Thirty years after his death, the painter commands millions for his work and defies easy categories. Was he an artist, an art star, or just a celebrity?
In May 2016, a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $57.3 million. One year later, another painting of his from 1982, Untitled, sold for $110.5 million, making it the sixth-most-expensive work of art ever purchased at auction, and setting a record for an American artist. Basquiat is not the first painter to have a canvas sell for a price that strikes ordinary people as obscene. But when Jeffrey Deitch, a prominent curator and dealer, said after the sale, “He’s now in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso,” it was hard to pin down the precise meaning of the word league. Was Basquiat now considered as great an artist as Picasso? Or was he merely as expensive to own?
Basquiat became famous in the early 1980s, when the idea that artists were supposed to be commercial innocents fell apart for good, and when the idea of the “art star”—a funnily abbreviated inversion, if you think about it, of starving artist—first came into vogue. In 1985, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Basquiat, titled “New Art, New Money.” Its tone was both awed and suspicious, with constant references to a hot, possibly gullible, market in contemporary art. His work was said to be selling “at a brisk pace—so brisk, some observers joked, that the paint was barely dry,” and Basquiat himself was quoted as worrying he had become a “gallery mascot.” Whatever else was true, as the art historian Jordana Moore Saggese has said since, “this was not the starving artist the public was accustomed to seeing.”