Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work continues to draw adoring crowds and fascinate the art world as prices for his paintings soar like never before. More than 200 rare pieces from the late pop culture icon are on display at New York’s Starrett-Lehigh Building through June 30, 2022 in an exhibit that leaves visitors inspired and amazed. Basquiat may be gone (he died in 1988 aged 27), but his work and ideas are as fresh and relevant as ever.
Honestly, I expected to be knocked down a bit by Jean-Michel Basquiat: king of pleasure. Yes, I knew the the work would be extraordinary. There are hundreds of never-before-seen and rarely-seen paintings, drawings, youthful ephemera, and personal artifacts, all handpicked by the de Basquiat family. But three decades after Basquiat’s untimely death from a heroin overdose, America’s issues around race and inequality – the theme of so many of the artist’s works – continue to metastasize. And yet, the show turns out to be a celebration of the life, creativity and ambition of an artist who somehow seemed to know that his work should speak for itself after he was gone.
Basquiat’s sisters – Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat – and her mother-in-law, Nora Fitzpatrick, spent more than five years putting pieces together for the exhibit, and it feels like a family love affair. There’s the Basquiats’ kitchen and living room with the very pictures they hung on the walls and the books they had on their shelves. In a recreation of the artist’s paint studio at 57 Great Jones Street, you see the VHS tapes, tattered paperbacks, wine glasses and records and Basquiat’s record player kept spinning spinning while he worked, all accompanied by favorite songs from Stevie Wonder, UB40, Elton John and Blondie (love that you can download the family-selected playlists from Spotify). In another space, you enter the Palladium’s Michael Todd VIP room, with two massive paintings by Basquiat that once hung in the dance club (the 41ft ‘Nu Nile’ would no doubt fetch many, many millions at auction today).
The exhibition fills the 15,000 square foot space designed by architect David Adjaye but is intimate at every step. You feel like Basquiat is opening up to you personally with his art and artifacts. There’s something so tender about seeing the (6 lb, 10 oz) handwritten birth announcement; the 10-speed Motobecane bike he used to get around Manhattan; newspapers and newsletters from his time in Puerto Rico, and the Comme Des Garçons trench coat that was the artist’s signature fashion.
Video tributes connect you to the person Basquiat was, not just the artist around whom auction houses now build entire seasons. Her sister Jeanine shares a hilarious memory of how her brother once convinced her to jump out of a dresser with an umbrella after seeing Mary Poppins do it. “It didn’t work out,” she said.
But it is the work itself that has the most impact. King Pleasure is named after the 1987 painting that Basquiat made as a tribute to the song of the same name that WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker played to close his nightly radio show in the 1970s. It was also the one of the favorites of Gérard Basquiat, Jean-Michel’s father. Irony of Negro Police Man is the 1981 play that depicts a black cop who seems somehow trapped by the blue uniform he wears. Even seeing the iconic crown that Basquiat began adding to his work as a teenager is a revelation. It is a mark of genius and an enduring sign of the power of art to triumph over pain, adversity and life itself.