Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work continues to draw adoring crowds and mesmerize the art world as the prices on his paintings soar like never before. Over 200 rare pieces by the late pop culture icon are on view at New York’s Starrett-Lehigh building through June 30, 2022 in an exhibition that leaves visitors inspired and awestruck. Basquiat may be gone (he died in 1988 at age 27) but his work and ideas are as fresh and relevant as ever.
Honestly, I fully expected to be brought down a little by Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure. Yes, I knew the work would be extraordinary. There are hundreds of never before and rarely seen paintings, drawings, youthful ephemera and personal artifacts all handpicked by Basquiat’s family. But three decades after Basquiat’s too-early death from a heroin overdose, America’s problems around race and inequality—the theme of so much of the artist’s work—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 his work would need to speak for him after he was gone.
Basquiat’s sisters — Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat — and his stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, spent more than five years gathering pieces for the exhibit, and it feels like a family love affair. There’s the Basquiats’ kitchen and living room with the very paintings they hung on their walls and the books they had on their shelves. In a recreation of the artist’s painting studio at 57 Great Jones Street, you see the VHS tapes, tattered paperbacks, wine glasses and records and record player Basquiat kept spinning while he worked—all accompanied by favorite songs by Stevie Wonder, UB40, Elton John and Blondie (I love that you can download the family’s curated playlists on Spotify). In another space, you enter the Michael Todd VIP Room of the Palladium, complete with two massive Basquiat paintings that once hung at the dance club (The 41-foot “Nu Nile” would undoubtedly fetch many, many millions at auction today).
The exhibit fills the 15,000-square-foot space designed by architect David Adjaye but it 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’s handwritten birth announcement (6 lbs., 10 oz.); the Motobecane 10-speed bike he used to get around Manhattan; the journals and report cards from his time in Puerto Rico, and the Comme Des Garçons trench coat that was the artist’s fashion signature.
Video tributes connect you to the person Basquiat was, not just the artist that auction houses now build entire seasons around. His sister Jeanine shares a hilarious memory about how her brother once convinced her to jump off a chest of drawers with an umbrella after they watched Mary Poppins do it. “It did not work,” she says.
But it’s the work itself that makes the biggest impact. King Pleasure is named after the 1987 painting Basquiat did as a tribute to the song of the same name that WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker played to close his radio show every night in the 1970s. It was also a favorite of Gerard Basquiat’s, Jean-Michel’s father. Irony of Negro Police Man is the 1981 piece that pictures a Black cop who somehow seems trapped by the blue uniform he wears. Even seeing the iconic crown that Basquiat began adding to his work in his teens is a revelation. It’s a mark of genius and an enduring sign of art’s power to triumph over pain, adversity and life itself.