Since his death at just 27 from a drug overdose in 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat has become a legendary figure, immortalized in film and commanding more money at auction than any other American artist.
With his potent blend of fame and critical acclaim, Basquiat is both a pop-culture phenomenon and a major target for art museums in search of the next blockbuster exhibition. But his latest solo exhibition in New York isn’t hosted by one of the city’s temples of arts and culture.
Instead, it’s being held at the Starrett-Lehigh, a warehouse and office building in Chelsea, in a ground-floor space that has been transformed into a wood-paneled gallery for the occasion by architect David Adjaye and design firm Pentagram.
The show is “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” and it’s the first exhibition organized by the artist’s family. It features more than 200 drawings and paintings from the artist’s estate, including many major works which have not been seen for decades—if ever.
Since the death of Gerard Basquiat, the artist’s father, in 2013, the estate has been run by Jean-Michel’s younger sisters, Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat. The two have built a Basquiat branding empire, licensing the artist’s work and image for a wide range of merchandise, from socks to skateboards to seemingly anything in between.
But “King Pleasure,” which the sisters curated with their stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, marks a new chapter for the estate, offering unprecedented insight into Basquiat’s home life and the years before he skyrocketed to art-world stardom.
The show presents Basquiat as a singular talent, a creative genius driven to create seemingly from the start—childhood drawings are shown alongside his birth announcement (6 pounds, 10 ounces). There are also family photos, home movies, and a wide variety of personal artifacts. (There’s even a refrigerator door that Basquiat turned into a canvas, and eventually purchased from his landlord at the advice of his friend, dealer Jeffrey Deitch.)
Set to a soundtrack of period music such as Blondie’s “Call Me” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross—the estate has partnered with Spotify on a suite of playlists titled “Listen Like Basquiat“—the show offers a surprisingly intimate portrait.
It’s the family’s attempt to push back against the dominant narrative of Basquiat’s life, which tends to romanticize his time as a 17-year-old homeless street artist, his issues with addiction, and his string of beautiful girlfriends, which included a young Madonna.
“This is a way for us to collaborate as a community and fill in the spaces from all of our perspectives on Jean-Michel and his impact on the world,” Lisane Basquiat said in a statement. “We wanted to bring his work and personality forward, in a way only we can, for people to immerse themselves in. We want this to be an experiential and multi-dimensional celebration of Jean-Michel’s life.”
In some ways, “King Pleasure” follows the playbook set by the recent trend for pop-up museums and immersive exhibitions—take, for instance, its relatively high ticket prices: $35 general admission, or pay $65 to skip the line. But the unlike the craze for animated digital projections of famous artworks, this show has the genuine article: masterpieces that haven’t been seen in decades, safeguarded by the family but locked away from the public.
Among the most impressive are the massive canvases Basquiat painted in 1985 for the VIP room at the downtown nightclub Palladium, torn down in 1997 to make way for a New York University dorm. The monumental paintings mark the exhibition’s finale, installed in a lounge-like space that seems tailor-made for hosting after-hours parties and events with even steeper entry fees.
There are other interesting touches in terms of installation, such as re-creations of rooms from the family’s Boerum Hill home, and a fake façade—complete with bicycle parked outside—of the apartment and studio Basquiat rented from Andy Warhol at 57 Great Jones Street, which serves as a backdrop for animated projections of Basquiat’s handwritten notes. (Don’t expect much in the way of Instagram-ready photo ops, though: the lighting design discourages selfies in front of the art.)
Nevertheless, it’s transportive to step into the show’s recreation of the Great Jones Street studio, with paintings leaning against the walls and laid out on the floor amid piles of books and art supplies. There’s even the artist’s trench coat, hung up as if waiting for him to grab it on the way out the door.
See more photos from the show below.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure” is on view at the Starrett-Lehigh Building, 601 West 26th Street, New York, from April 9, 2022.
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