric clinic. But that’s when the artist begins to create.

Jean Michel Basquiat Street Art

Jean Michel Basquiat Street Art

It is important to understand the context in which Basquiat’s career begins. New York in the 70s is far from what we are used to seeing in Hollywood cinema. Then poverty and unemployment reigned. Drugs were sold everywhere, and in many public places like Central Park, they did it openly. At this time, Jean-Michel lives with his father. And one day, because of one family quarrel, he runs away from home. That’s when Basquiat got the idea for a SAMO project.

Jean Michel Basquiat began to paint his first scenes at the age of 17 in the form of graffiti. He and his friend Al Diaz left messages outside the Soho art district. All inscriptions and symbols were signed with the word SAMO. As one of the artist’s friends recalled in an interview, they wanted to do something to counter the already familiar graffiti culture, but did not explain or provide an interpretation of their work in any way. Moreover, no one knew who was behind SAMO. But the tag gradually became known to all circles in New York.

Sources of Inspiration and Approach to Creativity

New York galleries instilled in young Basquiat a love of art, but he drew inspiration from literally everywhere. For example, at the age of 7, he was hit by a car, and subsequently his mother, Matilda, bought him the book “Gray’s Anatomy”. This book influenced the artist so much that skulls, skeletons, and tendons became popular elements in his work.

His creation process was just as unique as his art style. It seems sometimes the canvas might not exist at all. Rather, any object in the apartment could become one. Jean-Michel painted on postcards, walls, and the refrigerator.

What Was Basquiat’s Style?

The most characteristic feature of Basquiat’s art was a distinct childish style, which he applied liberally. This gave him certain freedom that other artists do not possess. His works were composed of several layers, which included various symbols and inscriptions from newspapers, menus of nearby cafes, and other elements of pop culture. He also boldly used color: he combined green with pink and red with orange, without fear of overloading the picture.

Jean Michel Basquiat Paintings Meaning

Interpretations of the Basquiat paintings are as diverse as the artist himself. Like many artists, he spoke out through his work. Sometimes he would just capture a moment of everyday life, or depict more dramatic events like the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. In other times, he would provide his own perspectives on other artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. One of his favorite topics was the fate of African Americans, and he was outraged that black artists could not be part of elite circles, just like they couldn’t make it into the film industry.

Friendship with Andy Warhol

Jean Michel Basquiat Friendship with Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol also found out about the new celebrity of New York. Although Andy’s fame faded a little, young artists still looked up to him. In 1982, an art dealer introduced them, which resulted in a long and strong friendship. There is still debate about how they influenced each other, but there was certainly an impact. Of course, this acquaintance helped Jean-Michel finally fit into the elite of artists. In September 1985, a joint exhibition of Basquiat and Warhol was held, but after a series of negative reviews, they separated from each other. Although they would no longer return to their previous communication, they continued to converse, and Basquiat was mourning Warhol in his death.

In 1988 at the age of 27, the artist died from an overdose. Unfortunately, he succumbed to weakness, when in New York various substances were everywhere. At the moment of Jean Michel Basquiat’s death, his net worth was $10 million, and left over 600 paintings and about 1,500 drawings for the Basquiat collection.

Basquiat Famous Paintings and Prices

Dustheads (1982)

Dustheads (1982)

Defining the meaning of Basquiat Dustheads can be tricky at first. “The emblem of anger and horror”, as critics call it, refers to the slang name of people who used the drug Phencyclidine, aka “angel dust”. Bright colors, continuous movement, and dilated pupils represent the hallucinations of often experienced users of this drug.

The painting depicts two main figures in Basquiat’s work at once, which critics call self-portraits. Starting in 1982, the artist moved away from the street landscapes and cars that filled his early paintings and created his version of the human figure. Two main types of figures can be distinguished in his works – icons and heroes.

The “heroes” are based on West African statues and Christian iconography, familiar to the American from his Catholic, Latin American, and African heritage. The inspiration for the “icons” are African masks, voodoo figurines, and Western religious symbols such as angels, halos, devils, saints, and martyrs, which are widely used in the artist’s work.

This painting by Jean Michel Basquiat was sold at an auction in 2013 for $48.8 million.

Versus Medici (1982)

Versus Medici (1982)

This painting is singled out by critics for “outstanding graphic power and complex iconography.” Versus Medici is another depiction of a lonely warrior figure and an example of a plot for which Basquiat is loved by critics and the public alike. It was sold in 2021 for $50.8 million. Estimated cost: approximately $35-50 million.

Untitled (Devil) (1982)

Untitled (Devil) (1982)

A picture, without which not a single selection of the best American canvases can do. Another self-portrait of the artist as a fiery black devil amid an explosion of colors.

This canvas is the largest – 2.4 x 5 meters – in a series of works painted by Basquiat in the spring of 1981 and 1982 during his creative residence in Modena, Italy. He was invited there by art dealer Emilio Mazzoli, who saw the artist’s works at an exhibition in New York in 1981.

It was sold in 2016 for $57.3 million.

In This Case (1983)

In This Case (1983)

Before being sold at Christie’s auction, the canvas was in the personal collection of Valentino co-founder Giancarlo Giammetti. In This Case is a 2 x 2-meter painting depicting a huge skull on a scarlet background. It is dedicated to the death of street artist Michael Stewart at the hands of the police.

It was sold in 2021 for $93.1 million.

Untitled (Boxer) (1982)

Untitled (Boxer) (1982)

The most famous and large-scale work of Jean Michel Basquiat related to boxing is the portrait of an untitled boxer. The monumental work became a metaphorical self-portrait of an artist who went out to a “one against all” duel. The outstretched arms of the athlete are interpreted in different ways. Someone draws attention to the strange halo around the head, reminiscent of a crown of thorns, and draws parallels with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Someone looks at a pose and interprets it as a kind of salute to the black civil rights movement. For some, the most interesting thing is a cranial grin and internal organs that seem to be visible through the skin.

The painting was sold in 2008 for $13.5 million.

Untitled (1982)

Untitled (1982)

A giant skull on a blue background is one of the most expensive American painting in history, created at the peak of the artist’s popularity. In 1984, it was redeemed for 19 thousand dollars. But in 2017 at Sotheby’s auction, it was sold for a fabulous $110 million! The new owner of the canvas was the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Miyazawa. This painting of Jean Michel Basquiat is also one of the ten most expensive paintings in the world. Immediately after the sale, it was exhibited in museums in New York and Seattle, and in 2019 it became part of a large exhibition dedicated to Basquiat at the Brant Foundation Art Center in New York. In addition, the businessman plans to open a museum in his hometown of Chiba and make Untitled a part of the permanent exhibition.

Never Seen before Jean-Michel Basquiat Artworks

The estate of Jean Michel Basquiat is run by his sisters together with their stepmother. They announced that in the early spring of 2022, an exhibition may open in New York, which would feature about two hundred works from the family’s fund. According to the organizers, the exhibition would feature “never seen before and rarely shown paintings, drawings, multimedia presentations, ephemera, and other artifacts.”
Many of the artist’s biographical facts are still being studied. He left a noticeable mark on the history of neo-expressionism and contemporary art. Basquiat art inspired new artists, installation artists, directors, poets, and musicians. Among them are David Jolie, David Hewitt, Barb Sherin, Kojey Radical, Lex Amor, Shabaka Hutchings, and many others.

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