When looking at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Ring (1981), one can’t help but see a revelation, a self-portrait of sorts ushering in a new era for black artists the world over. There, standing in a bold, red boxing ring is a polka-dot-shorts-wearing athlete holding a spear high above his wild-haired head. The image of boxing alone naturally leads one to conjure up images of struggle, challenge, resistance, and undoubtedly victory and strength. Without question, these would become the unmistakable touchstones of Basquiat’s work. They defined him not only as a breaker of cultural and professional barriers but as the first contemporary black art star.
As has been the norm since its inception in 1970, this time of year marks the celebration of Black History Month. During February, we celebrate the pivotal African Americans who forever changed the course of history. Jean-Michel Basquiat, affectionately known as Jean-Michel by those who knew him closely, became a shining star in the art world of the ’70’s and ’80’s Neo-Expressionist movement. He has long since been endowed with the crown he so often depicted in his work, taking his rightful place as self-proclaimed king of the art world. As an African American artist with African-Caribbean lineage, Basquiat defied the cultural and professional stereotypes of his time. He carved his way into a predominantly white art sphere that had dominated the art circuit of that era to become one of the most commercially successful artists of all time.
It was no surprise then, that once Basquiat had been given his long overdue retrospective at Bilbao Guggenheim’s galleries that Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream could be heard resoundingly over the speakers. It was as if a celebratory song was announcing victory at last. Basquiat, the kid from the gritty streets of Brooklyn, had entered the much-anticipated promised land of the art world, spear in hand, but it didn’t come without a fight, and certainly not without a struggle.
A byproduct of both the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement, Basquiat’s work bleeds history. It carries with it a myriad of African American experiences and inevitably transformed the way the art world interpreted African American art as a whole. Basquiat was challenging western histories by depicting saints and kings as black. Furthermore, his heroes were not only black, but they were also majestic, strong, and poetic, proving that his artistic lineage stemmed from beyond any geographical confines. His art broadened the field. It converged elements of African-American, African and Aztec influences paired with classical themes and contemporary heroes like musicians and athletes. He was honoring black men and women from all parts of the world who had shaped the greater black collective. Basquiat highlighted a multitude of influential black heroes that, like him, changed the way people perceive black contributions to history.
Basquiat’s ancestors had indeed come a long way from the days of King and even further from the slave ships of the 18th century. His art bled these truths, coursing new blood into African American art. His paintings read like blues songs, just as colorful, and equally as important to black history. As Italian artist Francesco Clemente so aptly put it, “Jean-Michel’s crown has three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion.” It was this multi-faceted talent that made Basquiat the timeless artist he has become. His work is seemingly unphased by time, transcending it even while remaining as relevant today as ever.
Contemporary superstars like Jay-Z are known to own and cherish the artist’s work, including Mecca (1982). He’s also doled out nods to the painter in his double platinum Magna Carta Holy Grail album, “Britney, bitch / MCM seats buck 50 stitch Versace plates / Got the Basquiat Collab from Versace’s place,” and in his song Picasso Baby from the same album, “It ain’t hard to tell, I’m the new Jean-Michel.” The cultural significance and relevance doesn’t stop there. Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono and Tommy Hilfiger are also known to be collectors of Basquiat’s work. That’s not to mention the countless renowned museums throughout the world who continue to display Basquiat’s pieces, including New York’s MoMA.
From his humble graffiti roots to cataclysmic gallery circuit stardom, the artist’s work hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down on the international art market. In 2017, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought a single work for $110 million (Untitled, 1982), making the searing expressionist painting the most expensive American artwork of all time.
It goes without saying that Basquiat’s vast body of work is timeless, not only as African American art but as world art. It’s hard to downplay such a champion of both African American history and art history, and why would one want to? Basquiat was certainly no featherweight in the art ring. He was undoubtedly a full-fledged heavyweight, and in the words of the late, great Muhammad Ali, perhaps even “King of the world.”