Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat: loved by celebs, snubbed by museums

01 August 2017 - 14:06 By AFP
Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Image: Supplied

Jean-Michel Basquiat has a stratospheric following - earlier this year his 1982 oil painting became the most expensive work by a US artist sold at auction.

But 29 years after his death, his legacy is a triumph of popular culture over museums, accused of downplaying his stature.

New York is where the artist - son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother - was born and raised, spent most of his life and drew most of his inspiration.

On May 18 it was in the Big Apple that his painting fetched $110.5-million at Sotheby's, jetting him into a pantheon of greats like Picasso.

Yet the US cultural capital has no public monument to him, no institution named after him and has preserved none of his famous graffiti - signed "SAMO".

 Of the more than 2,000 works Basquiat produced, New York's Museum of Modern Art has 10 drawings and silkscreens, the Whitney has six, the Metropolitan two, the Brooklyn Museum two and the Guggenheim one.

Much of his work fused drawing with painting - it was abstract and figurative, offering biting commentary on poverty, segregation, racism and class divides.

Commercially successful before his death from an overdose at 27, museums were nonetheless unconvinced his work had weighty artistic merit.

Friend and artist Michael Holman remembers, for example, an offer by collectors Lenore and Herbert Schorr to donate Basquiats to MoMA and the Whitney in the 1980s, but says the museums declined.

"There's a lot of racism and a lot of white privilege in the idea that only white people are important artists," says Holman.

Basquiat never received a large solo exhibition at a New York museum during his lifetime, says Jordana Moore Saggese, author of the only art history monograph of Basquiat.

"Historically there has also been a lack of representations for nonwhite artists in mainstream institutions," says Saggese, who notes that few undergraduates are even taught much about him.

About 90% of Basquiat's work is in the hands of private collectors. Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Jay-Z, Johnny Depp and Tommy Hilfiger are some of the celebrities to own or have owned a Basquiat.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Jay-Z, Johnny Depp and Tommy Hilfiger are some of the celebrities to own or have owned a Basquiat.

Yet his appeal lies far beyond the hallowed institutions of fine art.

Japanese brand Uniqlo has reproduced Basquiat imagery on T-shirts, sneakers, watches and tote bags in collaboration with MoMA.

Urban Decay has released makeup and accessories with licensed Basquiat imagery.

Jay-Z, Kanye West and A$AP Rocky rap about him. The Weeknd used to sport his hair in Basquiat-style dreadlocks.

"He's given so many young people, especially young people of colour, in this city the licence to believe that they could be important artists," said Saggese.

"He's a hero to young people the way Warhol was to my generation." 

• This article was originally published in The Times.