In a gritty home movie from 1968 – long before he embarked on the path that led him to world art fame and an untimely death – an 8-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat, elegantly dressed in long shorts and a button-up shirt, gently leads her one-year-old sister, Jeanine, by the hand in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, with her 4-year-old sister, Lisane, frolicking in the grass beside them.
These sisters – now aged 54 and 57 – have spent the past five years poring over their brother’s paintings, drawings, photographs, VHS films, collection of African sculptures, toys and memorabilia to curate an extensive exhibition of his life and his work which opens Saturday at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea.
The exhibit, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” showcases more than 200 artworks and artifacts from the artist’s estate — 177 of which have never been exhibited before — in a 15,000 square foot space. designed by architect David Adjaye. Providing perhaps the most detailed personal portrait of Basquiat’s development to date, the show comes at a time when the artist’s market value continues to skyrocket and his themes of race and personal identity have become particularly resonant. (The town hall must proclaim Saturday, opening of the show, Jean-Michel Basquiat Day.)
“They literally open the coffers,” said Brett Gorvy, a dealer and former president and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. “These are paintings that I have only seen in books.”
The 41-foot-wide “Nu Nile,” for example, one of two massive paintings Basquiat made for the Palladium nightclub in 1985, would likely fetch millions at auction.
Although nothing in the exhibition is for sale, collectors will have the opportunity to test the market for Basquiat art next month when his 1982 painting “Untitled (Devil)” goes up for auction at Phillips with a price estimated at $70 million. In 2017, his vibrant skull painting from the same year fetched $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, becoming the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction and joining a rarefied group of works to cross the 100 million mark. dollars.
And the Basquiat exhibitions continue to flourish. On Monday, Manhattan’s Nahmad Contemporary gallery opens “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art and Objecthood,” which explores the artist’s unconventional materials (doors, refrigerators, football helmets), curated by Basquiat scholar Dieter Buchhart . The Broad Museum in Los Angeles is currently displaying the 13 Basquiats in its collection. And in February, the Orlando Museum of Art opened an exhibition of 25 works by Basquiat, although their authenticity has been questioned.
An immersive journey into Basquiat’s factory, the Starrett-Lehigh exhibition is a completely different undertaking. As well as featuring rough sketches, scribbles and scribbled notes by an artist finding his voice, the show feels like a family scrapbook brought to life, stuffed full of intimate artifacts – Basquiat’s birth announcement (6 books, 10oz); a school report from when he lived in Puerto Rico; his blue-green dining tableware; his signature Comme Des Garçons trench coat.
“Conventional museum display tends to isolate the artwork from real life and they did the exact opposite,” said dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who delivered the eulogy when Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at age 27 in 1988. “Jean-Michel’s life story and family history are totally integrated into the presentation of the artwork, and it gives you so much deeper insight how the work was created, how it was inspired.
“It’s not a professional academic presentation, but that’s what’s so new,” Deitch added. “They created a new paradigm on how to create an art exhibition.”
Featuring a soundtrack of music the artist has listened to – Diana Ross’ rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; “(They Yearn to be) Close to You” by The Carpenters – the show recreated Basquiat’s important physical spaces: his family’s dining room in Boerum Hill (complete with original spice rack and wooden fish platter ); his painting studio at 57 Great Jones Street (with stacks of his books, a pair of his wine glasses); the Michael Todd VIP room at the Palladium – with mirrors, draped beads and candelabra – where Basquiat spent many evenings.
“We wanted people to come and have the experience of Jean-Michel – the human being, the son, the brother, the cousin,” said Jeanine Heriveaux, during a recent interview with her sister at Starrett-Lehigh. . “To walk people through this in a way that felt right and good to us.”
The women, who run the estate with their mother-in-law, Nora Fitzpatrick, have been the curators of the show, from the songs heard over the speakers in the Todd Room to the wall text – driven by a desire to bring all this material together in one place, and flesh out the often mythologized image of their brother. “For 33 years, we were constantly asked for more information, more Jean-Michel, more Jean-Michel – from art collectors to children,” said Lisane Basquiat. “That’s our way of responding to that.”
