Observations on Jean-Michel Basquiat From the ‘King Pleasure©’ Exhibit

Images by Ivane Katamashvili 

During his short 27 years on Planet Earth there was almost never a time when Jean-Michel Basquiat wasn’t famous. Even as a child he stood out for his precociousness, he wrote a children’s book at age seven and was fluent in three languages by eleven. A street artist while still a teen (under the moniker “SAMO”), he had his first gallery show at 20 and is often cited as “the youngest artist / only black artist, etc. to do this or that.”

An absolute fixture, and one of the most recognizable personalities of an early ’80s Downtown New York art scene that still seemed provocative, he sold his first painting to Blondie’s Debbie Harry for $200. Since his death from a heroin overdose in 1988, his work has consistently appreciated to the point where it’s put him in Rothko / Klimt territory. Indeed, a Sotheby’s sold one of his paintings in 2017 for $110 million. (It’s not known if Debbie still has her $200 investment.)

It’s rather surprising, then, that it’s taken this long for a proper New York retrospective. But Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©, produced and staged by his stepmother and sisters, has just opened at the Starrett-Leigh building in Chelsea. It will be on view through September 5.

Now, despite a fervent but short 10-year career he was tremendously prolific, turning out sketches, doodles, drawings, and large scale paintings at an astounding clip, sometimes on whatever canvas was at hand. In the 1996 film Basquiat, directed by Julian Schnabel, the titular character paints a stack of car tires. Its currently estimated that there are over two-thousand works that can be attributed to him.

Such ubiquitousness can be disorienting as its resulted in the elevation of his fame to stratospheric heights. We can’t help but imagine that this ultimate arbiter of downtown cool would be a little horrified that he regularly trends on social media 34 years after his death.

As such, it’s remarkable to think that there’s more to Jean-Michel that we don’t know, yet Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure© confirms just that. The uniqueness of this show is that it is indeed being presented by his family, who have gathered together over 200 works from their own collections, almost all of which have never been exhibited in public. Also fascinating are the physical recreations of his art studio on Great Jones Street, which look as if the artist has just left, leaving behind his trusty bike.

Another recreation is the Michael Todd room at the infamous Palladium nightclub on 14th street (it’s now the NYU dorms next to Trader Joe’s), where JMB had two well-known paintings hanging. With a disco soundtrack pumping and video installation showing what the denizens of the dark might have seen there in 1985, we wouldn’t be surprised if certain gallery goers have been getting flashbacks of long-ago bad behavior. (The idea reminded us of the Rolling Stones early apartment set up at their Exhibitionism exhibit six years ago.)

As one meanders through the space, past the studio, and other exhibits of the artists’ life, from sketch books to art supplies, you forget that you’re there to see the art. And then you enter the gallery, where around 100 paintings and drawings are displayed, it’s staggering that there was still this many unseen works. It strangely didn’t strike us to get into analyses of individual works – but rather to observe that Jean-Michel was artistically surely his generation’s Picasso – but with the tragedy of Modigliani.

The show concludes with mounted video screens projecting talking head interviews, with members of Basquiat’s family and close friends recounting stories from his life. It’s a warm and humanizing way of reminding us that this monumental genius was also troubled person whose demons ultimately got the better of him. Exiting through the gift shop, we were tempted to stock up on well-designed merch, and spent a bit of time flipping through the accompanying Rizzoli book, wondering, again, what he might have thought of all this.

But really, that his influence so significantly carries on, is surely all he could have ever hoped.

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