Why Basquiat’s Heads Are His Most Sought-After Works
Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat paints in St. Moritz, Switzerland, 1983. Photo by Lee Jaffe. Image via Getty Images.
In the past few years, there’s been a discernible, record-breaking trend developing around Jean Michel-Basquiat’s depictions of heads. In 2017, his canvas Untitled (1982) sold for an astounding $110.4 million at a Sotheby’s evening sale. At the time, it was the sixth-biggest sale ever made at auction and catapulted Basquiat into art-world immortality as the most expensive American artist ever sold on the secondary market. Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa quickly revealed himself as the buyer and sent the work on a global museum tour that started at the artist’s hometown institution, the Brooklyn Museum. Basquiat’s third-highest auction record, meanwhile, is another 1982 painting, Dustheads, which sold for $48.8 million in 2013 at Christie’s and features not one but two manically grinning skulls.
Last month, a Basquiat head broke yet another auction record at Sotheby’s. Also an untitled 1982 work, this latest sale was a drawing that sold for a hammer price of $13.1 million ($15.1 million with fees) to an online bidder, making it the auction house’s highest online sale ever. It also smashed the record for a Basquiat work on paper. Tomorrow, Christie’s will offer its own Basquiat head—an untitled work on paper from 1982 with a pre-sale estimate of $3 million to $5 million—in its global virtual sale. So what is it about these cranial works that make them such hot-ticket items?
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
“When we look at the whole scope of his lexicon, the head really stands out as the most primal expression and has now become one of the most iconic articulations of his mastery as a painter, draftsman, and colorist,” said David Galperin, head of evening sales at Sotheby’s. The head in Maezawa’s painting is scrawled deftly onto a heavily worked, patchy azure canvas. His heavy, frenetic oilstick marks are characteristically bold and decisive, carving out a barred set of teeth and a pair of unlidded eyes that gaze out past the viewer and into infinity, like an echo of Edvard Munch’s harrowing Scream (1893).
Largely regarded as a form of self-portraiture, Basquiat’s heads are often seen as some of his most autobiographical works. “There’s a Christ-like figure that comes into a lot of Basquiats, represented by both the halo and the crown of thorns,” said Brett Gorvy of Lévy Gorvy gallery. “He’s presenting himself as both a victim and a vanquisher. That’s something that’s very present in his heads.” The gallery is currently showing an untitled Basquiat head painting from 1982 through an online viewing room and by appointment at its Hong Kong space; it is one of three large-scale works Basquiat made in a famous series exploring the image of the prophet. Another painting from the series, Untitled (Prophet I) (1982), sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 for $9.5 million.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1984. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo by Kitmin Lee. Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.
One of Basquiat’s most famous head paintings is an untitled work from 1981 that is among the holdings of mega-collectors Edythe and Eli Broad’s Los Angeles museum, The Broad. Approached with the same kind of haptic intensity as his record-setting 1982 painting, the skull in the Broad collection reveals both its interior and exterior, reminiscent of anatomical drawings. Atop the head is an array of bristles that can be read as hair or, more alluringly, as an abstracted crown of thorns. While Maezawa’s head painting possesses a loud, gnashing, and confident aura, the mood of the Broads’ skull is far more subdued, or even melancholic. Given the artist’s untimely death at the age of 27, these images have a haunting and undeniably powerful presence.
Basquiat’s use of skulls is also deeply rooted in his identity as a Black artist in America. They are strongly evocative of African masks, which have been so fetishized by the art market since modernists like Picasso appropriated them from their native contexts. For Basquiat, these skulls are gestures toward cultural reclamation. They also allude to the Haitian heritage on Basquiat’s father’s side—specifically the vodou religion, which is replete with skull symbolism.
Describing an iconic 1985 photograph taken at in-crowd eatery Mr. Chow, Gorvy explained how Basquiat—pictured among a veritable Who’s Who of the 1980s art world, including Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Keith Haring, and Barbara Kruger—navigated an industry that was overwhelmingly white. In the photograph, Basquiat holds out his dinner plate, posing as a server—a disarmingly salient comment on racial stereotypes and perceptions.
“You realize that he was completely aware of how he was the only Black man in this whole art world and how there were no Black people in art history,” said Gorvy. “Basquiat was already completely involved in that thought process before anyone else. He was highly aware of his race, which is hugely important to the iconography of his work.”
These heads offer an interior expression and window into all the tensions and psychic friction Basquiat endured. Despite being so connected to his experiences as a Black artist in America, in the last decade, they’ve found intense global resonance. Collectors in Asia in particular have been crucial in pushing the market for Basquiat’s work to new heights; both last week’s record-breaking work on paper and the blockbuster canvas that went for $110.4 million in 2017 were sold to Asian collectors. “That price just solidified the market for this imagery; the skull being at the very top of the market for Basquiat,” said Galperin, of Sotheby’s.
Still, Basquiat’s skulls are far from being surefire marketplace successes. Gorvy pointed to a Basquiat head that failed to sell at a 2017 Christie’s auction as a cautionary tale. The earth-toned painting, Il Duce (1982), had been guaranteed by the auction house for $25 million, but failed to meet its reserve price and was ultimately bought in. “There was a little bit of a saturation of kind-of-good Basquiat paintings, which eliminated ultra-collectors like Maezawa or [billionaire investor and Museum of Modern Art board chairman] Leon Black,” said Gorvy, explaining the complex calculus of Basquiat’s market. “If you put the two paintings together, you’ll see why one was a record-breaker and the other was valued at $25 million. When you get into that value range, you’re not talking about a masterpiece—you’re talking about a good painting. And you don’t really have collectors that are after just good paintings.” In other words, real Basquiat enthusiasts are in the market for masterpieces, of which there are only a handful, even among the head works favored by the prolific artist.
All in all, collectors would be wise to keep a level head when one of these works by Basquiat comes to market. While his skulls may have set the bar at auction for both the artist’s paintings and works on paper, it’s ultimately the quality of these works—and the conditions of the market—that pushes one work ahead of the rest.