On May 18, 2017 Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 painting "Untitled" sold for 110.5 million dollars at Sothebys in New York City. It is now the most expensive work ever sold at auction by an American Artist. The buyer was the well known Japanese billionaire businessman Yusaku Maezawa. At that time Basquiat was 21 years old and just seven years later died of a drug overdose at age 27. Ironically Basquiat's friend and mentor Andy Warhol held this prior distinction with a sale of 105 million dollars in 2013. So what does this really mean and what are its implications? Does it establish a new tier of pricing for his work at auction? Many art world experts feel it well may but that remains to be seen. It is the sixth most expensive painting ever sold at auction but obviously those were works created by artists of other nationalities and painted earlier. Now it is the most expensive painting anywhere sold at auction made after 1980.
Keep in mind this is not an endorsement as the greatest American painting ever. There is no organization with the proper gravitas to grant that imprimatur, nor should there be. To add some perspective regarding price and value the Mona Lisa(1503) displayed at the Louvre is conservatively valued at 750 million dollars.It is also the most viewed of any painting in history and the most often reproduced. This Basquiat sale appears to be a reflection of our time which is based upon popularity and cultural value. Added to that are more billionaires then ever before so a painting at this price has more potential buyers available to spend this sum which has no affect upon their lifestyle. A purchase at this tier will make them more well known and may even increase the value of their collection, or the visibility of their business brand which will increase its valuation.
Still some may wonder why influential and important artists such as Rauschenberg, Stella, Johns, Rothko and Pollock have not reached these lofty sales at auction. Many of their works are already in the hands of private collectors and of course museums. It is widely accepted that the period in which they produced their major works is one of the two most fertile periods of 20th century art production along with the approximate years 1910-1935: the dawn of American Modernism. Their works are widely referenced by Contemporary artists and discussed, dissected and taught at the most prestigious art schools across our nation and beyond.
Basquiat's death at 27 was the same as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison upon theirs. This begs the question: if a ny of these four had not died so young would they be as popular as they are today?These three were great musicians and performers and this is no attempt to diminish their talent or demean the skill and artistic vision of Basquiat. Popularity though is quite different than talent or skill and we are living in the age of pop. I conclude that Basquiat's overdose while still in his twenties added to his value as a pop icon-especially within the art world plus his unfulfilled potential contributed either consciously or subconsciously to a deep pocketed individual willing to pay a hefty price for a painting by a 21 year old.
The reality is that this occurrence is only of import to those in the "art world" and the art world dilettantes who equate price with artistic quality and importance, and of course that worlds observers. It is not of significance to those in the world of art which is a trench like distinction referenced by the artist and MacArthur Fellow Carrie Mae Weams in her dramatic and important commencement address at The 2016 School of Visual Arts Graduation. I hope that people have the privilege to watch it on the SVA web-site It is a primer for young artists not to get caught up in the art world but to work tirelessly in pursuit of their best creations within the world of art.
Nor is this a reflection of a post racial art world embracing a black artist. Just take a glance at the lack of people of color the next time you are at an art gallery or museum, plus their under representation in positions of power within major or minor art institutions. This was a purchase by a former musician turned on line clothing billionaire who decided based on his own motivations to spend this enormous sum. Maezawa in 2016 had already established the summit for a Basquait painting at 57.3 million dollars with the purchase of another 1982 work.