Profit also seems to be a clear part of it. The show requires a timed entry fee – $45 for adults on weekends, $65 to skip the lines (less for students, seniors, and weekdays). And a “King Pleasure Emporium” offers Basquiat-inspired licensed sportswear, leather goods, stationery, pet accessories and homewares, as well as the show’s companion book at $55, published by Rizzoli Electa.
Some long-time Basquiatphiles don’t have a problem with the trade component. “It’s wonderful that art products with Jean-Michel Basquiat imagery are available for people who don’t have the resources to buy a super expensive drawing or painting,” Deitch said.
“I love having the art come out,” he continued, adding that it could allow the family “to earn income through licensing without having to sell the art.”
Although run by the sisters, the exhibition has always been a family affair. Fitzpatrick co-wrote the book with Lisane and Jeanine. Jeanine’s daughter, Sophia, came up with the name of the show, inspired by the title of a 1987 painting by Basquiat (featuring the recurring motif of the artist’s crown) – and the jazz singer whose 1952 hit, “Moody’s Mood for Love”, was one of Basquiat’s favorites. father, Gerard.
“Everyone in the family participated in one way or another,” Lisane said. “It’s a way for us to bring our lineage together and document what has happened so far through Jean-Michel. We lost a brother 33 years ago and our parents lost a son. This project was an opportunity for us. It was cathartic.
The exhibit is organized into themes, beginning with 1960, the year Basquiat was born, and “Kings County,” which describes the artist’s childhood in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico. An annotated map of New York locates important places in Basquiat’s life – the Chock Full o’ Nuts where his mother enjoyed coffee; Pearl Paint, where he purchased art supplies; Sheepshead Bay Piers, where his family went to eat clams.
There is also a series of oral history videos featuring friends and family members, such as Reuben Andrades, a cousin, who recounts how Basquiat drew characters he called “The Frizzies” that looked like Smurfs. with social positions (“firefighters, policemen”).
In a video, Jeanine describes how her brother convinced her to jump out of a cupboard with an umbrella and try to fly like Mary Poppins. (“It didn’t work.”) In another, Lisane recalls how Jean-Michel suggested, while visiting a friend in a suburban backyard, that they all sing “I’ m Black and I’m proud” loudly (“until an adult comes and tells us to cut it”).
The only works in the exhibition that are not by Basquiat are screen-printed family portraits by Warhol, who was a close friend of the artist.
Childhood home movies foreshadow the sartorial elegance that became Basquiat’s trademark as an adult – here he is in a fitted peignoir, navy cap, suspenders.
The emotion of a life extinguished too soon permeates the show, bearing witness to the Basquiat allure that captivated budding painters, graffiti artists, museum curators and wealthy collectors. “He is an artist who encapsulates much of the 20th century – Picasso, Rauschenberg, Twombly – but he is also influencing a new generation of artists,” said gallerist Joe Nahmad. “It leads you into the future – to what is happening today.”
The spectacle of the sisters can sometimes resemble hagiography; there is little discussion of Basquiat’s demons or aspects of his family life that may have been difficult. According to Phoebe Hoban’s 1998 biography, “Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art”, the artist said in an interview: “When I was a child, my mother beat me badly because I had my underpants. clothes inside out, which to her meant I was gay.’”
“He told girlfriends and art dealers that he was badly beaten by his father as a child,” Hoban continues. “Gérard Basquiat categorically denies having done more than spank his son with a belt.”
But the catalog occasionally deals with the darker aspects of Basquiat’s story, describing how his parents — Gerard, a Haitian immigrant, and Matilde, a Brooklyn-born artist of Puerto Rican descent — separated. How Gerard (who died in 2013) raised his three children and sometimes struggled to reconcile his ideas of success with his son’s less conventional goals.
“Jean-Michel was committed to being an artist, and my father’s fears for him – not having a life with stability and security – translated into anger and frustration,” Lisane wrote in the catalog. . “Jean-Michel fled several times. One day he was there, and then one day he wasn’t – there was really no discussion about it. Jean-Michel was never going to conform to my father’s vision of his life.
The sisters said they recognize the show represents their version of events. They are neither academics nor conservatives. They set out to tell the story of the loving, mischievous and creative young man they grew up with and who became a major entertainer.
“Jean-Michel is and has always been fire. Fire,” writes Lisane. “He was Jeanine’s older brother and my protective, exuberant, pioneering brother who paved the way for so much. Jean-Michel was a huge energy entering this world.