Basquiat’s Market Reaches Dizzying Heights – updated

“Basquiat is the blue chip artist of the moment.” 


“Dustheads” by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“This week, a young man who once passed for the buffoon of the American art scene was posthumously elevated to the level of the most serious contenders for the attention of multimillionaire buyers of contemporary art. Indeed, Basquiat was arguably the great winner in Christie’s sale.”

Bloomberg news 5.16.13:

“Last night, Basquiat’s “Dustheads” estimated to bring $25 million to $35 million, went for $48.8 million to an unnamed client on the phone for whom Christie’s international specialist Loic Gouzer was bidding. Gouzer worked with Leonardo DiCaprio on Christie’s May 13 auction to benefit conservation.”

“The record Basquiat canvas depicts two colorful, big-headed characters on a black background; one looks dazed, the other confused. The title refers to the street slang for the users of the drug PCP, or angel dust. The neo-expressionist painter died at 27 in 1988.

Although Christie’s didn’t identify the seller, dealers said the painting was consigned by collector Tiqui Atencio.

The Basquiat market has been on the rise. In 2012, his auction sales totaled $161.5 million, more than doubling from the previous year, according to Artnet. He ranked 8th last year, compared to 18th in 2011, overtaking Lichtenstein and de Kooning.

Last year, Basquiat records were set and toppled. In November, his untitled canvas depicting a fisherman with a halo sold for $26.4 million at Christie’s in New York. Less than five months earlier, a 1981 self-portrait sold for $20.2 million at Christie’s in London.”



Priceless: Mr. Chow on Basquiat

Posted: 05/14/2013 10:51 am

When Basquiat was still sleeping on friends’ couches in the 80’s, Michael and Tina Chow were helping him survive. They purchased his paintings. They commissioned him to paint their portraits. They fed him and befriended an artist they believed in.

Few establishments were hipper in the mid-80s than Mr. Chow, on Manhattan’s East 57th street. On a given night, one could observe the biggest stars of New York’s exploding art scene there. Describing a dinner there attended by Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, Cathleen McGuigana observed for a New York Times Magazine cover story about Basquiat in 1985 that the restaurant’s fine menu and “elegant cream-lacquered interior” placed it “light years away” from artist hangouts a generation before.

“But art stars were different then,” she added.

It’s been 25 years since Basquiat died of a drug overdose, but Michael Chow still remembers the young, tragic art star vividly. He reflected on the brief and bright life of his friend in a conversation with Jim Shi for Christie’s, the art auction house. A May 15 auction of one of Basquiat’s most famous works, Dustheads (1982), is expected to break a record for the artist, currently set at $26.4 million.

jean michel basquiatJean Michel Basquiat’s Journal
On Race

“Artists turn anger into beauty, into poetry. In Basquiat’s case, his radar sensitivity on racism was very strong. I’d never met anyone so sensitive to it, and with good reason. No taxi in New York City would stop for him. He faced a lot of prejudices: There was the notion that black people could not be artists, and when you introduced him to non-African Americans, if he sensed even the littlest bit of racism, he wouldn’t shake your hand.

On Sophistication

“He was an international painter and he wanted to be a worldly man. He was very curious. I remember when we traveled to Hong Kong and spent two weeks there and had a great time. I took him to my tailor and he went crazy, buying everything in sight. Then we met very prominent friends of mine who invited us to a very expensive restaurant at The Peninsula called Gaddi’s. He immediately called the waiter over and quietly ordered the most expensive bottle of wine.

On Painting

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about poetry, we’re talking about magic, and we’re talking about making paintings that speak. At the end, you just look at the painting and ask yourself, ‘does it move me or not?’ [Basquiat] had the charisma and his paintings were powerful. They moved you.”

jean michel basquiatJean Michel Basquiat’s Journal
On Talent

“Most of the time when he painted, Jean-Michel didn’t look at the canvas. Like Francis Bacon and a few others, spontaneity was the most important thing for him — that organic mark. And yet he had this accuracy with anatomy and with truth, which is evident in his fantastic drawings.”

On Ambition

“Of course he was very ambitious. He wanted to be the greatest painter in his category, and he succeeded, I think. He was a powerful, powerful painter.”

On Friendship

“I didn’t know this at the time, but I was kind of a hero to him for whatever reason. His calling card, in order to introduce himself to me, came in the form of a painting of myself that he left on my doorstep in 1985. And since I acquired it so easily, of course my first reaction was that I didn’t treat it very well.”

“Soon after, we fell in love with each other, so to speak.”

jean michel basquiatPortrait of Michael Chow by Jean Michel Basquiat
On Put Downs

“Even during the period of his greatest success, the establishment still did not acknowledge him. They were still putting him down all day long.

“But the more times you go down, the more you come back with a vengeance. Someone once said all artists have to get knocked down three times. If you can do this, like Muhammad Ali did winning three championships, then you become the greatest.”

On James Dean… and Cuddling

“Like James Dean, one doesn’t know what the future would have held for Basquiat. Some do very well, some don’t do very well. Most artists, I believe, only have six golden years. After that, it’s difficult to reinvent again. Jean-Michel had his six years. If I saw him today, I would just cry for five minutes and give him a cuddle. I can’t put into words the impact he has had on me. In short, I loved him.


Eyes and Eggs by Basquiat (1983)

(excerpts from reportage on the explosive market for Basquiat’s works).

It is great to see Basquiat’s works skyrocket beyond any and all negative narratives about his life, to where now his works are consumed, visually devoured and poured over for their aesthetic powers and formal invention. His works are hopefully opening the door for more artists of color to have their works considered in this way, as verses continually being framed only in  discourses about racism, slavery, struggle, poverty, urban despair and misery. Jazz musicians suffered just as much if not more than did Basquiat, yet it is the sheer beauty and astounding musical structures and execution that rose and still rises about any earthly elements that weighed down upon them in life.

Vincent Johnson 2/14/2013

the following texts have been compiled and excerpted by  the artist and writer Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles.

Max Roach by Basquait (1984)

Riding With Death by Basquiat (1988)

Tuxedo by Basquiat (1982)


The Korea Herald > Entertainment > Arts

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s iconic works on view in Seoul

Kukje Gallery offers broad survey of Basquiat’s major works and his life

Published : 2013-02-17 19:22
Updated : 2013-02-17 19:22

“Untitled (Hand Anatomy),” 1982 by Jean-Michel Basquiat. (2013 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS, New York)

African-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artistic career lasted only eight years before he died at age 27, but he still remains as a mainstay in the global auction market: A drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat was sold at the top price of $15.2 million at an auction last Friday in London.

And now, some of his iconic works are on view at Kukje Gallery in Seoul until March, offering a broad survey of his works that left a lasting impression in the contemporary art scene in the 1980s.

