Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Artwork Is Appreciated Now More Than Ever

Decades later, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s complex works are increasingly prescient—and valuable

His teeming canvases were like a “browser window with lots of different tabs open,” says Nairne. ©The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Basquiat painting in 1983, five years before his death at age 27. © Roland Hagenberg
Self-portrait, 1984 © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Anti-Baseball Card Product, 1979 © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club in 1979 © Nicholas Taylor
Cover of the vinyl record “Beat Bop,” 1983 Jean-Michel Basquiat
Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 Private collection, Italy. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Untitled, 1980 © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Hollywood Africans, 1983 © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Untitled, 1982 © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam
A Panel of Experts, 1982 © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: MFA, Douglas M. Parker
King Zulu, 1986 © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Gasull Fotografia
Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81 with graffiti: “Like an Ignorant Easter Suit.” © New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Edo Bertoglio
Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81 with graffiti: “These Institutions Has the Most Political Influence A: Telivision B. The Church C. Samo © D. McDonalds.” © New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Edo Bertoglio

During Jean-Michel Basquiat’s brief career—the New York City artist died in 1988, when he was just 27—he drew from hip-hop, jazz, graffiti, Beat literature, pop art, folk art, comics and even Gray’s Anatomy to forge an emotionally charged style that still dazzles. This past May, a Japanese businessman paid $110.5 million for a Basquiat painting, one of the highest prices ever fetched for an American artist’s work. “He was very prescient in being able to sample from lots of different channels,” says Eleanor Nairne, curator of the first major Basquiat show in Britain, opening this month at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. In Glenn (1984), Basquiat layered a screaming face over color photocopies of his previous imagery—“a profusion of information spilling out of this head,” Nairne says. It’s a mental state that, three decades on, many of us find familiar.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

The first African-American artist to attain art superstardom, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) created a huge oeuvre of drawings and paintings (Julian Schnabel recalls him once accidentally leaving a portfolio of about 2,000 drawings on a subway car) in the space of just eight years.

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine