Do you think this painting is worth $48.4 million? That is the questions posed by many art critics, according to Niru Ratnam. Ratnam writes that earlier this year, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Dustheads,” which depicts two figures stoned on the hallucinogenic drug PCP, was given an estimated sales tag of $25–35 million at Christie’s. Here are excerpts; I highly suggest reading the full article—fascinating.
In the end, the hammer came down at $48.8 million, a sum that easily broke the previous record for the artist, $26.4 million, which was achieved last November. It was the fourth time in 12 months that Basquiat’s record price had been smashed, and confirmed the artist’s dominance of the contemporary market. Such record-breaking at auction tends to elicit valedictory statements from auction houses and Christie’s Loic Gouzer duly obliged: ‘“Dustheads” is pure, concentrated energy, freedom and honesty.’ But it is what Gouzer went on to say that is of more interest: ‘Ten years ago [Basquiat] might have been perceived as a misfit. Today, he is the most collected artist of sportsmen, actors, musicians and entrepreneurs.’
This statement, with its defensive undercurrent, attests to a gulf between what the market now makes of Basquiat and how art critics and historians have, at least until relatively recently, rated him. Basquiat’s career was short-lived and dramatic. He emerged as part of a graffiti collective called SAMO spraying buildings in Lower Manhattan in the late 1970s. Then, in quick succession, he formed a band (which included Vincent Gallo), appeared on Glenn O’Brien’s television programme TV Party, starred in an indie film, popped up in Blondie’s video for ‘Rapture’, and met and hung out with Andy Warhol. He also decided to move his artwork from the streets to the gallery and, from his debut solo exhibition at Annina Nosei’s gallery in 1981, he enjoyed a meteoric rise that saw its apotheosis in his appearance on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in early 1985. Basquiat exhibited with some of the most eminent art dealers in the world, including Bruno Bischofberger, Mary Boone and Larry Gagosian, producing paintings at a tremendous rate, fuelled by a gargantuan appetite for drugs. True to the cliché of burning bright and short, Basquiat died aged 27, three years after the cover shoot, of a heroin overdose.
Despite his fame, Basquiat was dismissed by a number of art critics and historians. The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists labelled him a ‘street artist’ and included him under the entry for ‘Graffiti’ rather than giving him his own named entry. The art critic Robert Hughes described his work as ‘merely novel’. But arguably his biggest adversary was the eminent American critic Hilton Kramer, whose descriptions of his work included the posthumous appraisal: ‘talentless hustler, street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant, who used his youth, his looks, his skin colour and his abundant sex appeal to win an overnight fame that proved to be his undoing’.
In fact, it was not Basquiat’s overnight fame that was his critical undoing, but a style of painting which, in its insistence on an expressionist style and the figurative, was rejected as regressive by art historians.
[. . .] Basquiat’s biggest collector, Jose Mugrabi, strolled out of February’s auctions with the simple statement: ‘Basquiat is the best artist in the world.’ His son Alberto has a Basquiat-style crown motif tattooed on his wrist. The Mugrabis, like those who collect Bacon, seem to value nothing more than a highly individualistic, expressive view of the world. And auction houses seem ready to make the break from those fusty old Marxist art historians and instead follow the lead of the prescient remark, made by Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer in 2006, ‘The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.’ The market, fuelled by the money of ‘sportsmen, actors, musicians and entrepreneurs’ (as well as that of oligarchs, sheikhs and hedge-funders), might not be as smart as Meyer suggests, but it is certainly determinedly revalidating the value of highly individual visions, whether fuelled by hallucinogens or not.