This coming December 22, 2020, Jean-Michel Basquiat would have celebrated his 60th birthday (he passed away in 1988, at the age of twenty-seven). With that in mind, it’s interesting to speculate on what his career would look like, if he was still painting today.
Basquiat’s death was in a strange way a mixed blessing. I recall when it happened and my colleagues made dark jokes about it “being a good career move.” They weren’t far from the truth. The collective art world has a short memory. Few people remember that when Basquiat died, his career was on the decline. During the last year of his life, his drug abuse had a noticeable effect on the quality of his work. The paintings, from the final year-and-a-half of his life, remain intriguing but are not among his best.
By 1987, Basquiat’s New York dealer, Mary Boone, wanted nothing to do with him. The word on the streets was that he was unreliable and impossible to work with. Besides, his paintings were becoming difficult to sell. Even his auction prices were fading. The only dealer who would touch him was Vrej Baghoomian — a gallerist with one of the worst reputations in New York. He pitched Basquiat on joining his gallery by playing the “race card,” insisting because they both had dark skin, they were discriminated against and needed to stick together. Baghoomian’s ploy worked. But after mounting two shows, in quick succession, Basquiat was found dead of a drug overdose.
Anyone who follows the art market knows the rest of the story. Despite the recession of 1990-95, Basquiat continued his gradual price climb. Much of it was based on his growing mystique. When Julian Schnabel directed the acclaimed movie Basquiat (1996), Jean-Michel’s remarkable life story reached a mainstream audience. His surviving family members began licensing the rights to his imagery; skateboard decks, tee-shirts, and tote bags were among a growing list of Basquiat merchandise. Several years ago, when a major canvas broke $100 million at auction, his place in art history was confirmed. Now, people speak of him as one of only a handful of American art world myths. This exclusive club includes: Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol… and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Let’s assume that Jean-Michel Basquiat was still alive today — an easy assumption given he would only be sixty. What would his work look like? And what would his market look like?
An educated guess, assuming Basquiat would have gotten help for his drug problem, is that he would have had a solid career. But he would not have become a superstar. Based on the strength of his considerable drawing and painting skills, his work would have evolved, and he would have matured into a painter of substance. However, his personal story would probably resemble those of the other artists of his generation, including Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, and David Salle. Just like some of these artists, it’s possible that Basquiat would have written a memoir, made a film, or even returned to his earliest days as a musician (he was a member of the “noise” band Gray). But if Basquiat had lived, he never would have developed his legendary status.
This ties into the question of what his market would have looked like if he was still alive today. Basquiat’s current prices puts him in the same financial league as Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, and Roy Lichtenstein. There’s virtually no way this would have happened if he were still painting. Basquiat’s current reputation relies on a combination of a relatively small “sample size” and a large dose of publicity. He didn’t create the substantial bodies of historically significant work that are credited to the previously mentioned artists. If Basquiat was still active, it’s likely his market would have capitalized on the recent trend for acquiring artists of color. But as far as having become a $100 million painter — there’s no way that would have occurred.