As Basquiat said about his artistic process, “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life,” his paintings reflect his personal life and the world he lived in.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Julio Donoso/Sygma/TOPIC)

Starting as a graffiti writer on the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan under the name of “SAMO” (Same Old S―-), Basquiat rose to fame when he emerged in the New York art scene in the 1980s. Despite his lack of formal arts training, he was praised in the American and European art circles for his unique works.

The artist not only contributed to bringing street art to mainstream, but also incorporated his artistic talent to T-shirt designing, jewelry making, and music performance.

His paintings feature multiple personal and social messages presented through symbolic texts, list of words and imagery.

Some of them comment on racial issues and refer to prominent black figures in American society such as jazz musician Charlie Parker and baseball player Hank Aaron.

Basquiat’s 1981 painting mixes his personal stories and his idol by using cars and airplanes with symbolic words to depict his sickness during childhood and a hammer that symbolizes the legendary baseballer Aaron, who in 1974 broke the home run record formerly set by Babe Ruth.

Anatomy is also a significant part of his art, reflecting his personal trauma of having to undergo a splenectomy after being hit by a car at age 7.

He developed an interest in anatomy into visual language after his mother gave him a copy of the medical text “Gray’s Anatomy” when he was in hospital.

Before he died of a heroine overdose at age 27 in 1988, he led a short yet prolific career, producing works that left a lasting impression in the contemporary art scene which later garnered him a reputation as a Neo-Expressionism icon.

When he was 21, Basquiat was the youngest of 176 artists to be invited to the Kassel Documenta in 1982. His works were shown at the international art event alongside those of such established artists as Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. He also collaborated with his idol Andy Warhol, whom he befriended in 1983 and whose death later made a great impact on him.

The exhibition runs through March 31 at Kukje Gallery in Jongno, Seoul.


New Yorker magazine

A museum-worthy show of fifty-nine paintings confirms a common assessment of Basquiat’s brief glory: rousingly fresh in 1981, masterly in 1982, and stumbling thereafter. (He died in 1988, at twenty-seven.) At his peak, the former graffitist commanded a synthesis of Abstract Expressionism and Art Brut, with blazingly original uses of written and symbolic language, like the maestro of a great jazz orchestra. Then his pictures lost coherence, becoming less than the sums of their parts. Was it drugs? Was it too-fast fame? Basquiat’s decline is easy to moralize but trivial relative to his rise, which remains as deathlessly marvellous as that of Arthur Rimbaud. Through April 6.

Through April 6, 2013

Gagosian—555 W. 24th St.
555 W. 24th St., New York, N.Y.
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10/19/2012 @ 4:05PM |2,201 views

Buying Basquiat

This story appears in the November 5, 2012 issue of Forbes Life. by John Keats,

“As a young artist in 1980s New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat desired nothing so much as to match Andy Warhol’s success. This auction season, a quarter-century after both artists’ deaths, he’s coming tantalizingly close to fulfilling his wish. In May, Phillips de Pury sold an untitled 1981 painting in Basquiat’s characteristic street-naïf style for a record $16.3 million, nearly $2 million more than when the market for his work last peaked in 2007. A month later, Christie’s sold a larger 1981 canvas for $20.1 million, a record it expects to break in November with a third 1981 painting that the auction house is positioning as a sort of self-portrait in the guise of Jesus Christ.

The vintage of all three pictures is no coincidence. “Basquiat reached his peak almost at the beginning of his career,” says Christie’s specialist Loic Gouzer. “You have this raw character who’d just slipped from the street to the art world.” Within just two to three years of his breakthrough, the toxic combination of drug addiction and public adulation had all but done Basquiat in, and he finished himself off with a heroin overdose in 1988–at the age of 27–having produced approximately 1,000 paintings at a broad range of quality levels. “That’s a perfect market to work within,” observes market insider Richard Polsky, author of The Art Prophets. “There are enough paintings that we can deal in them, but it’s fairly finite because he had a short and sweet career.”

But why are prices now rising precipitously? According to Gouzer, Warhol deserves some credit, as do American masters such as Jackson Pollock. “With those artists, we’re no longer talking $20 million, so even a lot of very rich people are out of the game,” he explains. “When we look at what was done in America beyond those guys, Basquiat really shapes up to being numero uno. He was a great colorist, a great draftsman, and he had a great sense of scale,” Gouzer adds. “I think we’re going to see a $100 million Basquiat. People have this subconscious panic. People want to buy him before he becomes Pollock.”

Polsky agrees that the Basquiat market still has room for growth but is wary of putting him in Pollock’s or Warhol’s league. “Basquiat’s market is 100 percent speculative,” he argues. “It’s 100 percent market driven. It’s not art-history driven. Basquiat is a semimyth, and he’s on his way to becoming a full-blown myth.”

And in that respect, at least, Basquiat has aced the Warhol test.


Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Burroughs triptych to be sold at London auction

Work by US artist, who died aged 27 in 1988, is tribute to his favourite writer and is valued at between £4.25m and £6.25m

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Five Fish Species

Detail from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Five Fish Species, a celebration of his favourite writer, beat author William Burroughs. Photograph: Sotheby’s

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s tribute to the mad and bad world of William Burroughs – including the unfortunate night in Mexico when he shot and killed his wife in a William Tell game – is to be sold in London after 30 years in the same ownership.

Sotheby’s said the painting, bought directly from Basquiat himself, would be one of the highlights of its contemporary art sale on 12 February.

“Basquiat is the blue chip artist of the moment,” said Branczik. “He is recognised today in perhaps the same way he recognised Burroughs in the 1980s as someone who was streets ahead of his time – Basquiat is the artist who everybody wants at the moment so we have high hopes of it doing well at auction.”

On View

‘Jean-Michel Basquiat’ at Gagosian Gallery

By Andrew Russeth 2/12/2013 4:19pm

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Cassius Clay,' 1982. (Courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

“Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Cassius Clay,’ 1982. (Courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

A quarter-century after he died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 in downtown Manhattan, Jean-Michel Basquiat needs no introduction. The fame that he pursued relentlessly and recklessly throughout his brief career seems secure, buoyed by museum retrospectives, films, books, sympathetic critics and a bounty of supremely wealthy collectors, who now buy major works by him for $20 million or more. For anyone who needed proof that this last part isn’t just the result of market hype, there is Gagosian Gallery’s current exhibition of more than 50 works.

The majority of the pieces on view come from 1981 through ’83, when the Haitian-American, Brooklyn-born graffiti artist made his improbable leap into the upper echelon of the art world. The trademark Basquiat work of the time has a central figure—a fisherman, a warrior, a boxer—hovering amid gnomic phrases, some of them crossed out, in front of high-pitched fields of color that compare favorably with Abstract-Expressionist masters Hans Hofmann and Clyfford Still.

