Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Jean-Michel Basquiat has been one of my favorite visual artists for over 20 years because there are so many ways that I feel a kinship with him. He was just a decade older than me. He was born in 1960, so I can see him as a big brother. He was a New Yorker, so I see him as a kindred spirit. He was an artist whose work comments on many of my favorite subjects—high art, street, the hip-hop aesthetic, the legends of jazz and the pain of police violence. All of that makes me feel like we could’ve been friends.
Over the years, I have been to many major and minor Basquiat shows in America and Europe and read the books and seen the documentaries, and I thought I’d seen every painting of his that I would ever be able to see (all except those in the private collections of the megawealthy and the vaults of various museum). So when I went to the new show, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©,” at Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan, I carried with me a bit of skepticism. Would I see anything I hadn’t seen before? I am happy to report that, yes, there are several things that Basquiat superfans have probably not seen before, making “King Pleasure” a valuable destination for both longtime fans and people who are just getting to know his work.
“King Pleasure” represents his family’s turn at telling us who Basquiat was and to show work they still own and possibly sell us some trinkets based on his work. There’s a more personal touch to this show—the voice of his sisters welcomes you in, there are videos of them telling stories about him, and there’s a recreation of the living room he grew up in. These are nice scene-setters, but for me, the most thrilling of the set designs comes when they recreate his studio.
There, we see paintings on the floor and wall and paint strewn about, suggesting the frenetic pace of his output. Miles Davis plays on the stereo and the iconic John Hughes film, The Breakfast Club, runs on a TV. A pack of Marlboros lays on the floor beside a black Comme des Garçons jacket. You feel like you’re really inside his artistic sanctum, and it’s like maybe he’ll stroll in at any second.
The work that the family has to display is, of course, extraordinary. We get Basquiat’s large, bold paintings filled with arresting colors, crossed-out words, and crowns. We see him working in his signature naïve style, evocative of painting like a child to speak to his joy in making art and how African-Americans are underestimated. If you think his work is primitive because he’s chosen to play with a primitive style, then you’ve fallen for his trick.
He also sometimes painted in extreme detail, as if from a medical textbook, evoking the complexity of his mind and his eye. His work speaks to African history, art history, cartoons and graffiti, putting high and low on the same plane. It feels like it’s all made by an expansive, brilliant mind that’s collected so much info that his brain must be bursting at the seams. Basquiat’s work often seems simple on the surface. You can feel like you get the painting right away, but there are so many little additions and tweaks and things going on that it rewards you looking longer and thinking about what else is happening.
For Basquiat lovers, there are pieces you may not have ever seen. There’s a large thrilling portrait of Charlie Parker, all hands and horn with much of his face covered or unpainted, yet the sense of him being in the midst of a musical explosion bursts through. There’s a refrigerator door with lots of stickers on it and the word love painted on it. There’s a painting called “Jailbirds” that shows two dark figures holding billy clubs and beating a smaller figure as stars fly off from his body. There’s more…
Basquiat lived just 27 years. He died in 1988, but his career remains important for so many reasons. His paintings are great. We still want to see them. His images and his style remain arresting and unique—you know him right away even if you know little about art, yet he’s smart enough to surprise us visually over and over. His emergence in the ’80s proved that the hip-hop aesthetic was not purely musical but something artistically powerful enough to be translated into many forms. His rise to the art world’s elite level in the ’90s proved that Black people could conquer the art world, too. In 2017, one of his paintings went for over $110 million, a record for an American artist. He is one of the most fascinating artists of all time, and seeing his work and his life as presented through the eyes of his family is a great way to get a little more perspective on his incredible career.
Touré is the host of the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.
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