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Jean-Michel Basquiat: Underground Artist and Six Million Dollar Man

Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait by Andy Warhol

I lived and worked in downtown New York City in the early 1980s when the arts  were going through big changes.  Andy Warhol was rich, but at a dip in his career.  Hanging out with jet set celebrities at Studio 54 and doing their portraits based on Polaroid snapshots for $50,000, he had become a sell-out to many.  I bought several of his books on a remainder table in a Soho bookstore for a buck each.  They were signed, which John Waters said made them so cheap—Andy signed so many things that his unsigned stuff was worth more than the signed.

I worked with Chris Stein and Debbie Harry—and many others– on the movie, “Downtown 81,” which was mostly a documentary about the downtown underground “no wave,” music scene which sprouted from the angry, apocalyptic near-bankrupt NYC where 3-card Monty dealers and window-washing bums ruled the dirty streets, and the burned out and abandoned South Bronx appeared to be the vision of the future.

Graffiti was the hot new art form, so had to be in the artiest movie of the time.  I didn’t pay much attention to it.  I wasn’t an art collector.  I had bought a few things from Baltimore artists in the Waters crowd, not as an art investor, but because they were close to starving, and I had a steady job.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was the star of Downtown 81, because he was a tireless tagger of the New York landscape with his notorious “SAMO” which was sprayed in white on countless downtown structures and vehicles.  It was cheap publicity, and gained him notoriety, that  held some promise of publicity for the no-budget no-wave movie producers.

I was in the art world, and it was interesting to see how it worked—and still does work.  I bought a painting from Basquiat after his nearly continual hounding me to be a customer.  He thought I was a rich man because I had a loft in Soho (small and rented cheap through a friend), and owned expensive movie equipment.  He wasn’t dumb.  He knew that rich people were the ones who bought art, and should be cultivated.  His art was primitive, nearly on a kindergarten level if you were unkind.  Several on the movie crew had bought paintings, not from love of his talent, but to get him off their backs.  To me, Jean-Michel was a greater piece of work than his paintings, and promised that if he would just get off my back, when the movie was over, I’d bring my wife up to his place and buy something.

Chris Stein and Debbie Harry fervently promoted Basquiat.  They had bought many of his works, but a successful artist needs more than one patron, and at the time they were not big, rich stars like Mick Jagger and John Lennon.  They encouraged me to add to my meager collection, if only for an investment.  They confided they were working on big uptown names, because the key to an artist’s success was simply to get rich and famous people to buy their work.  Nothing else mattered.  You could have the crappiest gallery and the worst reviews, but if Halston or Elizabeth Taylor bought one of your works, you were platinum.  Those were the kinds of people Chris and Debbie were working on.  It was a different level from me, but in the meantime, a couple hundred bucks would help keep Jean-Michel off the streets, and his fire burning.

When the movie finished, my wife and I visited Basquiat’s tiny, cluttered apartment off Houston Street.  I only wanted the painting which was in the movie.  He was reluctant to sell, but I was spending 100 hard-earned dollars, which would probably be $1,000 today, and I had little hope of ever seeing a return.  Carrying it home, I was embarrassed that someone might think I had painted it, not to mention what they’d think knowing I’d paid the equivalent of $1,000 for it.

Soon after, Jean-Michel was scooped up by Andy Warhol as a young prodigy, and through Andy’s uptown connections he skyrocketed.  At his first Soho show, I was astounded to see that Jean-Michel’s paintings sold for $2,500, less than six months after I had paid $100 for mine.  I’d never made such a smart investment, and vowed to hold onto it forever.

I moved 5 or 6 times in that period, and always trucked the painting along, mainly as a souvenir of the time and place, and figuring it might be worth a couple thousand dollars too.   It was a painting/collage dotted with scraps of crayon-streaked paper stuck on while the original paint was drying.  Occasionally they’d fall off and I’d randomly paste them back on with Elmer’s glue.

When the work was, to my great surprise, appraised for $10,000, I insured it, but in the tough economic times of the late ‘80s, I felt it had reached its max value.  The downtown Manhattan art scene was being replaced by yuppies, and Jean-Michel was no longer the critics’ or upper Westsider’s darling.  I was also in financial hot water at the time, and decided to sell the painting through Sotheby’s in New York.  It sold for close to $10,000 and after commission I netted $7,500.  It got me out of debt, and my credit cards re-instated.  It was a pretty slick exit from Low Budget Hell.  Or so I thought.

A portion of Jean-Michel's painting that I bought and sold-- too early, alas.

A few weeks ago, the AP ran a story that a Basquiat similar to mine was valued at $6 million.  I choked on my oatmeal.  So un- fathomable, but it’s repeated in the art world every day.  I look at my old friend and colleague, John Waters’ simple doctored prints of photographs that sell for $11,000 each.  Is the value in the work, or in what a few wealthy (some say crazy) people and friends can afford to risk?  Will Waters’ work be worth millions in thirty years?  Probably.  Considering who his friends are, if I had 11 grand to spare, I’d buy one tomorrow.

“Farrah Fawcett” by John Waters (1 of 8 prints) asking price $11,000 from ArtBrokerage.com

Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.

Video from “Love Letter to Edie, Director’s Cut DVD” – Robert Maier’s Additional Comments 25 Years Later

Love Letter to Edie was made in 1975 right after meeting John Waters and working on the crew of “Female Trouble.”  I added a fifteen minute bonus commentary in 2001.  This clip is an excerpt from that.  The DVD of the original “Love Letter to Edie” and the commentary is only available on e-Bay.

Click to view on YouTube.

Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.