Scholarship about the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat since his death in 1988 has been extensive. With dozens of books written, world-class museums have organized exhibitions about his work, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Barbican in London, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, the MFA in Boston, and the MCA in Denver. Substantial catalogs were also offered with most of the shows, analyzing his work from different curatorial viewpoints. At least a couple of documentaries from 2010 and 2017 have presented audiences with stories of his meteoric career from his early days to superstardom, fame, and record-breaking prices for his work.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure offers a new perspective on the artist, his life, and his work...This New York City exhibition endeavors to complete the story in a decidedly familial way. Curated by his two sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, with help from his stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, the artist is repositioned as a son, brother, uncle, and friend. An emotional exhibition that feels intimate even though more than 200 artworks are on display, King Pleasure posits that there may be more to Jean-Michel than you previously knew.
A shining jewel unveiled at the apex of the New York spring art season, the new show reaffirms the strength of the artists’ personal syntax and his distinctive ability to encode and innovate on streets and canvasses the DNA of American culture and history for his time and ours. The sisters and stepmother firmly assert Jean-Michel’s legacy, and simultaneously they gift fans and admirers one more musical, visual, poetic composition from a departed friend.
Because of the nature of late 20th-century art-collecting, so many of Basquiat’s works are now only in private hands, unavailable to see. Here is an eclectic collection of fully realized works and sketches in his trademark style. The show feels well-rounded and accessible – akin to a visit to a friend’s home studio to see their latest works in progress and their developing ideas.
Ghanaian-British architect and exhibition designer Sir David Adjaye creates an unpretentious, open, and inviting series of spaces to consider the multi-sensory internal adventures of a young artist enthralled with possibilities that life may offer. The winding exhibition greets you in waves of illustrations, texts, canvasses, works on paper, paintings, family stories, sketchbooks, journals, artifacts, musical interludes, concise video interviews, projections, ephemera, arched porticos, subtly detailed environments in warmly authentic textures. Without clutter or fussy filigree, it also does not retreat to the clinical white box; instead, the varied collection achieves a cohesion that is authentic.
Racism and Class Ever-present
Basquiat was discovering and defining himself in an acutely racist US society that was in the process of merging and separating and reconfiguring, often painfully so. The contradictions of traversing street culture, middle-class economics, Haitian, Puerto Rican, African, and European roots were not new to him in our city – but he could not necessarily resolve them. Seeing his writings and paintings one may say that some of his clarity came from creating, an internal process of synthesis that he recorded externally in paint and pencil. Perhaps as a response to the thousand cuts that systemic racism inflicts and white people’s resistance to facing it, the show speaks to a still-ill society designed not to be safe or honest to black and brown men. Whether the racism he grapples with is historical or contemporary, can one doubt that Basquiat was deeply hurt by it? Textural references in what critic Carlo McCormick calls his “scattered poetics” illustrate the shock of sudden racism and class that rapidly veers to the next topic, possibly the nature of his daily existence.
Personal testimony by his sisters reminiscing on a video speaks to the stinging pain of racist words used against the family when all the siblings were children and how they witnessed his recoiling reaction. Even as you reflect upon his familiar names of musical and sports heroes popping up – Charlie Parker, Nat “King” Cole, Billy Eckstein, Grace Jones, and various Heavyweight Champs, it occurs to you that this young man was modeling himself after his heroes, as young people do. If there were few poets, intellectuals, or masters of industry referenced, perhaps that is the result of a system that primarily prized black men who were athletic or entertaining.
Writing of the Narrative
With King Pleasure, the family of the artist takes hold of the narrative and makes it personal, inviting you to see by recreating his family living spaces and his art studio. Each is filled with actual personal objects, family photographs, furniture, vinyl record albums, books, and ephemera. There is a natural tendency for us to view a person, a persona, and a creative life through our lenses of references – and much of the Basquiat hype that developed during his halcyon rise in the 1980s was formed by media and the cult of celebrity. From today forward those narratives will be broadened and more fully realized – at once providing context, answering questions and altering, even contesting, previously held perceptions. Without doubt, these will help us better appreciate the artworks and his practice.
A New Treasured Trove
At the opening Lisane Basquiat shared that their stepmother Nora Fitzpatrick told the sisters a couple of years ago that all these works had “been sitting in a vault for 30 something years”, and that was long enough. “They needed to be seen and shared with the world,” said Ms. Basquiat. This is possibly the most exciting aspect of the show – never seen before works, numbering about 200, anchor the collection, indicative of his prodigious output during his decade or so as a fine artist.
Works on canvas are sometimes stretched on found wood frames, others are wood canvasses. One may indeed be the last one he worked on. Seeing the collection is like discovering old friends you didn’t know about. Or maybe it is like receiving a letter from an old friend, a breath of fresh air that brightens the heart – and reinforces the beauty of the person and their significance in your life. Taken as one, this is bold, assured, and determined presentation of his work that never overshadows it by a family that respects Jean-Michel. Reassuringly, this newly unveiled collection affirms that his work is just as relevant to today’s culture as it was during his brief career and time on earth, having the courage to speak his piece.
With our social and economic progress so incremental and uneven, ever unjust, one can imagine that Basquiat might have been exhausted today in his 60s. As a cultural omnivore who took inspiration from everything around him, he may also have been buoyed by today’s beauty, encouraged by people’s determination to progress, and inspired by the still-bubbling sense of humor of his sisters, nieces, and nephews. Many of them attended the celebratory opening of the exhibition Thursday night at the Starrett-Lehigh. Their energy and tenderness toward one another and their grandmother were easily seen, with pleasure.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, presented by the family of Jean-Michel Basquiat is currently open to the general public. Click HERE for tickets, schedule, and directions.