Gagosian and the Puppeteering of Basquiat

Empty Lighthouse is a reader-supported site. This article may contain affiliate links to Amazon and other sites. We earn a commission on purchases made through these links.

Back In 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a darling of the art world, and gallery owner Larry Gagosian took notice. He put Basquiat up in a Venice studio and prepared to show his work that year out on the West Coast.

This sparked a relationship between the two men that survives long after the life of the artist ended.

On February 7th 2013, the generally subtle exterior facade of Gagosian NYC was interrupted by lines of freezing cold gallery-goers. Expectations were high as the line to get in grew and grew. Most were discussing the sheer scale of the crowd that had developed shortly after the gallery opened.

Amongst the well-dressed glitterati of New York's elite art viewers were skater kids, hipster chicks, and the elderly. But all shared a universal admiration for this artistic folk hero.

Basquiat is unquestionably one of the most famous artists of the past several decades and the art market has been good to him, so seeing his work in a gallery setting is usually something special. What makes this particular exhibition so special is the scale and presentation of the exhibition. Over fifty pieces were brought together for this show, creating a presentation that has only been rivaled by Brooklyn Museum's retrospective in 2005. The exhibition was marked by large-scale paintings that drew viewers in from all sides of the gallery spaces. The viewing rooms were shoulder-to-shoulder, and the conversations varied from theories about Basquiat's past lovers to the validity of painting on doors.

Among the almost constant reminders from security not to take pictures, you couldn't help but make the connection between this exhibition and Basquiat's life.

For those not involved in the world of high-end art, Basquiat, in many ways, is just another puppet. He garnered tremendous attention by the elite of the art world and ever since has become a tool of high prices and exclusivity. His tragic death in 1988 marked the beginning of the mysticism that now surrounds his work in the way that tragedy often does in the art world.

It seems that the winning formula in art has been to gain a level of recognition, and then die before your time.

Perhaps there's no other way around it. The art world is cutthroat, and what's hot today, may tomorrow be accessible to the upper-middle class.

The crowds that came to pay tribute on February 7th paralleled the crowds that took an interest in Basquiat when the art world elites told everyone to pay attention to him in the first place.

And so again, thirty years later, Gagosian paraded the work of Basquiat in Chelsea, and the moths gather around the light.

Basquiat has gained global attention since his death, but not primarily because of his creativity--that seems to be secondary to his name. One thing that was sorely missed from the conversations of the viewers in the gallery was real, honest discussion about the pieces in front of them.

Perhaps everyone was feeling a bit introspective, but the focus seemed to be concentrated on the man and less on the art. And so, the diversified crowd poured in, reeling in the multi-million dollar pieces in front of them.

Capitalism is at the forefront of the art world today, and it was in Basquait's time too. Culture and capitalism go hand-in-hand, so to see the fawning crowds of inquisitive art viewers waiting in line outside the guarded doorway is a reminder of the high-pressure art world Basquait had to deal with.

No one remembers when the art world abandoned him in 1985, but so as long as galleries like Gagosian still show his work, he's still important.