When Jean-Michel Basquiat was 21, he painted a canvas that would sell later that year for $4,000. It depicted a crowned skull, composed of thick, vigorous brushstrokes against an electric blue backdrop. Basquiat didn’t know it then, but it would become one of his most mythical and sought-after works.
In 2017, the same painting, Untitled (1982), sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s—over 10,000 times its original value, after adjusting for inflation. The sum shattered the artist’s previous $57.3 million record, fetched at Christie’s the year prior for another untitled 1982 work. His third-highest auction record, $48.8 million in 2013 at Christie’s, was also a 1982 painting, Dustheads. The wunderkind artist’s works from 1982 have become the most desirable to collectors and, subsequently, the most highly valued amongst his roughly decade-long output.
Why is this year so coveted? Experts say it can’t be boiled down to a single factor. A number of forces combined in 1982: His “shift from street to studio,” as Sotheby’s contemporary art specialist David Galperin put it; a new supply of large canvases, courtesy of his new dealer; a string of solo shows around the world; and a freedom from the market pressures that would come to weigh on him in the last few years of his short life.
“It’s simply his best work,” said Michael Baptist, a post-war and contemporary specialist at Christie’s, of the artist’s 1982 paintings. “But, of course, it’s more complex than that.”
Installation shot of “One Basquiat.” Photo by Jonathan Dorado.
Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960. As a teenager in the late ’70s, he adopted the moniker “SAMO,” slang for “same old, same old,” which he scrawled on city walls alongside cryptic poetry. His fellow street artists and New York City denizens took notice of phrases like “SAMO © 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE” and “SAMO © AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT-GENIOUS” as they cropped up across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.
“He scoured the streets of downtown New York tagging walls…becoming infamous for his graffiti,” said Galperin of Basquiat’s early work.
It wasn’t until 1981 that the art establishment began to notice Basquiat. By that year, he had started drawing and painting on paper and found surfaces like leather jackets. It was a selection of these pieces that curator Diego Cortez included in his 1981 landmark show “New York/New Wave” at MoMA PS1, alongside artists such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, and Robert Mapplethorpe. It was Basquiat’s first inclusion in a museum exhibition, and the moment when “we can point to his discovery,” said Galperin.
Who discovered him at that show? According to a 1985 New York Times Magazine profile on Basquiat, only a handful of art-world power players made it to the then-fledgling institution in Queens for the exhibition. But those who did—including Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger and influential curator Henry Geldzahler, who had previously worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs—were struck by Basquiat’s work.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Courtesy of Christie’s.
A few months after the show, Geldzahler acquired a piece by the young artist, a collage made from torn posters and the artist’s distinctive scribbles on a found door. “It was covered with as dense and rewarding an array as a 1955 Rauschenberg,” Geldzahler told the Times. “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.’”
Around the same time, Basquiat was picked up by his first New York dealer, Annina Nosei, whose SoHo gallery had opened in 1980 and would go on to represent the likes of Barbara Kruger and Robert Longo. She also gave the young painter his first proper studio in the gallery’s basement, as well as a slew of large-scale canvases and “access to all the materials he needed, including high-quality paints,” said art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who knew Basquiat in the ’80s and read the artist’s eulogy at his funeral after his untimely death in 1988, at the age of 27.
Blossoming support from the art world, as well as the shift “from the street to the studio,” as Galperin put it, set the young artist up for his breakout year. It was then that he made a number of his most iconic canvases—the same ones now selling for tens of millions.
“For Basquiat, it all converges in 1982,” said Deitch. “Those of us who were there at the time and saw those paintings just couldn’t believe it. The level of achievement was just astonishing. It was almost a miracle,” he remembered.
“Everybody around him knew that these were extraordinary.”