Though Basquiat fit perfectly alongside then-ascendant Neo-Expressionists like Julian Schnabel, who aimed to return figurative painting to the realm of vanguard art, a bit of distance shows that he was regularly outclassing them. One of the best works here, La Hara (1981), offers an unhinged-looking cop with blood-red eyes surrounded by an array of marks—smudges, scratches, a thermos and what may be a fence. No wonder he pissed people off.

Many of those early works are so colorful, so humming with anxious, energetic lines that they threaten to produce bodily shocks. Don’t forget, though, that Basquiat could also be uproariously funny (1982’s Obnoxious Liberals has a panicked figure wearing a shirt that reads “Not for sale”) and subtle, perhaps even romantic (1985’s Now’s the Time, an eight-foot-wide circular painting on wood that resembles the eponymous Charlie Parker record, its title written in little white letters at its center).

For me, the real joys come in ’83 and ’84, when Basquiat was cramming more text and bits of photocopied anatomical drawings into his paintings. The frenetic energy has dissipated, but the resulting tableaux, laden with an increasing number of competing figures, elicit intellectual rather than emotional responses.

The prevailing narrative, that Basquiat’s work declined as he reveled in fame and drugs, remains hard to dispute, but the show offers a few startling exceptions, like Riding with Death (1988), one of his last paintings. A nude man is astride a skeletal horse; he seems to be slipping into the bronze monochrome background, disappearing into the picture. (Through April 6)”


Basquiat Sells for $20.1 M., a New Auction Record, in London

By Dan Duray 6/27/12 3:15pm /GalleristNY Observer

“The record-breaking work. (Courtesy Christie’s)

An untitled work by Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1981 just sold for $20,170,071, according to the Christie’s Twitter feed. The sum marks a new auction high for the artist, breaking a record set just this past spring at Phillips de Pury & Company where another untitled work from that year sold for $16.3 million.

According to the Artnet price database, the work that was purchased this evening in London last sold at auction in May 2007, when it made $14.6 million at Sotheby’s New York.

The new record reflects prices already achieved on the private market. After that Phillips auction, many collectors said they’d seen plenty of Basquiats sell for prices in the $20 million range.”


June 1, 2012, 2:59 pm

Is a Basquiat Painting Really Worth $16 Million?

“Richard Drew/Associated PressAndy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York , September 1985.

This week in the magazine, Adam Davidson examines what’s really driving some art prices to record highs. In part, it’s because “the value of any artist’s work is determined by an insider world of cultural arbiters who coordinate with one another,” Davidson writes.

Sergey Skaterschikov, an art-market analyst Davidson consulted, has spent years studying how insiders shape the market — one “completely based on manipulation,” he told me. A case in point, he said, is the surge in demand for the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“What happened is auctions and dealers succeeded in convincing collectors that Basquiat is a Warhol proxy, a peer to Warhol with a discount,” he said. These insiders used research, catalogs and special exhibitions to advance their arguments; the more demand they generated for Basquiat, the more money they could devote to promotional materials. “They all have a vested interest to keep the story going,” Skaterschikov said.

That’s one reason Basquiat’s art has been hunted so aggressively over the last six years. One of his paintings, optimistically estimated to be worth $12 million, recently sold at auction for $16 million. As Skaterschikov put it, “In this market, perception is reality.””

An untitled 1981 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat set a record auction price for the artist, $16.3 million, on May 10, 2012.
“Phillips de Pury
An untitled 1981 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat set a record auction price for the artist, $16.3 million, on May 10, 2012.”
5/10/2012 @ 11:48PM |2,681 views

$16 Million Basquiat Sets New World Record At Phillips Art Sale

“The contemporary art auction at Phillips de Pury tonight in New York set a new world record for a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Untitled from 1981 sold for $16,322,500 including premiums to beat the previous record of $14.6 million set in 2007. The work went to a private bidder.

Top sellers of the night besides the Basquiat were Untitled VI by Willem de Kooning, which sold for $12,402,500; Untitled (Bolsena) by Cy Twombly for $6,242,500; Brushstroke Nude by Roy Lichtenstein for $5,458,500; and two by Andy Warhol: Mao ($10,386,500) and Gun ($7,026,500).
The mood tonight was lively if not as electrifying as a certain diamond auction at Christie’s late last year. Women in Louboutin shoes and men with the long, artfully coiffed hair of European royalty milled around drinking champagne downstairs in the lobby before the sale started. Later in the main room they clapped appreciatively when the Basquiat sold. Most of the buyers were longtime art patrons, according to Michael McGinnis, Phillips’ worldwide head of contemporary art. Bidders from Russia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are especially strong this year, he said.

Basquiat’s Price Soars Fivefold as $320 Million Auctions Start

By Scott Reyburn – Jun 27, 2011 4:51 PM PT Bloomberg news



“Phillips de Pury & Co. via Bloomberg

“Self-Portrait” by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The 1985 acrylic-on-wood painting at Claridge’s Hotel, London, on June 27.

A Jean-Michel Basquiat self-portrait sold last night as London…

The Basquiat, dating from 1985 and featuring a half-length self-portrait next to a wooden panel covered in bottle tops, fetched 2.1 million pounds ($3.4 million) at Phillips de Pury & Co.’s first contemporary sale at Claridge’s in Mayfair. The price was five times the $647,500 it fetched at Phillips de Pury, New York, in 2003.

“Self-Portrait” by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The 1985 acrylic-on-wood painting was included in a 32-lot auction of contemporary works held by Phillips de Pury & Co. at Claridge’s Hotel, London, on June 27. Source: Phillips de Pury & Co. via Bloomberg

Phillips de Pury & Co. via Bloomberg.

“The Basquiat was one of five works with minimum bids by third party guarantors. It fell to the guarantor, bidding by phone, for slightly more than the 2-million-pound low estimate.”


Metallica Drummer to Auction $12 Million Basquiat

by Jared Paul Stern (RSS feed) LUXIST
Oct 12th 2008 at 11:04AM

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich is selling a massive 8-ft. wide Jean-Michel Basquiat painting at Christie’s in New York on Nov. 12, where it’s expected to fetch about $12 million. Untitled (Boxer) (above), painted in 1982, is an important “proxy self-portrait,” Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international co-head of postwar and contemporary art, tells Bloomberg. “The black artist as defiant hero.'” In 2002, Ulrich, a noted collector, sold Basquiat’s 1982 Profit I at Christie’s for $5.5 million. In July, Irish rock band U2 sold the artist’s Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) for $10.1 million at Sotheby’s in London. The auction record for a Basquiat work was set at Sotheby’s in New York last year with the $14.6 million sale of 1981’s Untitled.”

