On the Road: Basquiat Exhibit in Chelsea Is a Family Tribute and Insight Into His Legacy

This New York exhibit of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat feels particularly at home in its current environment. The beautifully arranged display, extended through January 1, is nestled into an old building near the Hudson River in Chelsea.

More than 40 years ago, this handsome young artist rose to early fame with the help of one of the world’s most famous artists, Andy Warhol. It all happened in New York City, a place that saw the life—and death—of this great talent.

The current exhibition differs from other previous showings of the artist’s work. Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure was curated by the Basquiat family. It shares their personal collection of Basquiat's work for the first time ever and provides an intimate and foundational insight into Jean-Michel as only they can. Featuring more than 200 works and artifacts from the estate's collection, 177 of which have never been exhibited, the exhibition takes guests from his early childhood through posthumous accomplishments and gives context to how his heritage and family informed his work.

The exhibit is also notable in that Basquiat’s two sisters, Jeanine and Lisane, run the estate and curated the exhibition. As two Black women existing outside of the art establishment, they are in charge of one of the world’s most valuable art collections.

Basquiat used portions of the fence behind one of his studios as a backdrop for his work. Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

They inherited this position in 2013, following the death of their father, Gerard. It’s clear the sisters want to impress on viewers that Jean-Michel was attached to his family. Their Haitian father encouraged his children to take pride in being Black in America. Their mother, also deceased, was of Puerto Rican descent.

Upon stepping into the exhibit, you are immediately caught up in the non-stop background music from the 1970s and 1980s. Apparently, music also was a big part of Basquiat’s life. It is said that he liked to play Ravel’s “Bolero” when working in his art studio. He also enjoyed contemporary pop music and especially jazz.

The exhibit is framed by a couple of tableaux from the artist’s home. The Basquiat kitchen and dining room are created in scrupulous detail, and a nearby plaque notes that almost 95% of the furniture and other artifacts were taken directly from the Basquiat home. The exhibit's title is taken from one of Basquiat's art works.

One of the exhibit’s immersive elements includes projections of home movies on the kitchen wall. The footage depicts Jean-Michel as a child, playing in and around his neighborhood. Since the artist died at 28, the films aren’t as ancient as one might think.

These rooms might belong in any comfortable, middle-class home of the era. More clues to Jean-Michel’s influences, however, can be found in other sections of the exhibit, which leads viewers through the artist’s life. One area showcases his treasures gathered during trips around the world. Another tableau depicts Jean-Michel's New York art studio. The space was loaned to him by Andy Warhol, and contains many of the elements you might expect: a television, a VCR surrounded by many VCR tapes, numerous books that the artist used for reference, and even a few bottles of wine. It is said that some of his most famous works of art were created here, in the last few years of his life.

Views of Jean-Michel's childhood, seen in family films, are part of this 'living room' where he grew up. Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

Like Jean-Michel’s artwork itself, some of the exhibit’s objects have a dual meaning. For instance, you turn a corner to see Basquiat’s bicycle propped up against a wall. Only a relatively few viewers will grasp how Basquiat's need for self-transportation was paramount for a young Black man living in New York. During his adult lifetime, Basquiat often was unsuccessful in catching a cab. Sometimes, his sisters said years later, he would ask one of his white friends to step out and hail their cab.

The irony in this is, when the artist died in 1988, he was worth roughly $10 million. (His art collection today is worth many times that amount.)

Even as he was rising to prominence in the art world, Basquiat continued to paint on found objects in addition to canvas. In the exhibit, viewers can see his work painted on an old wooden fence, a discarded moving blanket, and jagged pieces of cardboard.

These surprising surfaces lend an immediacy to Basquiat’s work. Overall, his work is strikingly bold, painted in bright colors. It often contains a combination of portraits, landscapes and text. It conveys numerous historical and allegorical references. One is struck by its ties to African art, among many other influences. Basquiat's work has been taken as an artistic comment on social justice issues, on his own life and surroundings, as well as the angry, potent expressions of a young Black man growing up in America.

A personal favorite in this exhibit was not even created by Basquiat. It is a large portrait of Basquiat taken by his friend and colleague, Andy Warhol. In the piece, Warhol manipulates a black-and-white image of Basquiat with silk screening to bring out the mystery behind the man. To me, the image seems to obscure as much as it reveals.

Basquiat's giant murals once adorned the walls of New York City's Palladium nightclub. Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

The text panels in the exhibit point out some of Basquiat’s signature touches, such as a typical combination of portraits and lines of text. Some of the words are crossed out, for emphasis. One also can see Basquiat’s distinctive crowns. They are typically placed on Black people’s heads, as a nod to Basquiat’s pride in being a Black American. One of them, however, sits above a dinosaur’s head.

The exhibit ends on a festive note. Given Basquiat’s age and his social companions, he was very much a partygoer. The recreated scene is that of New York’s Palladium dance club. Basquiat contributed some large murals to the club, which hang on both sides of this large room. Some clever decorating and projections do a good job of recreating this frenzied environment, and you can almost imagine how Basquiat might have felt while letting loose after a long day in the studio.

King Pleasure is within easy walking distance from other New York attractions, such as the Hudson River, the High Line and Hudson Yards. After viewing the exhibit, you might care to reflect on Basquiat’s life while exploring these nearby areas. And be sure to check out the exhibit catalogue, available in the exhibit's gift shop. The exhibit is expected to tour once it closes in New York, but cities have not yet been announced.

The 2019 Whitney Museum exhibit, Andy Warhol From A to B, included works by Basquiat.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure continues through January 1 at the Starrett Lehigh Building, 601 West 26th St., New York. Ticket prices are $32-40, with discounts for seniors, students, military and children. Please note that the exhibit’s entry is on 27th Street, not at the building’s regular entrance.  No masks or vaccine certification are required, although masks are advised. Advance tickets by online purchase are recommended, especially on weekends. Tickets are timed as well as dated. For more information, go to: kingpleasure.basquiat.com/tickets.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.