Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 painting Warrior is poised to become the most expensive Western work of art auctioned in Asia. In the 33 years since Basquiat died of a drug overdose at the age of 27, the world has remained fascinated by him and the value of his work has appreciated exponentially. Today, he is one of the most expensive contemporary artists and his works, including Warrior, resonate with a new force.
After his 1982 painting, Untitled, sold for $110.5 million, prominent curator and dealer Jeffrey Deitch announced, “He’s now in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso.” Though he was rushed to market before his talent had fully matured, his profound talent is unquestionable. Even so, there's not a lot of consensus on what makes him so good and so valuable.
When the writer Bell Hooks visited a 1992 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum, in New York, she asked: "What did people feel looking at Basquiat’s paintings? No one I talked with answered the question. They went off on tangents, said what they liked about him, recalled meetings, generally talked about the show, but something seemed to stand in the way, preventing them from spontaneously articulating feelings the work evoked."
There is one central feature that differentiates his work from that of painters on the same echelon within the Western canon: “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings,” Basquiat told Cathleen McGuigan in 1985. “I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.”
Warrior — which will be auctioned on March 23 during a single-lot sale titled “We Are All Warriors" — is a perfect example. Executed in 1982, it shows Basquiat his full artistic maturity, harnessing the full potential of his extraordinary talents. The large-scale painting, made with acrylic, oil stick, and spray paint on wood panel, features a Black, sword-wielding figure with Basquiat’s signature skull-like head.
With the dense layering of Basquiat's technical, conceptual and polemical energies, it's little wonder the work is expected to achieve a price between $31 million and $41 million. The auction house suggests that work continues "the tradition of the tragic protagonists of Picasso's Blue and Rose Periods, de Kooning's corporeally introverted series of Women, and the searing existential isolation of Bacon's full-length male figures of the 1960s and 1970s."
Yet at its core, the subject is brutality, and Basquiat had the threat of state violence in mind when he made it. Without cameraphones or social media, the young Black painter would use art to express the horror of state violence enacted on Black bodies. For example, the year after he painted Warrior Basquiat's friend, an aspiring artist and model name Michael Stewart was beaten by New York Police officers and died in a coma 14 days later.
Jean-Michel was reportedly devastated by the news and went over to Keith Haring’s studio to paint his response to the incident of police brutality on the side of a wall. Haring would also create a large mural titled Michael Stewart—USA for Africa (1985) featuring Stewart’s naked black body with a neck stretched by the nightstick chokehold of two enormous white fists.
In his tribute piece to Stewart, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), Basquiat does not focus on black anatomy. As with Warrior, the figure looks haunted and otherworldly. Scholars suggest that his repeated use of skulls and ghosts reflect violence against black lives that is "at once structural, historical, ongoing, and futuristic."
As much as Basquiat continues the legacy of Picasso and Freud, he is also part of a long American tradition of state violence and its documentation. Warrior confronts us with how much is still unknown about how he understood the world.
Though in his essay, The Enigma of the Man Behind the $110 Million Painting, Stephen Metcalf asserts, "what little we know for sure about Basquiat can be said simply: An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work. "