At $1.5 Million, Basquiat Leads Auction

Published: May 13, 2005

“Phillips, de Pury & Company

“Catharsis” (1983), by Jean-Michel Basquiat, sold for $1.5 million.

A classic 1983 Basquiat was the evening’s winner. The canvas, with red lines that resemble dripping blood and words like “thumb,” “spleen,” “left paw and “suicide attempt scrawled across it, was expected to sell for $1.2 million to $1.8 million. Two collectors went for the painting, which sold to an unidentified telephone bidder when the hammer fell at $1.2 million or $1.5 million with the fee Phillips charges buyers.




February 10, 1985

New Art, New Money


WHEN JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT walks into Mr. Chow’s on East 57th Street in Manhattan, the waiters all greet him as a favorite regular. Before he became a big success, the owners, Michael and Tina Chow, bought his artwork and later commissioned him to paint their portraits. He goes to the restaurant a lot. One night, for example, he was having a quiet dinner near the bar with a small group of people. While Andy Warhol chatted with Nick Rhodes, the British rock star from Duran Duran, on one side of the table, Basquiat sat across from them, talking to the artist Keith Haring. Haring’s images of a crawling baby or a barking dog have become ubiquitous icons of graffiti art, a style that first grew out of the scribblings (most citizens call them defacement) on New York’s subway cars and walls. Over Mr. Chow’s plates of steaming black mushrooms and abalone, Basquiat drank a kir royale and swapped stories with Haring about their early days on the New York art scene. For both artists, the early days were a scant half dozen years ago.

That was when the contemporary art world began to heat up after a lull of nearly a decade, when a new market for painting began to make itself felt, when dealers refined their marketing strategies to take advantage of the audience’s interest and when much of the art itself began to reveal a change from the cool and cerebral to the volatile and passionate.

As an artist’s hangout, the elegant cream-lacquered interior of Mr. Chow’s is light-years away from the Cedar Tavern, that grubby Greenwich Village haunt of the artists of the New York School 30 years ago. But art stars were different then. Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and their contemporaries, all more or less resigned to a modest style of living, worked for years at the center of a small and intimate art world in relative isolation from the public at large.

But today, contemporary art is evolving under the avid scrutiny of the public and an ever-increasing pool of collectors in the United States, Europe and Japan; and it is heavily publicized in the mass media. Barely disturbed by occasional dips in the economy, the art market has been booming steadily.

As a result of the current frenzied activity, which produces an unquenchable demand for something new, artists such as Basquiat, Haring or the graffitist Kenny Scharf, once seized upon, become overnight sensations. In their circle, and certainly among the top artists whose careers took off a few years sooner, artists such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Robert Longo, annual earnings easily run into six figures. Not only are the numbers involved great – both the dollars and cents and the size of the art audience – so is the breathtaking speed with which work by a new artist can become a cultural fixture.TAKE BASQUIAT. FIVE YEARS AGO, HE didn’t have a place to live. He slept on the couch of one friend after another. He lacked money to buy art supplies. Now, at 24, he is making paintings that sell for $10,000 to $25,000. They are reproduced in art magazines and also as part of fashion layouts, or in photographs of chic private homes in House & Garden. They are in the collections of the publisher S. I. Newhouse, Richard Gere, Paul Simon and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

His color-drenched canvases are peopled with primitive figures wearing menacing masklike faces, painted against fields jammed with arrows, grids, crowns, skyscrapers, rockets and words. ”There are about 30 words around you all the time, like ‘thread’ or ‘exit,’ ” he explains. He uses words ”like brushstrokes,” he says. The pictures have earned him serious critical affirmation. In reviewing a group show of drawings last year, John Russell, chief art critic of The New York Times, noted that ”Basquiat proceeds by disjunction – that is, by making marks that seem quite unrelated, but that turn out to get on very well together.” His drawings and paintings are edgy and raw, yet they resonate with the knowledge of such modern masters as Dubuffet, Cy Twombly or even Jasper Johns. What is ”remarkable,” wrote Vivien Raynor in The Times, ”is the educated quality of Basquiat’s line and the stateliness of his compositions, both of which bespeak a formal training that, in fact, he never had.”

That favorable review came after Basquiat’s first solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery in May 1984. The same month, a self-portrait painted mostly in black and white – stark, powerful and sexually charged – was included in the international survey exhibition that celebrated the reopening of the renovated Museum of Modern Art. Then, proving the solid marketability of his work, a painting of his appeared for auction at Christie’s spring sale of contemporary art. Painted only two years earlier and sold originally for $4,000, it fetched $20,900 on the block.

THE EXTENT OF BASQUIAT’S SUCCESS would no doubt be impossible for an artist of lesser gifts. Not only does he possess a bold sense of color and composition, but, in his best paintings, unlike many of his contemporaries, he maintains a fine balance between seemingly contradictory forces: control and spontaneity, menace and wit, urban imagery and primitivism. Still, the nature and rapidity of his climb is unimaginable in another era. The audience for art is larger now than ever before, and collecting original art is no longer the sole province of the very rich. The upwardly mobile postwar generation, raised on art-history courses and summer trips to Europe, aspires to collect and has the cash to do it. Even when collectors lack cash, some institutions, including banks, now recognize their need. Sotheby’s, the auction house, is willing to lend a portion of the price of an artwork at 2 to 4 points above the prime-interest rate. Given the extraordinary prices of the older blue-chip artists ($1 million for a vintage Jasper Johns, for example), a lot of collectors naturally turn to the young up-and-coming painters whose works are still available for $50,000 and down. For many new art patrons, connoisseurship of contemporary art is a necessary part of the urban life style. They look for paintings that are esthetically aggressive, that physically assault space. The artworks offer proof of up-to-the-minute taste and have a perfect showcase in the reclaimed lofts or gentrified houses in which so many upper-middle- class urbanites now live. With all these new consumers, the number of dealers has mushroomed: in 1970, for example, there were 73 galleries listed in the Art Now: New York Gallery Guide; today there are nearly 450.

This expanding market for contemporary art coincided with a shift in the direction that art itself was taking. Since the late 1960’s, the contemporary mainstream had been dominated by the austere constraints of Minimalism – Brice Marden’s simple areas of solid color, for instance – or the cerebral concerns of Conceptualism, like the mathematical cubes of Sol LeWitt. The forms that art often took seemed to reject the collector – environmental art such as earthworks couldn’t be neatly crated and taken home to hang over the stereo system. But in the late 1970’s, artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Neil Jenney and Susan Rothenberg began, in vastly different ways, to paint recognizable figures on canvas. Bold color and the sensuality of a richly painted surface returned, appealing to an art public that had been starved, baffled or bored for a decade. Many art patrons hadn’t felt a comparable excitement since the early 1960’s. Eugene Schwartz, for example, who, along with his wife, Barbara, amassed an important collection including Frank Stella, Morris Louis and David Smith, stopped collecting altogether in 1969. One day in 1980, he saw a painting by the artist Julian Schnabel in a dealer’s gallery. ”It brought us from the 60’s to the 80’s in about 14 seconds,” he said, and since buying it he has been collecting again – ”compulsively.”

