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Basquiat Painting Becomes Priciest Work Ever Sold By A U.S. Artist


It's been splashed on screens large and small this past week. You've probably seen it, the exhilarating painting of a big disembodied skull clenching its teeth, outlined with violent slashes of black and red paint against a sky blue background.

The painting is called "Untitled." The late Jean-Michel Basquiat is the artist, and it just sold for an unprecedented $110.5 million at Sotheby's. We're joined by Jerry Saltz, senior art critic of New York magazine, to talk about the significance of the work and its price tag. Great to have you back.

JERRY SALTZ: Thanks, Lulu. It's great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about this painting. Maybe take us back to 1982, when he was painting it at 21 years old, a few years before he died of a heroin overdose at 27.

SALTZ: It's 1981, 1982. You have this 21-year-old artist having their debut in New York, and it goes off like an atomic bomb. Basquiat, of course, is probably the only artist of color involved in any part of the art world at that time, and he was a spectacle to behold. I saw him on the streets of New York, and he truly was what he was called - a radiant child.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He's been called America's Van Gogh. Talk about his importance to the art world.

SALTZ: Basquiat is an extraordinary example of taking his own identity growing up as a black man in New York, combining it with art history via a lot of expressionistic wild-style painting where every single inch of the surface is activated and coming at you with optical power aggressively so, really hard.

At the same time, he has a kind of graffiti energy, where he's writing words, making references to Muhammad Ali, famous bluesmen, writing numbers. There's a kind of almost overload, over-speeding, hyperbolic activities. And this style is singular, and it also sings of an American spirit, of this amazing hodgepodge but also the long American night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In your view, what is the correlation between the price of a work and its value? Does the enormous sum paid at auction for this particular work make this Basquiat his most important piece?

SALTZ: Absolutely not. In fact, the art world has been so distracted by ridiculously obscenely high prices that mainly the only art that people are even aware of is art that costs a lot of money. There's a strange exception around Basquiat. No artist of color has ever entered this kind of pantheon of, you know, Picasso, Van Gogh, all of the rest whose work does sometimes sell for over $100 million.

So you know what? I have to make a strange exception to my rule, that in this case, I kind of love that Jean-Michel Basquiat has entered that and broken that barrier. More power to women, more power to artists of color. These lives do matter, and they're going to continue to matter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jerry Saltz, senior art critic of New York magazine, and he joined us from New York. Thank you so much.

SALTZ: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAT JON'S "SOUNDGIRL PERSONAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.