On May 18, 2017, 42-year-old Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa purchased Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled for $110.5 million. The sale, facilitated by Sotheby’s New York, made Basquiat’s painting the most expensive American artwork sold in history, and placed it at number six out of only ten artworks ever priced at nine figures.
In comparison to the fanfare over Christie’s sale of Salvator Mundi—a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which sold for an earth-shattering $450,312,500—this may sound like small potatoes, but Untitled will take center stage later this month at the Brooklyn Museum.
The survey, titled One Basquiat, will focus on the legendary artist’s relationship with Brooklyn. According to the museum’s recent announcement, their forthcoming exhibition “is just the latest of many links between the artist and the borough—from his birth at Brooklyn Hospital, to childhood visits to the Brooklyn Museum, where his mother enrolled him as a Junior Member when he was six years old, to the Museum’s retrospective Basquiat in 2005 and its critically acclaimed presentation Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks in 2015.”
Untitled was painted during a significant turning point in Basquait’s career, when the artist had just begun to garner clout. The painting’s central subject—a primarily black skull—became a recurring motif in Basquiat’s practice. Untitled serves as the artist’s second painting of a head. It “emblematic of his early success,” the press release explains, “and ranks among the artist’s most powerful paintings.”
In his article from May 2017, titled “Is this Basquiat worth $110m? Yes—his art of American violence is priceless”, Jonathan Jones wrote for The Guardian: “It is a painting that bleeds history…a black skull scarred with red rivulets, pitted with angry eyes, gnashing its teeth, against a blue graffiti wall on which someone has been doing their sums. Perhaps the street mathematician was calculating how many Africans died on slave ships in the 18th century, or how many people lived in slavery in America, or how many young black men have been killed by police guns in the last few years.”
Critics have dismissed the weight of Basquiat’s short, albeit impactful, career (the artist died from a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of just 27), but proud owner Yusaku Maezawa wishes to share Untitled with the world. “I am thrilled to be sending Basquiat’s masterpiece home to Brooklyn,” Maezawa said in the announcement. “It is my hope that through the exhibition and extensive programming accompanying it, the young people of the borough will be inspired by their local hero, just as he has inspired so many of us around the world.”
Coinciding with One Basquait, the Brooklyn Museum will host a series related public programs, including film screenings and talks about the artist and Black History Month. The painting will remain on view in Brooklyn until March 11, when it will embark on a world tour, after which it will settle in a new museum that Maezawa is building in his hometown of Chiba, Japan.
“In the single decade of Basquiat’s artistic career, he went from spray-painting witty, cryptic aphorisms on the street to becoming an international art star whose paintings were highly coveted by collectors,” noted Eugenie Tsai, the show’s curator. “The simplicity of Untitled’s composition and the raw energy of the brushwork and drawn lines create an iconic painting that represents Basquiat at his artistic height.”
One Basquiat will open at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11238 on January 26, and run through March 11, 2018.