Stylistically, Basquiat’s paintings from 1982 blended the energetic, forceful lines of his street work with his deep knowledge of art history. Basquiat had pored over great art in New York’s museums since his youth (by age six, he was a card-carrying “junior member” of the Brooklyn Museum and visited the Met regularly throughout his teens). In single paintings, he combined allusions to New York urban life, such as autobody shop signs and the courts where children played the street game “skelly,” with expressive gestures inspired by his Abstract Expressionist predecessors, like Jackson Pollock. Deitch refers to this period as the time of Basquiat’s “first mature work.”
The bold lines, big central figures, and bright color palette of his 1982 paintings also radiate with the excitement of an artist hitting his stride—and being recognized by the establishment for the first time. “His peers had already anointed him as the best artist in the community, and he had the accolades of ‘New York/New Wave,’” continued Deitch. The attention inspired “an increased confidence in the painting: in the strength, in the line.” Baptist agreed: “There is a clarity of vision and narrative in the work from 1982 that speaks to his blossoming confidence.”
The level of visual audacity and enthusiasm captured in Basquiat’s works peaked in 1982 (and, in some cases, appeared in late 1981 and early 1983, as well). By 1984, Basquiat started feeling pressure from his dealers and began bickering with them, Deitch said. At times, this tension created a “lack of energy and focus in the work,” he added.
In 1982, on the other hand, Basquiat “wasn’t making paintings because he had to give them to Bishofberger for his stipend, or for his show at Mary Boone,” said Deitch. “He was making them because he was compelled to make them, so they are filled with personal passion.”
A string of important exhibitions throughout 1982 also boosted Basquiat’s energy—and, later, the desirability of his work from that year. His first New York solo show with Nosei kicked things off. After came solos at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, and another New York solo show at Fun Gallery. A February group show at Alexander F. Milliken Gallery presented Basquiat’s now-$110.5 million painting for the first time. That year, he was also included in his first major international institutional exhibition: Documenta, an influential show of contemporary art that takes place in Kassel, Germany, every five years, and has been dubbed the most serious of the art world’s international group exhibitions by New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz.
This succession of shows in 1982 also served to jumpstart Basquiat’s market; it was the year, Galperin said, “when collectors started to acquire his work en masse.” Nosei was said to be selling his paintings at a breakneck pace—“So brisk, some observers joked, that the paint was barely dry,” Cathleen McGuigan wrote in the 1985 New York Times profile.
Many of Basquiat’s 1982 paintings were included in these landmark exhibitions—which, today, add to the appeal of a given work’s provenance. “These shows around the world created a kind of aurora borealis that led to this very exciting moment,” said Galperin. “Collectors recognize that those exhibitions—and that year—are critical to both Basquiat’s biography and output.”
Contemporary collectors are also attracted to the rarity of Basquiat’s major canvases from 1982, of which there are 200 in total, according to the third edition of the artist’s catalogue raisonné published in 2000. “There are really only a small group of pictures from ’82 that are in that top category,” said Baptist. They’re also not released into the market very often—collectors have been known to hang onto them for decades. “A lot of these pictures resided in collections for 10 to 20 years, coming out of purchases in the late ’80s and ’90s,” he continued.
Take the the astronomical price achieved by Untitled in 2017. It was spurred, in part, by “the story behind the work, and its provenance,” Galperin noted. Since its original sale in 1982 through Nosei, the painting had only changed hands three times—and all between 1982 and 1984. From 1984 until 2017, it was not only kept off the market, but also never exhibited or seen in public.
“It was a mythical picture for all of us Basquiat fanatics and experts, because we knew it only by this small thumbnail reproduction in the artist’s catalogue raisonné,” Galperin said.
Indeed, Basquiat’s canvases from 1982 have achieved something of a mythological status, with meteoric prices to match. But the reasons behind their rise can be pinpointed to concrete milestones in Basquiat’s life, and the stylistic choices he made in response to them. His paintings from this momentous year are, as Galperin said, “demonstrative of an artist who’s really at the height of their powers, who’s being seen for the first time, and who’s taking all of that instinctive energy and language and power and putting it onto canvas.”