Top Selling African American Visual Artists

We will be spotlighting artists in conjunction with celebration of heritage months in America. In recognition of February being Black History Month, we take a look at the top selling African American visual artists and how their heritage has influenced their artwork. These artists are ranked in terms of their auction volume over the last 30 years.

African American Visual Artist -Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1982). Source: Christie’s Images Ltd.
  1. Jean-Michel Basquiat ($2.8 billion)

Born in Brooklyn, New York to a Haitian-American father and Puerto Rican mother, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was a self-taught artist whose cultural heritage served as one of many sources of his inspiration. He first attracted attention for his graffiti in New York City in the late 1970s under the name “SAMO” but his career took off in the 1980s.

He was critically acclaimed for the fusion of words, symbols, stick figures and animals and is associated with the emergence of Neo-Expressionism. His work with Andy Warhol in the mid-1980s resulted in one of most famed collaborations of the decade. Sadly, Basquiat died in 1988 of a drug overdose. The impact of his work is clear from the $57.3 million sale of his Untitled canvas in May 2016 to his numerous popular culture references.

Basquiat’s Recent Auction History

African American Visual Artist -Basquiat results
Source: artnet

Basquiat stands out from the pack whether compared to other African American visual artists or artists in general. He has dominated the top 100 list of artists at auction for the last three decades. His $2.8 billion total is more than seven times the second highest total which is $383.8 million for Keith Haring.

African American Visual Artist - Bradford Rat-Catcher-of-Hamelin-IIIAfrican American Visual Artist - Bradford Rat-Catcher-of-Hamelin-III
Mark Bradford, Rat Catcher of Hamelin III (2011). Source: Phillips

2. Mark Bradford ($106.6 million)

Mark Bradford was born and raised in Los Angeles earning both his Bachelor of Fine Arts (BA) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from California Institute of the Arts. His work draws from the diverse cultural and geographic makeup of his southern Californian community. He incorporates materials such as street posters and even the end papers used by hairdressers in his large scale collages. Bradford also creates public art, installations, and video, often exploring the relationship between high art and popular culture.

Bradford’s Recent Auction History

African American Visual Artist -Bradford results
Source: artnet

Bradford’s sales have seen a dramatic increase over the last eight years. He capped 2016 off with the £3.7 million ($4.7 million) sale of his 10-foot square mixed media collage, Rat Catcher of Hamelin III (2011). Bradford will represent the US at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

African American Visual Artists - Ligon Black Like Me No. 2
Glenn Ligon’s Black Like Me No. 2. Source: The Met

3. Glenn Ligon ($78.4 million)

Glenn Ligon was born in the Bronx, New York. He received a BA from Wesleyan University and attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. His work aims to reveal the ways that the history of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and sexual politics have informed our understanding of American society. In his text-based paintings, he has featured the writings and speeches from a diverse group including:

  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Walt Whitman
  • James Baldwin
  • Gertrude Stein
  • Richard Pryor

Ligon also weaves his own image and life story into symbols that speak to collective experiences. He has been quoted as saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about we.” In addition to paintings, his artworks include neon, photography, sculptures, print, installation, and video.

Ligon’s Recent Auction History


African American Visual Artist -Ligon results
Source: artnet

Ligon’s exposure reached new heights when his work Black Like Me No. 2 was included in President Obama’s private quarters in the White House. His auction record was set at Sotheby’s in 2014 with the sale of his Untitled (I Was Somebody) for $3.9 million.

African American Visual Artists - Mehretu Mumbo Jumbo
Julie Mehretu, Mumbo Jumbo (2008). Source: White Cube

4. Julie Mehretu ($70.4 million)

Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia but fled the country, moving with her family to East Lansing, Michigan as a child. She received a BA from Kalamazoo College and her MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. Mehretu is known for her large-scale paintings that include elements of mapping and architecture.  Influenced by the art forms of Constructivism and Futurism, Mehretu, creates new narratives using abstract images of cities, histories, geographies and wars. She has described her work as “story maps of no location.”

Mehretu’s Recent Auction History

African American Visual Artist -Mehretu results
Source: artnet

In 2015, she, alongside Mark Bradford, received the US State Department’s ‘National Medal of Arts.’ Her piece Mumbo Jumbo (2008) sold for $5 million at Art Basel in 2014 while her auction record was set at Christie’s in 2013 when Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation sold for $4.6 million.

Optimism for Continued Momentum

The recent and overdue recognition of African American visual artists has been linked to the presidency of Barack Obama as Bradford, Ligon and Mehretu only cracked the top 10 ranking of artists by volume in the last eight years. Here’s to hoping that despite the current political climate the momentum continues, boosting the markets for additional African American visual artists.

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About the Author:

Shani is the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Borro Private Finance.