The King is dead, long live the King | Why Basquiat has stolen the crown for most important American artist

Jean-Michel Basquiat is a name that is commanding new respect for collectors and art aficionados everywhere. The poster boy for post-punk New York and the rise of street art during the 1980s, Basquiat has become one of the most influential players in the art market today with enough pulling-power to draw the highest bidders in town. And as his prices soar, it seems that museums are finally catching up to the craze as the Barbican prepares to open the first major UK Basquiat retrospective this autumn. Curiously there are only a handful of Basquiat paintings in public collections around the world, while the others are hidden away in Swiss vaults or hanging in billionaire’s yachts. So who is Basquiat and, more importantly, why are collectors willing to pay top dollar for him?

Basquiat was the beating heart of the New York art scene when Keith Haring and Julian Schnabel were busy dismantling the old guard, Ronald Reagan was in charge and police brutality against the black community was rife. The son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat grew up in the Brooklyn suburbs and ran away from home at 16 to become an artist. In a remarkably short space of time he went from selling drawings on the street to hanging out with the city’s movers and shakers, including Larry Gagosian, David Bowie, Madonna and even Andy Warhol. Fans crowded into his East Village studio to see the unstoppable tornado who supposedly dressed in an Armani suit while he worked. Overnight the boy from Brooklyn became a superstar. Just a few years later in 1988, Basquiat tragically died of a heroine overdose aged 27, joining the illustrious ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.


Collectors, from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio to Johnny Depp, are gaga for Basquiat because he has achieved what few have done before – cult status. Tragic death? Check. Celebrity friends? Check. A limited supply of work to get our hands on? Check. The heavyweight art critic Robert Hughes explained the phenomenon saying, “the only thing the market liked better than a hot young artist was a dead hot young artist, and it got one in Jean-Michel Basquiat.” So when a Basquiat does appear on the market, it is all collectors can do to snatch it away from their rivals.

The Basquiat –effect is also a nod to the American obsession with labelling the best of the best. Salinger, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald might have battled it out for the title of great American novel, but Time Magazine declared Pollock was the greatest living American painter in 1949. Nowadays Warhol, Rothko and Cy Twombly are amongst the handful of 20 th century American artists that have stood the test of time in the art market. But it’s Basquiat that is having the last laugh.


2017 is the year that Basquiat stole the crown for most expensive American artist at auction from none other than his mentor Andy Warhol. The painting in question, a ferocious canvas with wild eyes and gnashing teeth, was snapped up at Christie’s New York by a Japanese collector for a whopping $110.5 million. In contrast, Warhol’s record is a respectable $105 million, achieved in 2013 at Sotheby’s New York for the serigraph ‘Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)’. This dramatic shift is a new line in the sand for ‘great’ American art.

Warhol and Basquiat’s relationship was itself complicated and turbulent. The pair met in 1980 when Basquiat approached the Pop legend at a restaurant to show him his work, but it was only in 1982 that Basquiat truly made an impression. He quickly became a favourite at the Factory. Together Warhol and Basquiat collaborated on a number of works, including the radical ‘Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper)’ that was originally planned to sit across the street in Milan from Leonardo da Vinci’s original mural. There are even rumours that Warhol was in love with Basquiat. When the King of Pop died in 1987, his young protégé lost a protector and turned to prescription drugs to forget and to survive.


While once-a-upon-a-time it was Warhol that brought the star power to any auction, it’s Basquiat that is now turning heads. The sheen of Warhol’s in-jokes about modern consumerism have dulled and Basquiat’s uncompromising vision of the world is striding in to take its place. The Barbican’s pivotal new show is just the latest in a long line of hints that there is a new sheriff is in town.

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