Not everyone in the art world is overjoyed at what is happening. Some think neo- expressionism, as much of the new work is called, is a hyped-up fad, doomed to a short life. ”The new expressionism tends to be a generalized Angst ,” says Thomas Lawson, a painter and editor of Real Life Magazine, a small-circulation artists’ journal. ”You can’t tell what the artist is reacting to. It’s not very reflective.” Lawson thinks Basquiat is talented but that those of lesser skills will inevitably burn out.

In any case, Julian Schnabel’s highly publicized success made him the first art star of the 1980’s and created an atmosphere of expanded possibilities for any promising artist since. For someone as ambitious as Basquiat, high expectations are matched by the pressures of succeeding. Basquiat’s sometimes-stormy rise and struggle with the art establishment provide a look at how the artists’ names and their works are marketed in the art world today. His successful career demonstrates the competitiveness among dealers for artists; dealers’ pricing and marketing techniques; their control of supply and demand and the importance of the European market for today’s American scene. Further, Basquiat’s example shows how an artist tries to create and to preserve his autonomy in this heady environment. The danger is always that the glamour and fuss will cloud the meaning of the artwork itself. FROM THE START Basquiat has displayed a notoriously mercurial disposition, which certainly helped bring him early attention in a world in which a lot of noise doesn’t hurt. Like his paintings, which are at once childlike and fearsome, he can be both engagingly shy and temperamental. Henry Geldzahler, critic and former curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comments, ”His personality, both charming and disdainful, is very attractive.”

He was born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father, a successful accountant, and a Puerto Rican mother. His parents separated when he was 7. Basquiat dreamed of becoming a writer and a cartoonist – his father brought home paper from the office for him to draw on, and his mother sometimes took him to museums. His renegade streak surfaced early. ”At 15, he left home and went to Washington Square Park, reported Suzi Gablik in her book ”Has Modernism Failed?” ”I just sat there dropping acid for eight months,” Basquiat told her. ”Now all that seems boring. It eats your mind up.” He dropped out of school again at 17 (after, he says, he threw a cream pie in the principal’s face) and began writing poetic messages and drawing odd symbols with a friend named Al Diaz on walls around town, especially in SoHo. The messages, in Magic Marker, were vaguely anarchistic and ranged from the obvious – ”Riding around in Daddy’s convertible with trust fund money”- to the ominous – ”Plush safe . . . he think.” They signed the phrases with the tag ”SAMO” and the copyright symbol. Basquiat explains that SAMO was meant to suggest a brand name or corporate logo; he has also said that it stood for the expresway, the graffiti captured a lot of attention. ”At that time, whenever you went to an art opening or a hot new club, SAMO had been there first,” says Jeffrey Deitch, a critic who co-manages the international art advisory service at Citibank and was an early Basquiat champion. (Citibank advises its customers that art of quality can be considered a good investment. And, with other leading banks, it also now accepts fine art and furniture as collateral against loans.) Eventually, SAMO was unmasked. For Keith Haring, who had admired SAMO’s handiwork, the realization came when he sneaked a young artist named Basquiat into the School of Visual Arts. The next day, SAMO’s leavings were scrawled all over the school.

Basquiat, like many aspiring artists, worked at a number of odd jobs, including selling junk jewelry on the street on the lower part of the Avenue of the Americas, and he crashed a lot of art parties and openings. ”He was always broke,” recalls Diego Cortez, a curator and critic who met him during this period at the Mudd Club, the now-defunct punk hangout that was headquarters for the art and rock underground. Basquiat was also painting designs on sweatshirts and coveralls and playing in a band called Gray. ”It was a noise band,” he says. ”I played a guitar with a file, and a synthesizer. I was inspired by John Cage at the time – music that isn’t really music. We were trying to be incomplete, abrasive, oddly beautiful.” It was not unlike his art. Basquiat exhibited some of the drawings he was making at occasional art shows at the Mudd Club and in the new-wave salons that Keith Haring organized at such popular nightspots as Club 57.

Neo-expressionist painting was having a growing impact on the SoHo scene in 1980. A trio of Italians, known as the three C’s – Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi, all of whom used the human figure in their epic- scaled, potent canvases – had major exhibitions in New York at the Sperone Westwater gallery. People began to talk about waiting lists for certain hot new painters. That summer, the emerging artists of the punk and graffiti underground had their own art event, at a rather unusual alternative space. In a former massage parlor near Times Square, a loose confederation of artists from the South Bronx and the Lower East Side collaborated to turn the dilapidated structure into ”a sort of art funhouse,” as Jeffrey Deitch put it in Art in America. Crammed with a crude, energetic assortment of drawings, posters, low-budget scraps of film, exotic fashions and sculpture, the ”Times Square Show,” as it was called, had a trashy exuberance that lived up to the neighborhood. (A work called ”Man Killed by Air Conditioner,” which was simply a life-size clay figure crushed on the floor by a real air-conditioner, typified the show’s deadpan humor.) Basquiat had contributed to the exhibition by covering an entire wall in splashes of spray paint and brushwork. ”A patch of wall painted by SAMO, the omnipresent graffiti sloganeer, was a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray paint scribbles,” wrote Deitch. That was Basquiat’s first press notice.

No one can remember exactly when the epitaph ”SAMO is dead” first began to appear scrawled around the Bowery and SoHo, but when Basquiat and his collaborator Diaz had a falling out, Basquiat killed off his alter ego. Diaz became involved in music, and Basquiat, though he had been the prime author of SAMO’s musings, turned increasingly to making art. He had no real materials: he painted on salvaged sheet metal or broken pieces of window casement and made assemblages out of junk. One work from that period, now owned by the artist Francesco Clemente, is a four-inch-thick slab of dirty yellow foam rubber on which a childlishly rendered car is outlined in black.

One day in 1980, Diego Cortez, who had been following Basquiat’s work with interest and had begun to act as his agent, brought Jeffrey Deitch to the tiny tenement apartment on the Lower East Side where the artist was then living with a girlfriend. The first thing Deitch saw was a battered refrigerator that Basquiat had completely covered with drawings, words and symbols, the lines practically etched into the enamel. ”It was one of the most astounding art objects I had ever seen,” says Deitch. Scattered all over the floor of the apartment were drawings on all sizes of cheap paper covered with images and smudged with Basquiat’s footprints. ”Jean kept on working as if we were interrupting him,” Deitch remembers. He picked out five drawings made on typing paper, and paid $250 in cash for them. This was probably Basquiat’s first sale; Cortez had to remind him to sign the drawings.

