Since his death at just 27 years of age from a drug overdose in 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat has become a legendary figure, immortalized in the film and amassed more money at auction than any other American artist.
With its powerful combination of fame and critical acclaim, Basquiat is both a phenomenon of pop culture and a major destination for art museums in search of the next box office hit. But his recent solo exhibition in New York is not hosted at one of the city’s art and culture temples.
Instead, it takes place in Starrett-Lehigh, a warehouse and office building in Chelsea, in a ground-floor space that has been turned into a gallery with wooden panels for the occasion by architect David Adjay and design firm Pentagram.
The exhibition is “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure”, and this is the first exhibition organized by the artist’s family. It includes more than 200 drawings and paintings from the artist’s estate, including many major works that have not been seen for decades – if at all.
Since the death of Gerard Basquiat, the artist’s father, in 2013, the estate has been run by Jean Michel’s younger sisters, Jenin Hariv and Lysan Basquiat. The two built a branding empire of Basquiat, while licensing the artist’s work and image to a wide range of merchandise, from socks to skateboards and everything in between ostensibly.
But “King Pleasure,” curated by the sisters with their stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, marks a new chapter in the mansion, offering an unprecedented insight into Basquiat’s home life and the years before that he soared to stars in the art world.
The show presents Basquiat as a lone talent, a creative genius who keeps seemingly creating from scratch – childhood paintings are displayed alongside his birth announcement (6 pounds, 10 ounces). There are also family photos, home movies and a variety of personal belongings. (There’s even a refrigerator door that Basquiat turned into canvas, and eventually purchased from his landlord on the advice of his friend, merchant Jeffrey Deitch.)
Aimed at the soundtrack of period music like Blondie’s “Call Me” and Diana Ross’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – the mansion has partnered with Spotify on a string of playlists titled “Listen Like Basquiat” – the show offers a surprisingly intimate portrait.
This is the family’s attempt to fend off the dominant narrative in Basquiat’s life, which tends to romanticize his time as a 17-year-old homeless street artist, his addiction problems and his line of beautiful girlfriends, which included a young Madonna.
“This is a way for us to collaborate as a community and fill in the gaps from all our perspectives on Jean-Michel and his impact on the world,” Lizanne Basquiat said in a statement. “We wanted to bring his work and personality forward, in a way that only we can, so that people would immerse themselves. We want it to be an experiential and multidimensional celebration of Jean-Michel’s life.”
In some ways, “King Pleasure” follows the game book set by the latest trend of pop-up museums and sweeping exhibits – take, for example, its relatively high ticket prices: $ 35 general admission, or pay $ 65 to skip the queue. But unlike the craze for animated digital screenings of famous artwork, this show has the real article: masterpieces not seen for decades, protected by the family but locked away from the public.
Among the most impressive are the huge canvases he painted in Skiat in 1985 for the VIP room at the Palladium Nightclub in the city center, which was torn down in 1997 to make way for dormitories at New York University. The monumental paintings mark the end of the exhibition, which is installed in a lounge-like space that seems to be suitable for hosting parties and events after hours of operation with an even higher entrance fee.
There are other interesting touches in terms of installation, like recreating rooms from the Borom Hill family home, and a fake facade – with bikes parked outside – of the apartment and studio rented by Basquiat from Mandy Warhol at 57 Great Jones Street, which serves as a backdrop for animated screenings of Basquiat’s handwritten notes. (Do not expect many ready-made options for Instagram: the lighting design does not encourage selfies in front of art.)
However, this leads to getting into the studio show on Great Jones Street, with paintings leaning against the walls and lying on the floor between piles of books and art supplies. There is even the artist’s trench coat, which is hung as if waiting for him to catch it at the door.
See more photos from the show below.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure” is on display at the Starrett-Lehigh Building, 601 West 26th Street, New York, from April 9, 2022.
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