Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Everlasting & Ever-rising Star

August 10, 20224 min read
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The artist’s ascent to the top of the market and why he continues to remain there

Jean-Michel Basquiat was the world’s first international African-American art star, with a classic New York story that took him from spraying graffiti on downtown walls to exhibiting his explosive Neo Expressionist works in leading galleries. One of the most influential artists of our time, Basquiat’s meteoric rise was interrupted by his untimely death at the age of 27. When Basquiat died, he was already a star, and upon his death, he burst into a supernova.

Already successful during his brief eight-year career, his market has continued to rise, nearly exponentially. From 2008 to 2018, sales of Basquiat’s work at auction accounted for $1.7 billion of the $2.2 billion total spend for the Black-American art market – a staggering 77%, notes Temilayo Butler, of HarbourView Equity Partners, whose graduate thesis focused on the science around Basquiat’s auction sales. “Of the six contemporary works by African American artists in the top 10 sold in 2018, four were by Basquiat.” And his art has consistently made and broken records at auction since 2018. Last year alone, sales of Basquiat’s artwork generated $439.6 million, placing him behind only Pablo Picasso. At Phillips on May 18, 2022, the marquee lot of the night was an untitled 1982 work by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Sold by Yusaku Maezawa for a staggering $85 million – it was only the third-highest price for a Basquiat at auction – and a 50% increase from the painting’s last sale in 2016. 

Basquiat broke through the gates of the rarefied and predominantly white art world in the early 1980s. Critics immediately recognized his talent at his first public exhibition at The Times Square Show, comparing his work to leading abstract expressionist, Willem DeKooning. Soon after, he showed several works at the New York/New Wave show at PS1 in 1981. Because he didn’t have a space to work, art dealer Annina Nosei set him up to paint in the basement of her Prince Street Gallery – his first serious workspace. The works he created sold out on opening day.  (Basquiat didn’t have his own studio until 1982, when he began to create some of his greatest masterpieces).

Continued Cultural Relevance

His work is as fresh today as it was 40 years ago. “Sometimes a student will tell me excitedly they’ve discovered this new artist, and it’s Basquiat.” says Cynthia Gadsden, author of “Artforum, Basquiat and the 1980s” and Assistant Professor of Art History at Tennessee State University. He was an artist who single handedly changed the direction of art. His thoughts, feelings and observations erupted onto any available surface, to give words painterly expression alongside imagery that incorporated symbols, figures, and his daily experiences. His raw Neo-Expressionist style drew from a range of diverse influences and used bold, bright primary colors. Basquiat spoke through his work, but rarely of his work, leaving much of his story written by people who were far removed from the artist and his inner circle.

“One of the amazing things about Basquiat is how influential the art writing about him was at the time. He spoke so little about his own art, so it was left to these critics to fill in the gaps,” says Gadsden. “Here you have this brilliance, but it was co-opted, massaged and manipulated into these myths and images that were really ridiculous. It’s so important for artists, particularly artists of color, to tell their stories. To have something out there that talks about what they do and why they do it. If you’re not telling your story, someone else will surely step in and do it.”  

Basquiat’s paintings have layers of meanings and address issues that are as relevant today as they were when he created them: race, class, oppression, colonialism, self-identity, mortality and religion. “With his paintings you can enter from so many different ways. If you’re coming at it from race, economic status, police brutality, you can come that way,” says Gadsden. He ennobled the black athletes, musicians and writers like Muhammad Ali and Charlie Parker, whom he considered personal heroes with the use of his signature crown. Pervasive racism, which Basquiat treated in many of his artworks, is unfortunately as relevant today as it was in the 1980s.  “We’re all still deeply dealing with the racial reckoning in America. People are still running toward supporting minority artists and even diverse artists generally speaking,” says Temilayo Butler.

 From licensing agreements with Louis Vuitton to capsule collections with Uniqlo, Basquiat’s work is now (ironically) tied inextricably to the capitalist systems he spent his life’s work deriding. But it keeps him and his work on the streets and alive in pop culture.  “I do think that element of: ‘Who’s on your t-shirt? Who’s that on your shoes?’—it brings him to kids living in different communities,” adds Gadsden.

The Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure© Exhibit in New York City, curated by his sisters, Jeanine and Lisane, has done much to recontextualize Basquiat by highlighting his childhood and upbringing as a Haitian-Puertorican in Brooklyn, his insatiable curiosity, broad appetites for culture, poetry, art and travel and his development as an artist who had so much to say about the state of the world but who so rarely spoke about his work. Yieldstreet is proud to sponsor such an important exhibition, and offer our investors an opportunity to invest in a fund that includes a masterpiece from the most important period of Basquiat’s career.