Basquiat Sales Paint the Art Market Red

The year is 1980 and the art market is bored with the minimalism of the past two decades.

Equally tired of intellectual conceptualism, it found solace in the vibrant rebelliousness of Neo-expressionist artists; who took to the fore on a wave of hip-hop, anti-right wing sentiment and a boom in visual culture. Basquiat was one of the most predominant names to emerge from this milieu, and during his brief career, rose to be a 20th century icon. 

Basquiat immensely influenced contemporary art and culture through his illumination of race, class, and power. Achieving success in a predominantly white art world, his works discussed Black culture and the traumas experienced by Black people in America. It's no wonder that the 2022 Basquiat forgery scandal at the Orlando Museum of Art continues to make headlines. 

Nor that his legacy has conjured a forthcoming documentary about him—co-produced by Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, American-football star Travis Kelce. Unsurprisingly, his complex textural canvas' and use of symbols and text continues to inspire new generations of artists including KAWS, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and our resident painter Johnny Depp.

"There's an immediacy to Basquiat's work that I admire; like capturing a moment in cinema that only occurs in a brief second," says Johnny. "Basquiat would do the most brilliant things like writing one word and crossing it out. If there were a billion words on a canvas and one was crossed out, then that's the one that you're going to look at." 

Untitled by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1984). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Famed Basquiat masterpieces are sold at jaw-dropping prices almost annually, and this year is no different. Basquiat will headline Christie's New York 21st century evening sale with the distinctive piece: The Italian Version of Popeye has no Pork in his Diet (1982). An acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas, it's estimated to accrue a cool $30m and features a crown, rough portraiture, vibrant colours, bold lines, and layers of scribbled words and paint.

Exuding multiple meanings and destroying traditional boundaries, the piece contains many of the hallmarks that defined Basquiat's work and testifies to his profound impact on the art world and contemporary culture. Meanwhile, Sotheby's is set to showcase an $18M Basquiat & Warhol painting at its Contemporary Evening Auction. 

The gobsmacking figure is a sixfold increase in worth from the $2.65 million the piece was last sold for in 2010. What could justify the inflation? Well, in 2014, Zenith (1985) was sold for $11.4 million at Phillips, and is the most valuable painting to sell from the period of collaboration between Basquiat and the Pop artist Andy Warhol (1983 to 1985).

"I love how Basquiat infused his experiences into his pieces," says Johnny. "Take, for instance, his rigorous study of anatomy and love for cartoons. At one moment, he's reading Grey's Anatomy, and then he's watching Popeye. And you can see these contrasting elements play out on the canvas." 

The Italian Version of Popeye has no Pork in his Diet by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Courtesy of Christie’s

Also on May 14th, Philips is set to rival Christie's Basquiat sale with one of its own. Expected to achieve between $40 million and $60 million, the 1982 Untitled (ELMAR) picture will be up for sale in New York, along with Untitled (Portrait of a Famous Ballplayer), painted by Basquiat in 1981 and estimated to sell for $6.5 million–$8.5 million. At the end of May, the auction house will offer art enthusiasts in Hong Kong a piece called Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari (1982) for an estimated $12 million–$18 million. 

In testimony to Basquiat's commercial longevity, Gagosian LA recently opened Made on Market Street, the first exhibition to focus exclusively on works produced by Basquiat in Los Angeles. Curated by Fred Hoffman with Larry Gagosian, the exhibition will be on view until June 1st 2024. The showcased works, all made between 1981 and 1982, are from the collection of Francesco Pellizzi, who purchased them from Basquiat’s first dealer, Annina Nosei, in the early ’80s. Nosei first invited the artist to join her gallery in 1981, and he worked tirelessly in the gallery's basement studio. Illuminated by a large skylight, the artist crafted masterpieces like Donut Revenge that led to sold out shows and global attention. 

The following year, Basquiat took his then-girlfriend and up-and-coming singer Madonna to see Larry Gagosian. The latter offered him a space to work in his California home, before hosting his second show at the Gagosian Gallery in 1983. The current exhibition showcases highlights like Hollywood Africans; a piece portraying Basquiat alongside fellow artists Toxic and Rammellzee and paying homage to jazz greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. 

"I've always thought of Basquiat's paintings musically," says Johnny. "He liked listening to Charlie Parker, Ben Webster and Dizzy Gillespie- and his work can be incredibly loud or subtle." The same year Hollywood Africans was painted, Basquiat would produce the influential hip-hop track “Beat Bop” on his own Tartown Record label, featuring Rammellzee and K-Rob. 

Basquiat’s sheer ability relating to millions of people across time and space is a humbling thought. According to Johnny, "I could never come anywhere near expressing what he was able to do in such a short amount of time with so few paintings."