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The expensive mystique of Basquiat is coming to Seattle

"Untitled", Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982. Last year the piece sold for $110 million, making it the most expensive piece of American artwork in history.
Courtesy Seattle Art Museum
"Untitled", Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982. Last year the piece sold for $110 million, making it the most expensive piece of American artwork in history.

What does it feel like to be in the room with $100 million? You can find out soon. The most expensive piece of American artwork ever sold at auction — a painting by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat — is coming to the Seattle Art Museum.

Margo Vansynghel is the visual arts critic for City Arts. She joined KUOW’s Bill Radke and Marcie Sillman to talk about the vagaries of the art market. Basquiat's valuations are being driven up almost single-handedly by Yusaku Maezawa, the collector who bought this work. Maezawa’s approach to collecting art is almost as unique as Basquiat's approach to making art.

That approach was a once-in-a-generation talent. And there's a certain poetry in the fact that in death, a painter who saw himself in crowns has become king of the American art landscape.

The following are excerpts from Radke, Sillman and Vansynghel’s conversation. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Radke: Margo, how did this sell for so much? Tell us that story.

Vansynghel: Well, it was actually estimated at $60 million, and there was another bidder that came in really late in the game … There were just two people who really wanted it, and it just went really fast after that ... It's not an exact science. Somebody has to want it and has to want to pay that money. And that's kind of why it's so expensive. But I think the most important thing to know is that Basquiat is like a mythical figure, and I think that's the interesting thing.

Sillman: And it's also that there aren't very many works by Basquiat.

Vansynghel: Yes, there's not a lot of supply. He lived only to be 27, so there's not a large supply — and specifically not for the works that are valued most and that considered his best work, which is from 1981 until 1983. This painting is right from the middle — from 1982, and this is also from his breakout year. So it's kind of like a seminal work.

Radke: And we know who the buyer was. Isn't that unusual?

Vansynghel: Well it's not unusual to know, but it's unusual to know it so fast. Usually when somebody buys of work that has shattered a record ... everyone's like, who is it? And there's a lot of talk in the art world. And Maezawa, this is a Japanese businessman, he just announced it on his own Instagram and on Twitter.

I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece. When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible. バスキア落札しました。アートを好きになってよかった。このペインティングをはじめて見た時、心からそう思いました。みなさんにも見てもらえる機会を作れたらいいなと思っています。 #jeanmichelbasquiat #basquiat #バスキア #ありがとう @sothebys A post shared by Yusaku Maezawa (@yusaku2020) on May 18, 2017 at 5:33pm PDT


Radke: Why is it usually a secret?

Vansynghel: The art world is pretty secretive in general, and collectors are not always trying to immediately tell how much they spend on artwork. And he's very different. He's really open about his collection — how he talks to artists, meets them. It's part of his lifestyle.

Sillman: I would say he's also building a museum, I believe in Chiba, Japan. He's also kind of got a fashion empire. He's a tech entrepreneur, and I think he sees this as part of a hip identity. I mean, I don't know him —  but that's what it seems like.

Radke: What do the two of you think it will feel like to be at SAM and be with that painting?

Vansynghel: Well, I think it will have its own room. It will be with a Warhol painting, which is interesting because he was his mentor, but now he surpassed him on the auction market. But it will kind of dominate the room, and I think that's the perfect experience for it.

Sillman: Do you think you feel differently about seeing this painting than others?

Vansynghel: No, I don't think so. I think there's an aura around work that has sold for so much. But when you're standing in front of it, you're looking at what this artist did and how he changed the course of art history. And I think that's still the most important thing when you see it.

Radke: And that's an amazing story. This man changed the course of art history.

Sillman: He also thought a lot of himself. He had a very healthy self-image … He often painted himself with crowns in opposition to crowned figures, and so there's a lot of supposition that he saw himself as a path to a more kingly being. I don't know whether that's true or not, but I think it's a nice thing to think about when you look at those paintings.

Radke: Do you think this piece is important for people in Seattle in any way?

Vansynghel: I think it's important because he was an artist who did not get immediate success in his early years. It could show to a lot of younger people that there is value in making work that really corresponds to what you want to do … I think that would be important for Seattle. And then another thing is, there's always talk about L.A. and New York being these big art-world hubs. And then there's always like, oh well, Seattle's also there, but a little bit outside of it. And so it's really good that Seattle is getting this work, and it's the second city after New York or Brooklyn to show it. And we can be proud of that.

Sillman: I was thinking about this in juxtaposition to some of the artists who are making work right now, because this was social critique. It's 30 years ago now, which is kind of amazing to think about. But I've had a lot of conversations with the younger artists, and I was thinking about this year's Neddy award winning artist Christopher Paul Jordan, who is also working in spray paint, often thinking about his place as a young black man in America. And I think a lot of the younger artists are really focused in this area on social equity, on social justice issues. I don't know that every one of them is going to make $100 million after they die on a painting at auction, nor even if that is their goal. But it could be an inspirational thing in terms of the work that you make and the things you have to say being put into a larger context. It also brings a whole lot of questions in my mind about commercial versus artistic success and where they converge. And whether they necessarily always have to converge. Do you have to make $100 million at Christie's to be considered the most successful artist in America?

Produced for the web by Amy Rolph.

Correction 3/14/2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated information about the sale of Basquiat's 1982 "Untitled". It is the most expensive American artwork ever sold at auction. 

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