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Basquiat at the SAM

Last May, Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese art collector, purchased Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” (1982) for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction. Maezawa’s purchase made “Untitled” the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction by an American. It also became the highest priced art by an African–American. It is sixth in the world for most expensive art ever sold.

Maezawa, a billionaire, rock star and businessman revealed he was the winning bid on Instagram, saying, “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.”

Now one of Basquiat’s famous paintings will travel the world creating an opportunity for countless people to experience being face to face with the skull in this bold piece of art. “Untitled” hasn’t been available for viewing to the public for 30 years, and now, if you live in Seattle, you have the unique opportunity to view it at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) from March 31- Aug. 13. “Untitled” is hanging across from “Double Elvis” by Andy Warhol (1963) on the main floor of the SAM.

“Double Elvis” by Andy Warhol hanging in the SAM.

For Maezawa’s birthday last year he had a cake with “Untitled” recreated in icing on top of it. The art collector has used his fortune to fill the world and his own gallery with beautiful art on display. And Maezawa has made it possible–no matter the price– for people like you and me to see this fantastic art up close. Some people are skeptical of the price tag on this painting, but I say screw it. Maezawa has the money and the passion so why get in the way? He’s given us all the gift of art viewing, clearly bringing joy to the world as the painting will continue onto Europe after its stay in Seattle.

I went to the SAM to see the painting myself. When I first saw it, I lingered for a while from different angles, feeling like Homer Simpson when he fell in love with his first piece of art at the Springfield art museum and then started to see his whole world in that style of abstract art.

The painting is undeniably one of a kind. The colors are bold and incorporate partially defaced letters and symbols which make the piece more abstract. You would expect such layering and the crossing out of certain things to create a messy look but Basquiat accomplishes a calculated balance of details (that he is known for) that makes you look even harder at the little things.

The subject of the painting is a large human face, at once front on and in profile, depicted as a skull. We don’t know what exactly the skull is doing in “Untitled,” it could be screaming, crying, singing or laughing. Black paint covers most of the lines of the skull and top layer of the painting. It looks like charcoal could’ve been scratched across the top, creating a chaotic image on top of the colorful face and blue background. You can see the most layers in the eyes and mouth, it seems that they keep going on forever. Do they show that these eye sockets have seen much before death? Do the layers in the mouth show many messages once illustrated in the past? I see the skull as showing some sort of dark vulnerability, it is without any protection or flesh and might be in agony. Has this skull seen much? To the right of the eye and just above the profile nose some lines in the shape of railroad tracks then more to the right there is a yellow line, like that of a road lane. The colors remind me of a casino slot machine and the shapes in the mouth resemble the spinning slots, is this a terribly lucky skull?

Andy Warhol alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat in a framed photograph at the Untitled–Basquiat exhibition.


Basquiat and Warhol met one day when Basquiat was selling his art on postcards on the street and saw Warhol was out to lunch with Henry Geldzahler inside the SoHo restaurant WPA. Basquiat approached them and Warhol ended up buying a few of his postcards but Geldzahler felt Basquiat was “too young.” Later when Basquiat gained more fame he met Warhol again and the two became closer, helping propel Basquiat’s success. Though they were very different, the two men connected in many ways beyond art including the fickle blessings of fame and success. As both artists have since passed, they are remembered for their fantastic contribution to the world in invaluable ways and both are being honored currently at the SAM.

So if you’re in Seattle, grab a ticket for the SAM and stand in front of “Untitled” for some time. Or better yet, go this next Thursday and look at a painting worth $110.5 million for free.

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