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Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Iconic Art Maverick’s Rise to Fame and Enduring Legacy

Jean-Michel Basquiat, a legendary figure in modern art, epitomizes a rare blend of raw talent and groundbreaking creativity. His art, marked by a distinct fusion of text, symbolism, and abstract forms, continues to command significant attention in the art market.  

But the allure of Basquiat’s paintings extends beyond their visual appeal, rooted in the historical depth and the unique story behind each piece. His limited body of work, a reflection of his brief yet impactful career, adds a rarity that heightens their value for collectors and investors alike. Illustrating this trend, Basquiat’s sales volume reached an impressive £6.5million in the final quarter of 2023, underscoring his continued relevance and desirability in the realm of fine art investments.

Jean-Michel Basquiat – Flexible (1984/2016)

Market Value: 9.2% above the drop price.

  • With an auction turnover of €186 Million, Basquiat was the 2nd best-selling artist in the world in 2023.
    Two of his top 10 auction records were achieved that year.
  • Great investment potential: The auction record for this work sits at $281,742, achieved in July 2023.
  • This print is based on the original artwork Flexible (1964), which sold for 45.3 million dollars at Phillips in May 2018.

Early Beginnings

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960, and demonstrated an early affinity for art, significantly influenced by a fusion of his diverse heritage and personal experiences. His artistic style was notably impacted by “Gray’s Anatomy,” a book given to him by his mother after a childhood car accident. This medical reference book introduced anatomical themes that would become a staple in his works. Basquiat’s foray into the art world began through street art, notably with the SAMO© graffiti tag, created alongside a former schoolmate. This tag, known for its enigmatic and satirical content, gained attention in Lower Manhattan’s cultural landscape.

As Basquiat transitioned to creating personal art, he was known for his use of unconventional materials, such as wood and doors, for canvases. This choice, partly driven by financial constraints, exemplified his resourceful and innovative approach. This distinctive use of materials, coupled with his unique thematic focus, distinguished Basquiat in the art world

A Star is Born

Basquiat’s transition from an underground artist to a notable figure in the art world began with the Times Square Show in 1980, an event that fused the downtown art scene with elements of hip-hop culture, showcasing Basquiat’s stand-out style. It was a there that his art was first noticed by critics and it soon began to draw significant interest from galleries and collectors. Basquiat’s first major solo exhibitions, held at the Annina Nosei Gallery in Soho and the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, were both critical and commercial successes. In 1981, he was dubbed ‘The Radiant Child’ by Artforum magazine, and sold his first painting, Cadillac Moon (1981), to Debbie Harry of the band Blondie. 

Basquait continued his rise to fame, even beginning a collaborative relationship with Andy Warhol in 1982. Their joint works, combining Warhol’s screen-printed logos and headlines with Basquiat’s figures and symbols, illustrated a harmonious blend of their distinct artistic styles. This partnership was not only a melding of artistic practices but it also became a much documented friendship and a mutual exchange of creative ideas, leading to a series of notable artworks.

Another significant milestone in Basquiat’s career occurred in March 1983, when at only 22 years old, he became one of the youngest artists to participate in the Whitney Biennial exhibition. This prestigious event underscored his status as a rising star in the art world, and soon he was making a reported $1.4 million a year from art sales. 

Investment Value and Auction Results

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s visual style is renowned for its unique blend of abstract expressionism, graffiti art, and a deep engagement with socio-political themes. His works are distinguished by enigmatic symbols, and iconography like skulls, masks, and his trademark crown, making them stand out in the contemporary art sphere. The value of Basquiat’s work has significantly increased since his passing in the late 80s, and as of 2023, the Basquiat market has demonstrated an average selling price CAGR of nearly 13%

His paintings also continue to fetch high prices at auctions. Notable sales include:

  1. ‘Untitled’ (1982): Sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2017. This painting, depicting a skull, is celebrated for its raw intensity and compelling visual language. It is considered one of the most expensive paintings in the world.
  2. ‘Untitled’ (1982): Another ‘Untitled’ piece, fetched an impressive £68.6 million ($85 million) at Phillips auction in 2022. This piece in red-tones, is known for its striking visual impact and is emblematic of Basquiat’s unique style that combines abstract and figurative elements.
  3. ‘In This Case’ (1983): Achieved £65.7 million ($83.8 million) million at a Christie’s auction in 2021. This vibrant piece features a skull against a vivid red background, encapsulating Basquiat’s iconic style.


‘Basquiat’s canvases captured his soul and the soul of the streets.

– (Common, rapper)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, despite his untimely death at age 27, has left an indelible mark on the world. His posthumous legacy is marked by numerous significant exhibitions and retrospectives, reflecting his enduring influence in the art world. Notable exhibitions include ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat’ at the Brant Foundation and ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure’, organized by his estate. Throughout the years, Basquiat’s work has also been displayed in various retrospectives globally, including at the Brooklyn Museum (2005) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1992)

But his influence extends beyond the art world into realm of pop culture. He has been referenced by prominent artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West, and his visual style has now become recognisable world-wide through major collaboration with international brands like Uniqlo and Urban Decay.  His enduring legacy is a testament to his lasting impact as an artist and cultural icon. His work continues to inspire and influence a diverse range of individuals and fields, from fashion and music to literature and film.

Key Takeaways

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat was a legendary modern artist, known for a unique blend of text, symbolism, and abstract forms, commanding significant attention in the art market.
  • His art is valued for its historical depth, with a rarity that enhances its appeal to collectors and investors, evident in the £6.5 million sales volume in Q4 2023.
  • He began as a street artist with the SAMO© graffiti tag and later used unconventional materials like wood and doors as canvases.
  • Basquiat’s rise in the art world started with the 1980 Times Square Show, followed by successful solo exhibitions and collaborations with Andy Warhol.
  • At 22, Basquiat was one of the youngest artists in the Whitney Biennial, and his earnings reached $1.4 million annually from art sales.
  • His unique works, blending abstract expressionism and graffiti with socio-political themes, have seen an average selling price CAGR of nearly 13% as of 2023.
  • Record-breaking auction sales include ‘Untitled’ (1982) for $110.5 million and other significant sales in the millions.
  • Basquiat’s legacy includes major exhibitions, retrospectives, and influence in pop culture.
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