Basquiat first achieved fame as part of the graffiti duo SAMO, alongside Al Diaz, writing enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of Manhattan‘s Lower East Side during the late 1970s, where rap, punk, and street art coalesced into early hip-hop music culture. By the early 1980s, his paintings were being exhibited in galleries and museums internationally. At 21, Basquiat became the youngest artist to ever take part in documenta in Kassel. At 22, he was the youngest to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his art work in 1992.
Basquiat’s art focused on dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. He used social commentary in his paintings as a tool for introspection and for identifying with his experiences in the Black community of his time, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism. His visual poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.
Since Basquiat’s death at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose in 1988, his work has steadily increased in value. At a Sotheby’s auction in May 2017, Untitled, a 1982 painting by Basquiat depicting a black skull with red and yellow rivulets, sold for $110.5 million, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever purchased. It also set a new record high for an American artist at auction.