In January 1981, Cortez put together a show called ”New York/New Wave” at P.S. 1, the alternative-space gallery in Long Island City, Queens. Although the show featured work by graffiti artists, Cortez also showed some paintings by Basquiat, mostly minimal – lines of crayon or paint drawn in childlike fashion on unprimed canvas. The message was clear: though Basquiat had cruised onto the underground art scene on the crest of the graffitists’ new wave, his work was distinctly different. In fact, neither he nor the graffitist Keith Haring had ever ”bombed” – spray painted – dormant subway cars in the train yards at night, a necessary rite of passage in the authentic graffiti subculture. More importantly, as the critics pointed out, Basquiat’s paintings embodied more formal ties to the history of art. He may have grown up, like most kids, on a diet of comic books, but clearly he had also had a taste of Picasso. (Basquiat says that ”Guernica” had a big impact on him when he first saw it as a teen-ager in the Museum of Modern Art.)

Few dealers made the trek to Queens to see the P.S. 1 show, but several influential people did come. The Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who has a gallery in Zurich, saw Basquiat’s work for the first time there. Although he wasn’t ready to make a commitment to it, Henry Geldzahler was impressed indeed. Several months later, Geldzahler bought the first of the three works of Basquiat he was to acquire. It was half a door that Basquiat had found on the street to which he’d applied half-torn posters and layers of scribblings. ”It was covered with as dense and rewarding an array as a 1955 Rauschenberg,” says Geldzahler. ”I decided to overpay. I offered $2,000 for it. I knew he was authentic and I wanted to say, ‘Welcome to the real world.’ ”

For the Italian painter Sandro Chia, then new to America, Basquiat’s paintings captured the spontaneity and ”emotional reality” of the city. The paintings were full of disparate elements that somehow worked together, though there was no apparent system linking them – ”just like New York,” notes Chia. He commended Basquiat’s work to the Italian dealer Emilio Mazzoli, who promptly bought 10 paintings for approximately $10,000 and set a date on the spot for Basquiat to have a show at his gallery in Modena. That spring, Basquiat went to Modena (his first trip to Europe), made a few more paintings there and had his first one- man show. WHILE BASQUIAT was in Europe, the buzz of the New York art world was of the opening of the spectacular double show that Julian Schnabel was having simultaneously at the Mary Boone and Leo Castelli Galleries in SoHo. People gossiped about how Schnabel and his dealer, Mary Boone, had won the imprimatur of Castelli, who handles Rauschenberg and Johns and hadn’t taken on a new artist in nearly a decade. In fact, while Schnabel came to epitomize the new artist-as-celebrity, Mary Boone became a public persona in her own right, the best known of a new breed of young dealers: bright, aggressive and hardheaded in business matters.

Annina Nosei, who had opened a gallery in SoHo in 1980, invited Basquiat to join it in September 1981 at the suggestion of Sandro Chia. He needed money and a place to paint. He was given cash to buy supplies and the use of the gallery’s basement storeroom as a studio. ”He had, perhaps, seen in me the mother type,” says the dealer, who suggests that that image led to later conflicts.

Basquiat worked feverishly, encouraged by Annina Nosei, who sometimes brought collectors down to the basement while he painted. Now rich with color, his paintings began to evolve from the sparer look of the work in the P.S. 1 show: large, primitive figures were filled in and articulated with raw detail and there was less of the all-over drawing of symbols and words. In a book published last year, ”The Art Dealers,” by Laura de Coppet and Alan Jones, Annina Nosei described her strategy for selling these works: ”I was putting together major sales to important collectors who were buying, for example, the Germans. I told them that they should have a work by Jean Michel Basquiat also, for $1,000 or $1,500 more on the bill of $25,000 they had already run up. This worked quite well: these collectors gained an early commitment, told their friends, and all of a sudden Basquiat’s paintings were found in collections beside more well-known artists, as the youngest of all.” At first, she priced his works very low, so that ”later when I show paintings for $2,000 the improvement in that new work confirmed the small commitment already made.”

The dealer was said to be selling canvases by Basquiat at a brisk pace – so brisk, some observers joked, that the paint was barely dry. Basquiat says he did not always feel the paintings were finished. Meanwhile, the basement-studio arrangement was gaining a certain notoriety. Critic Suzi Gablik called it ”something like a hothouse for forced growth,” and Jeffrey Deitch referred to it when he reviewed in Flash Art magazine Basquiat’s show at Annina Nosei’s in March 1982. Deitch wrote: ”Basquiat is likened to the wild boy raised by wolves, corralled into Annina’s basement and given nice clean canvases to work on instead of anonymous walls. A child of the streets gawked at by the intelligentsia. But Basquiat is hardly a primitive. He’s more like a rock star. . . . (He) reminds me of Lou Reed singing brilliantly about heroin to nice college boys.”

What press attention Basquiat received from the show was mostly favorable, and one month later, when he made his West Coast debut with a show at the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, William Wilson of The Los Angeles Times wrote, ”We are simultaneously convinced that he is a tough street-voodoo artist and a painter of astonishing precocity.”

Basquiat began chafing in the hothouse. With a second show scheduled at Mazzoli’s in Modena, he went to Europe again. ”They set it up for me so I’d have to make eight paintings in a week, for the show the next week,” says Basquiat. ”That was one of the things I didn’t like. I made them in this big warehouse there. Annina, Mazzoli and Bruno were there.” (Bischofberger was now representing him in Europe.) ”It was like a factory, a sick factory,” says Basquiat. ”I hated it.” The Mazzoli show was canceled. After that episode, Basquiat decided to quit the Nosei gallery. ”I wanted to be a star,” he says, ”not a gallery mascot.” He returned to the basement, where there were about 10 canvases, most of them unfinished, that he wanted to get rid of. In a classic display of his notorious temper, he slashed them, folded them, jumped on them and poured paint on them. Although the dealer says that Basquiat simply was destroying work that he didn’t intend to finish, the art world buzzed about the incident. ”Jean Michel more than anyone has made a success story out of scandal,” says Cortez.

”Jean was ungrateful,” Annina Nosei says. She believes she was responsible for launching Basquiat’s career internationally. ”But he was sweet in the end.” According to the dealer, their relationship as artist and dealer was not clearly severed that fall. (As with most galleries, there were no contracts involved.) Many months later, in February 1983, she mounted a one-man show of his work while he was cementing a relationship with a new dealer.

