An intimate look at Jean-Michel Basquiat's art, courtesy of his family
"Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure" opened recently in New York City. It features 200 never-before-seen and rare paintings, drawings and artifacts from Basquiat, who died in 1988 at age 27.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
A new exhibition in New York City celebrates the artwork of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It includes 200 rarely and never-before-seen paintings, drawings and artifacts. They've been put on display by his sisters, giving an intimate look at the artist's life and career. NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas reports.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: There are rooms built into the "King Pleasure" exhibition that recreate specific places from Jean-Michel Basquiat's life, like a VIP room from the Palladium nightclub...
(SOUNDBITE OF BLONDIE SONG, "RAPTURE")
TSIOULCAS: ...Studded with photos of the young artists enjoying the high life with his celebrity pals, plus two massive panels Basquiat painted for the club and his studio on Great Jones Street. The room is scattered with his paintings and art books open all over the floor. A TV shows clips from some of his favorite movies, while the music of one of his heroes, Miles Davis, plays overhead.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SO WHAT")
TSIOULCAS: And in one corner, one of Basquiat's trenchcoats is hung up, a potent reminder of the missing artist who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose at age 27. These recreations are just one of the ways in which this isn't a typical fine arts exhibition. "King Pleasure" was curated by Basquiat's two younger sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, who oversee the estate. Lisane says the immersive show offers their perspective on their brother.
LISANE BASQUIAT: What we're able to do is to provide context and to have people who appreciate Jean-Michel's work get a fuller understanding of who this man was on a personal level, where he came from, the family that he was brought up through and the context within which he started his journey.
TSIOULCAS: Alongside the paintings and drawings, the show includes many mementos of their family life. But the main draw is his art - the quick shorthand that he displayed even as a teenager, the exuberant colors, the trenchant commentaries on race and hierarchy, the smart sometimes cynical phrases he rendered in text on his canvases, centuries of artistic and historical references crammed in next to skulls, anatomical drawings and cartoonish cars, ideas pinging off each other, just as in the bebop music he loved, his anointing of great Black cultural figures as kings. He sometimes literally crowned them in his work, says his sister Jeanine.
JEANINE HERIVEAUX: For him, it was very important that Blacks were portrayed in a positive light. And so I think that that was the main reason why not only did he crown himself, but he crowned those heroes.
TSIOULCAS: Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and one of his particular idols, saxophonist Charlie Parker.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "KOKO")
TSIOULCAS: Writer and Basquiat specialist Chaedria LaBouvier says "King Pleasure" is a chance for the public to see many works they wouldn't otherwise get to see.
CHAEDRIA LABOUVIER: I thought it was a wonderful display of just quantity when you're talking about Basquiat, where 90% of the works are in private collection, and most of those are in Europe.
TSIOULCAS: LaBouvier adds she wishes there were more opportunities for scholars to engage with Basquiat's work and his legacy. During his lifetime, his work was often snapped up by collectors as soon as it was completed.
LABOUVIER: How else are you going to see or have access to those works? But there's also this imbalance of when there's not a lot of academic research or scholastic research, our understanding of the artists is compromised.
TSIOULCAS: What the show doesn't do is evoke the most troubling elements of Basquiat's biography, including his heavy drug use. And, as a very young Black man of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, he became a superstar in a mostly white high-art world that frequently othered and belittled him, even as the market value of his work skyrocketed. His sister Jeanine says the exhibition is a celebration of how much he did accomplish in such a short time.
HERIVEAUX: He was very purposeful, and he was very determined. He said, I will one day be famous. And boy, did he make that happen. He was determined.
TSIOULCAS: Tickets for "Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure" in New York are currently on sale through the beginning of September.
Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICASSO BABY")
JAY-Z: (Rapping) It ain't hard to tell. I'm the new Jean-Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
An earlier version of this story stated that Chaédria LaBouvier was the first Black woman curator to helm an exhibition for the Guggenheim Museum. In fact, she was the first Black curator.