The Trouble with Ken Griffin’s Basquiat
The American billionaire bought the vigorous Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump for $100 million in early June. At those price points, however, can art still retain its essence?
Michael Pearce /MutualArt
The American billionaire Ken Griffin has swung a bright spotlight onto the stage of A-list modern art and raised its stars to new, absurd heights of dramatic unreality by making a series of spectacular purchases. He swept up Jasper Johns’ False Start for $80 million in October 2006. In 2015, he purchased Gerhard Richter’s painting Abstract Picture, 599 for $46 million. In 2016, he acquired both Willem de Kooning’s painting Interchange for $300 million, and Jackson Pollock’s Number 17A, for $200 million.
Now he has bought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump from David Geffen for $100 million. The painting is an excellent example of Basquiat’s street influenced, rebellious and dynamic work, and it is good, and it is exciting that a black American artist has been elevated into Griffin’s Olympian pantheon of the blue-chip greats. The timing of the purchase is exquisite, set against the background of racial civil unrest in the United States.
Griffin, who is a brilliant hedge fund manager with a gigantic personal fortune, does not make foolish investments — he certainly sees the painting as an asset that will escalate in value in the coming years. He surely hasn’t bought it entirely for his personal pleasure, although he seems to genuinely enjoy abstract art — it will soon be displayed in one of the many museums bearing his name.
Griffin has given $40 million to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He is on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art. He gave $20 million to The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida for a new building and an endowment. He funded the Art Institute of Chicago with $15 million for a new building. Forbes estimates his personal fortune at $12.7 billion.
Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump is a fabulous asset. It’s a perfect example of a brisk and bright Basquiat, with the violence and vigor of his experience scrawled onto the canvas in joyful layers of color. The eponymous boy holds his hands up in an expression of careless abandon to the spray of the fire hydrant, and a toothy grin covers the bottom of his face. As a painting of black celebration, with a hint of violence, it’s a perfect symbol of the hope and fear recent events have gendered.
But there is a problem with the spectacle of this purchase. All art is an artist’s attempt to share their consciousness with others, but when a work of art serves as the financial instrument of a philanthropist a golden aura gathers around it, and under the influence of this magical light our perception of it changes, and this is the sparkling and seductive aura of capital. Spending $100 million on a painting isn’t a discrete purchase — it’s a deliberately ostentatious statement with a five-alarm fire, a fireworks display, and a flyby of the Red Arrows all at the same time. Last time Griffin orchestrated this kind of drama, he bought the house next door to Buckingham Palace.
The Mona Lisa has become the Mona Lisa because of the legendary stories that have accumulated around that rather “unremarkable” little portrait. The Mona Lisa cannot be assessed as a painting anymore. It is inextricably linked to value, by the international idolization of Leonardo Da Vinci to the status of a demigod, by Napoleon’s secretion of the painting into his bedroom, by the infamous thefts which transformed her into an icon of France, by its successful concealment through the resistance from the Nazis during the Second World War, by its transatlantic journey from Paris to New York in an hermetically sealed box designed so that even if the ship went down like the Titanic, the painting would survive, establishing it as an artefact more valuable than an ocean liner, or its passengers, who were presumably expected to fend for themselves in the freezing water.
The golden glowing aura is so strong and so bright around the Mona Lisa that cheap reproductions are the source of millions of francs, gathered annually from tourists who wait in Louvre lines for hours for their short selfie moments in her presence. The greatest source of the painting’s bright corona is its pricelessness. It is such a treasure that it is kept in a bulletproof glass cabinet, and carefully watched by French security guards. There are rumors that what we see on display is a copy, that the real thing is hidden in a vault. And this is the same swelling and gravid supernatural light that has collected, shimmering, around Griffin’s Johns, around his Richter, around his luminous de Kooning, around his radiant Pollock, and now gathers magnetically to his Basquiat, which bathes sanctified in the mythic radiance of money.
A Basquiat is a sacred relic, now, and like a saint’s bones his works have become symbols of power. Victor 25448, a much weaker painting than Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, was auctioned July 2 at Phillips, New York, for $9.25 million, doubtlessly with its price buoyed by Griffin’s purchase, despite its aesthetic shortcomings.
Basquiat would surely have greeted news of these sales with ambivalence because he regarded the Brahmins who bought his work with great suspicion. He repeatedly painted imagery that pointed to the difficult relationship between black American artists and the white haute bourgeoisie, of the great class division between the rich and the poor that separates American society. As well-meaning as the rich liberals who serve on the boards of America’s modern art museums may be, the sad fact is that their museums are the domains of privileged white aristocrats, whose patronage of minority artists and minority staff will be perceived as tokenism until members of American minorities are equally successful and assume positions on the museums’ boards. Basquiat painted his Obnoxious Liberals in 1982, a piece that literally speaks for itself.
But Basquiat is dead, and even class war is for sale in the society of the spectacle.
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