During the autumn of 1982, Basquiat lived like a hermit in a loft on Crosby Street in SoHo. ”I had some money; I made the best paintings ever,” he says now. ”I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.”

The fruit of that work, painted in a privacy he never knew at the Nosei gallery, made a big splash when it was unleashed on the art world in November 1982 at a one-man show in the Fun Gallery, run by Patti Astor, a former underground movie actress, and her partner, Bill Stelling. Bold and colorful, the canvases were crudely, irregularly stretched, and the works had more of the gritty immediacy of the paintings he had done before he joined the Nosei gallery, in part because he returned to a more intense drawing of words and symbols. ”I liked that show the best,” says Bischofberger. ”The work was very rough, not easy, but likable. It was subtle and not too chic. The opening was great, too. It drew young blacks and Puerto Ricans, along with limousines from uptown.”

Late that winter, he spent time in Los Angeles, preparing for a second show at Larry Gagosian’s gallery and working at the dealer’s house. Again, he felt pressure and regrets now that paintings were released that ”I didn’t want released.” A number of dealers had been courting Basquiat in New York. (”It’s no honor,” he says wryly. ”There’re more dealers than artists these days.”) One was Tony Shafrazi, an Iranian who had been interested in showing Basquiat in his SoHo gallery as early as 1981. In 1974, he had sprayed red paint on Picasso’s ”Guernica” when it still hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Police removed him from the scene while he spelled out his name for bystanders. The painting, protected by varnish, was undamaged, and finally the case came to nothing. Ironically, Shafrazi has helped legitimize the graffiti-art movement by becoming the dealer for such artists as Haring, Scharf and Ronnie Cutrone, but, partly because of the Picasso incident, he got nowhere with Basquiat. Others who had discussions with the artist included Metro Pictures (Robert Longo’s gallery) and the Monique Knowlton Gallery.

Basquiat’s temperamental nature didn’t always allow him to receive these overtures with grace. One dealer, visiting his loft and noting his fondness for health food, went away and came back with a big jar of fruits and nuts. ”But what she really wanted were my paintings,” he says. ”She tried to tell me that her chauffeur, who was black, worked with her in her gallery, not that he was her driver.” As she walked out of his door in defeat, Basquiat leaned out his window and dumped the contents of the jar on her head.

When Basquiat finally did join a new gallery, he went straight to the major leagues and, to the surprise of some of his friends, joined Mary Boone. ”I wanted to be in a gallery with older artists,” he says. And he wanted to insure, as well, that any lingering associations with graffiti art were severed.

Mary Boone, perhaps reacting to a spate of publicity about herself and her business style, now is careful to avoid any appearance of hype and self- promotion. In fact, initially she regarded Basquiat with caution, she says, vaguely repelled by all the fuss. ”There was a period of about a year and a half, whenit was impossible to wake up in the morning and not hear about Jean Michel Basquiat,” she says. Introduced to him by Bischofberger, she says she waited until she became convinced that Basquiat had staying power. ”I’d walk into some collector’s home and there would be something by Jean, hanging next to Rauschenberg and Stella,” she recalls. ”It looked great. It surprised me.” She has sold his paintings to such longtime clients as Peter Ludwig, the German candy tycoon who has his own museum of contemporary art in Cologne, and to Sidney Janis, the 88- year-old dealer who has hung Basquiat’s work in three group shows at his gallery.

Though Annina Nosei encouraged his high productivity of paintings, since Basquiat joined Mary Boone’s gallery he has tended to hold on to pieces longer and rework them more, with his new dealer’s blessing. ”His output is high,” she says, ”but he’s getting more critical of what he holds back.” He estimates that last year he finished 30 or 40 paintings. Yet any danger of the market’s being flooded with Basquiats is offset by the fact that Mary Boone represents the artist jointly with Bischofberger – they split the standard dealer’s commission of 50 percent – who takes much of the work to Europe to sell. The Boone gallery’s promotion of Basquiat has been low key; he didn’t have a one-man show there until last May, his second season with the gallery, and the dealer charges $10,000 to $25,000 for a painting, a purposeful underpricing, she says.

For the most part, Basquiat is pleased, although the pricing of his work does bother him. Paintings by such Boone superstars as David Salle sell for $40,000 and up. ”David Salle’s been at it longer, I know,” sighs Basquiat. ”I should be patient, right?” DOWN ON THE Lower East Side, in a small newly renovated building that he rents, which is owned by Andy Warhol, four big empty canvases are waiting for the touch of Basquiat’s brush. The vast whiteness of the canvases seems a world away from the dirty walls on which he first exhibited his work. Downstairs, a friend named Shenge, who acts as major domo, has his quarters, while the floor above the studio is Basquiat’s domain, the place he keeps his VCR and a hundred or so cassettes of his favorite movies. In one corner is the director’s chair the late Sam Peckinpah used while shooting ”The Wild Bunch” and ”The Osterman Weekend.”

Basquiat takes a tube of paint and squirts a blob of brown pigment directly onto the virgin canvas, which is actually white paint spread over a work he never finished. It gives the surface a layered texture he likes. In fact, many of his paintings deliberately expose the buildup of layer upon layer, the shadow of an earlier version poking through. He ”edits” by painting over. Under his brush, a brown face soon begins to form on the canvas. ”The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings,” he says. ”I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.” Some of the figures are taken from life. For example, one powerful painting was drawn from a sad old man in a wheelchair whom Basquiat saw on a neighborhood street last spring. ”He would say to the young Puerto Rican helping him, ‘Put me in the sun, put me in the sun.’ He was a Cajun, from Louisiana. I gave him some money and he wanted to hug me, to pull me in. I pulled back.” But the vision is transformed in Basquiat’s bold painting. It is saturated with red, the wheelchair like a throne, the old man almost a god whose head is a primitive mask, frightening and defiant.

”Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy,” a book by Robert Farris Thompson, lies on his studio table, and thus it raises the question of influences on his art. His early rendering of primitive faces was instinctual, he says; he studied African masks later. He has never been to Haiti and there was no Haitian art at home when he was growing up. But his early inspirations include the master employer of primitive impulses, Picasso. Actually, says Basquiat, ”I like kids’ work more than work by real artists any day.” SINCE I WAS 17, I thought I might be a star,” Basquiat says. ”I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix. . . . I had a romantic feeling of how people had become famous. Even when I didn’t think my stuff was that good, I’d have faith.” In the last year or so, Basquiat has established a friendship with an artist who probably understands the power of celebrity better than anyone else in the culture. Once when he was trying to sell his photocopied postcards on a SoHo streetcorner, he followed Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler into a restaurant. Warhol bought one of the cards for $1. Later, when Basquiat had graduated to painting sweatshirts, he went to Warhol’s Factory one day. ”I just wanted to meet him, he was an art hero of mine,” he recalls. Warhol looked at his sweatshirts and gave him some money to buy more.

