In 2017, an untitled Neo-Expressionist painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sold at Sotheby’s for $110.5 million, becoming the most expensive piece of art by a U.S. artist ever sold. Made by Basquiat at age 21, the painting features a skull on a blue background in his characteristic style—often referred to as primitivist even though the artist spent years honing his particular approach so that it seemed erratic and haphazard while also remaining legible to those who weren’t well-versed in art. The purchaser, Yusaku Maezawa, was “struck with […] excitement and gratitude for [his] love of art,” but it’s a difficult matter to decide whether Basquiat himself would be excited by the purchase.
Basquiat’s work, like most modern art, is more complex than it seems.
It acknowledges the inherent politicization of both black bodies and the artwork that black artists create, and responds to that expectation in full force with works like Irony of Negro Policeman, a sentiment echoed in the work of other black artists, especially in mass culture works like rapper KRS-One’s “Black Cop.” And even though organizations that represent the estate are loath to admit it, Basquiat’s work reflected a leftist political landscape that is only just beginning to find traction within the sphere of whiteness.
Such is the case with 1982’s Obnoxious Liberals, a painting depicting liberals (a figure in a tall hat wearing a “Not for Sale” shirt, clothing that still calls to mind the impotence of slacktivism) performing liberalism that does not take into account pervasive racial subjugation (represented by a chained black figure placed under text reading “asbestos,” a reference to lower-grade housing). The liberal holds arrows in his hands, but they point off of the frame and not at the gold-faced, old-timey prospector figure next to him. That figure, whose small dick hangs out of his shorts and whose head grows fertile leaves out of a ten-gallon hat, presumably intends to mine under the shackled black body where the ground reads “GOLD.” And while the politics of leftism vs. liberalism have largely emerged in a widespread way among the non-black population only recently—as in after this past election—the ideas have clearly existed among black thinkers and artists for decades.
And while his theoretically dense and visually sparse paintings have, like all renowned visual art, become co-opted by the hedge fund and well-financed prospectors that Basquiat himself showed distaste for, there are some works of his that, because of their ephemeral nature, have inherently remained untouched by capital.
A few years before he began collaborating with Andy Warhol, Basquiat, graffiti artist Al Diaz and a few of their friends formed a collective that used the graffiti tag SAMO© (“same old shit”), a name that referenced the cannabis they were smoking at the time. (Check out an early on-air interview about the art here.) The group would sign “short phrases, in turns poetic and sarcastic” that they spray-painted in Manhattan, mainly in the moneyed sections of downtown. In these tags a teenage Basquiat began to enunciate feelings that would eventually make their way onto his canvases: “SAMO© as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics and bogus philosophy,” “SAMO© AS A NEO ART FORM,” “SAMO© as an alternative 2 playing art with the ‘radical chic’ sect on Daddy’s $ funds,” “SAMO© 4 THE SO CALLED AVANT-GARDE,” “SAMO© 4 MASS MEDIA MINDWASH.” There’s a painful cosmic irony in knowing that the man whose work spoke sentiments like “SAMO© FOR THE ART PIMPS” would posthumously have his paintings sell at auction for more than $100 million.
Vanity Fairquotes Fab 5 Freddy explaining that Basquiat’s graffiti, found neither in Harlem nor in his native Brooklyn, was “aimed at the art community[,] because he liked that crowd, but at the same time resented that crowd.” The identity of SAMO© eventually moved off walls as Basquiat put the label onto “baseball cards”—cut-up and drawn-upon color-Xeroxed photographs that were sold on the street for a few dollars. One of the Xeroxes was sold to Andy Warhol when Basquiat approached him “in a downtown restaurant [as] he was eating with [contemporary art curator and critic/historian] Henry Geldzahler.” Basquiat sold Warhol a couple more SAMO© Xeroxes “for a dollar” at the Factory, at which point his career began to take off.
The presence of SAMO© on street walls had by that point changed. In early 1980, Diaz and Basquiat had a falling out, and the latter, while still using the name for his artwork and art presence, began to tag “SAMO© IS DEAD” instead of the usual statements. (Diaz, a renowned street artist in his own right, has recently harkened back to the days of SAMO© through the release of more than 100 previously unseen photographs, scrapbooks and prints of Basquiat’s.)
As he moved into the space of High Art, Basquiat’s work transitioned away from temporary street art and into the realm of painting, though he occasionally worked in other media, appearing on rap tracks and then briefly collaborating with David Bowie. His prodigious career ended abruptly with an overdose death at 27 — reportedly in a downspin that had been the result of Andy Warhol’s death. The work of the anti-capitalist has been increasingly sought by collectors since his death. Anything he had touched eventually rocketed to a status that tugs at the complex tension between the sincere and important messages in the artist’s work and the esteem he had eventually come to desire through his collaborations with established artists.’