In 2012, the Basquiat Foundation issued their last certificate of authenticity. Jean-Michel Basquiat, the genius artist of the last quarter of the 20th century, created works for just 10 years, tragically dying at age 27 from a drug overdose. In that decade, Basquiat created hundreds of paintings on canvas and an untold number of works on paper. Anyone would regard the cataloging and authentication of the artist’s prodigious output a herculean task, but for a time, the Basquiat Foundation took this on. The process of authentication is especially complicated when the market starts to play a role. In the time since Basquiat’s death, the value of his art has skyrocketed and the artist has shattered his own records at auction in recent years.
As happens when values rise, so does the legal exposure involved in passing judgement on works of art. Millions of dollars hang in the balance. To avoid the risk of potential lawsuits and disputes the Basquiat Foundation made the decision to cease authenticating works. They were not alone in the decision to end the authentication process. The foundations for Warhol, Lichtenstein and Haring likewise ended the practice and as such, works that were not submitted by the closing dates of each remain in limbo — a gray zone where their value and status are undetermined.
Glenn Williams met Jean-Michel Basquiat in the late 1970s. Approximately the same age and part of the fashion world of New York and Los Angeles, their paths crossed in the clubs and bars and art galleries where the creative world mixed. The scene was smaller then and the commercial rise of the art market had yet to begin. Larry Gagosian had one gallery (he now has 16) and he was the first to show Basquiat’s work on the West Coast.
It was at that time, as Basquiat was preparing for his show at Gagosian, that he and Glenn became close. Glenn would share his latest clothing designs; there are pictures of Jean-Michel wearing his fashions, notably in a portrait by Sylvia Plachy. One night in late 1982 or early 1983, Basquiat gave Glenn and his girlfriend two works. The first was a conceptual drawing of the word DRAWINGS. Devoid of any image, save his characteristic block letters, the work is like a title still for a film or book, the word centered on an oversize sheet of paper. Copyright marks and notations for “pat. pending” and random Roman numerals span the lower edge. The back of the drawing contains a surprise miniature skull drawing, quickly and confidently rendered in ink. Also on the verso, is the Gagosian Gallery inventory code (LGG — JMB #13) written in pencil to the corner.
The second drawing (image at the top of the article) is an iconic piece, an outrageous and comical head with a long red nose and hollow, round eyes, and radiates with the intensity of Basquiat’s most prized work. Rendered on a heavy, toothy paper, in oil stick and pastel, the drawing is aggressively worked in some areas and quickly rendered in others. The face floats above mysterious intersecting lines, dots and symbols, possibly from the Hobo Code lexicon that fascinated Basquiat.
Glenn kept the works for all these years, having them framed and displayed in his home in the 90s. The pieces were never submitted for authentication, as is typical of people who receive work directly from artists they know, who are in their lives and social circles. He never explored selling the pieces and didn’t even know of the Foundation’s work (until they were no longer in the business of authentication).
What now becomes of works of art such as these? There is no recourse, no process by which to obtain the certificate that some could argue is now more valuable than the art itself. Yes, there is a significant amount of money at stake but there is also the historical record of this extremely important artist. These drawings are not doodles or minor efforts; they are significant works that deserve to be part of the dialogue, part of the story of Basquiat’s art.