Need-To-Inform. The Graffiti Artist Whose Painting Was Sold $110 Million at Sotheby´s

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

A victim and a vanquisher’s obsession with human skulls

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an African American pop icon, graffiti artist, musician, and neo-expressionist painter. Although he had a brief career, it continues to cast a long shadow over the art world. After experiencing a meteoric rise early in his career, he died of a heroin overdose in 1988, aged 27.

Basquiat’s paintings, especially human heads called Basquiat’s heads give us an illusion of an incomplete face with bones popping out from underneath the surface, but upon closer inspection, the face is a shambles of abstract lines and shapes.

Basquiat’s heads visually speak to us about being Black in America, whitewashed African American history, and the ethnic imbalance in the art world.

He was the only African American in the 1980s of the New York art scene.

In 2017, his canvas Untitled (1982) was sold for a staggering price of $110 million at Sotheby’s. This deal became the most expensive painting sold by an American artist in the secondary market.

Basquiat’s early life and career

Basquiat was born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother in a middle-class household in Brooklyn. He was a precocious child. By the age of four, he could read and write and by the time he was eleven, he became fluent in English, Spanish, and French.

In the 1970s, when he had no money for canvases, he would spray paint the buildings of Lower Manhattan. Manhattan was a grubby Mecca for artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Everybody was creative and everyone wanted to make it big. He used the pseudonym SAMO (for same old), formed part of a rock band, and also appeared in the music video “Rapture” by Blondie.

People knew that Basquiat might be a scruffy, dreadlocked Black artist from the ghettos but he deliberately created an invincible attitude to make his name amongst the who’s of the art world.

Basquiat’s obsession with human skulls

At the age of seven, Basquiat had a car accident and he had to have his spleen removed. As he recovered, his mother brought him the book Gray’s Anatomy, which he memorized. Later, anatomy became a central theme in his body of work.

His obsessive scribbling with a depiction of skulls, masks, and trademark crowns made him one of the most famous American artists of the 20th century.

Basquiat’s heads deeply reflected his race in White America. These skulls were the gestures of his cultural reclamation. They also allude to the Haitian heritage on Basquiat’s father’s side — specifically the Vodou religion, which is filled with skull symbolism.

Modernists like Picasso appropriated African masks in their paintings and so they were fetishized by the art market and resonated with contemporaries including Basquiat.

His heavy, frenetic oilstick marks are characteristically bold and decisive, carving out a barred set of teeth and a pair of unlidded eyes that gaze out past the viewer and into infinity, like an echo of Edvard Munch’s harrowing Scream (1893), said David Galperin, head of sales at Sotheby’s.

Basquiat’s mentor and his brief relationship with Madonna

Andy Warhol was Basquiat’s mentor and friend. Warhol helped Basquiat navigate the 1980s New York art world. Although media and critics tried to sabotage their friendship and they did succeed to some extent, Basquiat always admired Warhol.

Warhol’s untimely death devastated Basquiat. His heroin addiction went out of control and took his life.

Basquiat had a brief relationship with Madonna. When Madonna lived with him, she said, he would wake up at 4 am to paint. He had a desperate need to create and in his short career, he produced over 2,000 works of art.

Yet despite his widespread acclaim, he has almost no works in public collections. Not a single one in the UK and a very few internationally.