Jean-Michel Basquiat: A King’s Journey
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For better or worse, I had always considered contemporary painter Jean-Michel Basquiat as an overhyped, Uniqlo T-shirt commercial artist, never truly understanding his backstory or having a connection to the man himself. Yet there I was, at 11:43 in the morning, waiting in line for the “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure” exhibit in Chelsea on a cold, rainy day. As I shuffled through security, I peered through the windows of the entrance and came face-to-face with photographs of a boy who looked more like a family member than a widely acclaimed icon of the art world. This eerie feeling of familiarity permeated the exhibit.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on December 22, 1960, to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. Known for his chaotic, expressionist art style, which is deeply rooted in graffiti, Basquiat was one of the most recognizable creators of his generation. His upward mobility as a gallery artist was catapulted through his close ties to Andy Warhol and lavish art dealers. The New York Times claims him to be “the most famous of only a small number of young black artists who have achieved national recognition.”
The King Pleasure exhibit, which opened this spring, features over 200 pieces of his art that have rarely, or never, been seen by the public. Curated by Basquiat’s younger sisters, the King Pleasure exhibit flows in chronological order and provides an intimate insight into Jean-Michel’s early childhood, start of his artistic endeavors, and rise to fame. Beyond large-scale canvases, viewers can see his work imprinted across wood fences, sketchbooks, and even doors. As visitors walk through each room in the exhibit, there are points when they can feel connected to Jean-Michel: his Brooklyn neighborhood, family, artistic processes, and deep love for music.
As visitors enter, they are greeted with some of Basquiat’s first sketches and doodles that tell a story about his childhood in 1960s Brooklyn. Early rugged depictions of a family tree and playing childhood games like “Skelly” encapsulate a youthfulness that fills the walls of each room. This early collection evokes a sense of nostalgia that everyone can relate to when their parents bring out a dusty box of elementary school art treasures. Basquiat taps into universal experiences with his pieces, like an untitled drawing of a man pushing a piragua cart, eliciting a youthful joy of seeing the Icee man on a corner in New York City. Similarly, a painting titled “Boxeo” is representative of a young Jean-Michel watching Spanish television shows with his dad.
A unique feature of this exhibit is the constant presence of music. Music had a deep impact on Basquiat’s life. His sister Jeanine revealed in an interview with Spotify, “My father had a great stereo, and he played music from the moment that he either woke up in the morning on the weekend or when he came home from work […] I know that had to have impacted Jean-Michel significantly. Music was very important to him.” Exhibit visitors can scan Spotify codes to reveal a series of interactive Spotify playlists called “Listen Like Basquiat,” ranging from tunes he listened to as a child to songs that inspired his creative process while in the studio to works of others that were inspired by Basquiat himself.
In the playlist “Childhood,” songs like “My Favorite Things” (1961) by John Coltrane create a laid-back and whimsical atmosphere, while songs like Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft” (1971) are overflowing with funk and swagger. In “Studio Life,” the tracks are more expressive and full of lyrics about uprising and rebellion, with names like Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix prevalent throughout. However, in the “Night Life” playlist, viewers see a different side of Jean-Michel. Songs like “Heart of Glass” (1978) by Blondie and “Another One Bites the Dust” (1980) by Queen ooze with the raw energy of an endless night on the dance floor. “Legacy,” the final playlist in the series, compiles songs that are inspired by Basquiat’s work, highlighting oppression, struggle, and the current issues afflicting the Black and Latinx community.
As viewers turn the corner of the exhibit, they enter a replica of Basquiat’s Manhattan home studio at 57 Great Jones Street, allowing viewers to feel immersed in his working environment. Massive canvases resting on the walls convey that he was working on multiple projects simultaneously; family mementos and music sources like CDs, boomboxes, and his very own toy piano showed the constant presence of music in his life. Picasso art books, newspapers, and even superhero comic books can be found all over the floors of the studio as inspiration.
Basquiat’s work acts more like a journaling technique than a literal depiction of an image. His combination of rustic figures and purposeful phrases along each painting comments on the world he lived in; underneath the jarring scratchings and slashes of Basquiat’s artwork is a deep conversation waiting to be unearthed. Much like a reporter would, Basquiat confronts problems like oppression, war, and injustice in their rawest forms; images of issues like police brutality or the objectification of Black people are evident in several pieces. Conversely, the motif of the crown in his art is used to shed light on the role of people of color in making history. The crown is used in varying ways: to spotlight the accomplishments of Black men and women, to adorn and acknowledge himself as “king,” and to portray his ambitious goal of achieving greatness.
Basquiat tragically passed away at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose. Since his death, his work has inspired others and has significantly increased in financial value. In 2017, a Basquiat “Untitled” painting featuring a black, red, and yellow skull on a bright-blue background sold for $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever purchased.
The legacy of not only Basquiat, the artist, but also Jean-Michel, the individual, needs to be preserved, and this exhibit does that masterfully. Basquiat was more than a celebrity. His work had depth and meaning, not just superficial technique or notoriety due to his lavish NYC life. This exhibit celebrates and gives visitors a view of his whole life, not just the tragic end. There’s a movement behind every paint stroke that is still highly relevant today, even if it is on a Uniqlo T-shirt.