In his show at Mary Boone’s last spring, Basquiat exhibited a painting called ”Brown Spots.” It is a portrait of Warhol as a banana, a sly reference to an album cover Warhol once did for the Velvet Underground. That same spring, in ”The New Portrait” show at P.S. 1, a portrait appeared by Warhol of Basquiat, an acrylic and photo-silkscreen painting, with Basquiat posed like Michelangelo’s David.

Their friendship seems symbiotic. As the elder statesman of the avant-garde, Warhol stamps the newcomer Basquiat with approval and has probably been able to give him excellent business advice. In social circles and through his magazine, Interview, he has given Basquiat a good deal of exposure. Though Warhol teases Basquiat about his girlfriends, Basquiat finds the time to go with Warhol to parties and openings. In return, Basquiat is Warhol’s link to the current scene in contemporary art, and he finds Basquiat’s youth invigorating. ”Jean Michel has so much energy,” he says. One acquaintance suggests that the paternal concern Warhol shows for Basquiat – for example, he urges the younger artist to pursue healthful habits and exercise – is a way for Warhol to redeem something in himself. When asked how Warhol has influenced him, Basquiat says, ”I wear clean pants all the time now.”

Through a series of working collaborations in the last year, the relationship between them has flourished. First, at the suggestion of Bruno Bischofberger, they made a suite of 12 paintings with Francesco Clemente, with each of the three artists working in turn on each canvas. Then Basquiat and Warhol collaborated on huge pieces of unstretched canvas, some of them 10 by 20 feet. Warhol would silkscreen or paint words or symbols, a blown-up headline from The New York Post, for instance (”Plug Pulled on Coma Mom”), or perhaps a giant corporate logo such as Paramount Pictures’ mountain peak. Basquiat would then tackle the canvas, painting in his own strange figures, words and symbols. Thirty of these collaborative works, now owned by Bischofberger, will probably be exhibited in Europe. ”I’d run out of ideas,” says Warhol, to explain his involvement in the project.

But after Basquiat’s show at Mary Boone last spring, some critics complained that his recent work had grown too soft, too slick – and one blamed the long shadow of Warhol. ”They’re fresh out of the Factory,” – wrote Nicholas A. Moufarrege in a blistering review in Flash Art. ”These new paintings are too charming, they lack the nitty-gritty hip-hop and the jagged power that his last New York show at the Fun Gallery emanated.” Geldzahler saw the influence, too, but not as a negative force: ”The paintings had a lot of Warhol, but that’s to be expected. Basquiat seems to be able to keep his balance.” The artist himself is pleased with the work. ”I think I’m more economical now,” he says. ”Every line means something.”

Success, however, and sudden public scrutiny, can mean an end to artistic experimentation in private. ”Basquiat, like Schnabel, makes a great many works,” explains the collector Eugene Schwartz, who has bought three of the artist’s works and donated one to a museum in Israel. ”In exploring new ideas, he makes mistakes. But within that work he also has made minor masterpieces. I say ‘minor’ only because they haven’t yet stood the test of time.” But for some artists, the pressure to succeed and simply to repeat past successes can be too much. ”I think there’s a greater tendency today for artists to burn out,” says Barbara Haskell, curator of the Whitney Museum. ”It’s a question of whether they can maintain a personal space to work out and take the next step.”

”People think I’m burning out, but I’m not,” Basquiat insists. ”Some days I can’t get an idea, and I think, man, I’m just washed up, but it’s just a mood.” What doubtlessly helps Basquiat and many other artists to transcend the pressure is simply their own deep drive to make art. ”There’s really nothing else to do in life, except flirt with girls,” he jokes, then gets serious. ”If I’m away from painting for a week, I get bored.” Even when he had been painting at Warhol’s studio during the day, or if he had been out in the evening, he would often go home alone to work. He still keeps rock-and-roll hours. ”He’ll run in here in an $800 suit and paint all night,” says his friend Shenge. ”In the morning, he’ll be standing in front of a picture with his suit just covered in paint.” MEANWHILE, ONCE A painting is finished, it takes on a life of its own. As part of the never-ending marketing effort, paintings by Basquiat and other hot young art stars are always being crated and shipped. They are flown to an exhibition in Europe, a dealer on the West Coast, a collector’s home. This winter, Basquiat’s work was shown at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, more work was part of a show of young Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and new paintings were unveiled for sale in Bischofberger’s Zurich gallery. And as the paintings move, their price escalates. Schwartz remembers the three Basquiats he bought less than four years ago. ”They were just lying there,” he says, ”No one wanted them. Now you can’t get them.” Geldzahler says he has been priced right out of the Basquiat market. And while the art public waits to see Basquiat’s newest work at his next New York show, next month at Mary Boone’s, his early paintings continue to pump life – and money – into the market. The works surface at auction, as five did at Sotheby’s last fall, or perhaps are quietly bought from a private collector by a dealer who will hold them and wait, dazzled by their meteoric appreciation. The artist, who does not profit from resales, may be off at work in a new direction, but even the paintings he said goodbye to long ago keep going round and round in today’s heady art world.


Cosmos Suite paintings 2013: Celestial Storm by Vincent Johnson


Cosmos Suite paintings 2013: Celestial Storm by Vincent Johnson. Oil on canvas. 30″x40″.

This is the first painting I’ve created in the year 2013. Each of the paintings in the Cosmos Suite and Nine Grayscale paintings employs different elements in terms of paint application, type of painting media used, and the range of colors worked into the painted surface. This particular painting has four major layers of paint with more layers added and blended into the already laid down and worked paint. The second layer is allowed to bone dry before the last layers are applied. I’ve compiled several recipes for creating the paintings, which take several weeks as the underpainting layers are air-dried. After applying the third layers, I rest the work for a day or more to figure out what will be the plan of attack to complete and resolve the painting. With each work I strive to produce an elegant and beautiful image that is also compelling to engage from the perspective of the history of painting and of contemporary painting practices today.

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles


Celestial Storm: Studio view (2013)

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings

California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.

Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches

Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California
Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles. His 2010 photo project – California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch, is in exhibition at Another Year in LA gallery in West Hollywood through early March 2013. His work has appeared in several venues, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (Freestyle (2001, The Philosophy of Time Travel, 2007, and The Bearden Project, 2011-2012), PS1 Museum, Queens, NY, SK Stiftung, Cologne, Germany, Santa Monica Museum of Art, LAXART, Las Cienegas Projects, Boston University Art Museum, Kellogg Museum, Cal Poly Pomona.

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