This is purely coincidental, but maybe ten days before I attended the massive new exhibit Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, a pair of brazen art thieves attempted to steal one of the late artist’s paintings — valued at $45,000 — from a Chelsea art gallery in broad daylight. The crime was easily foiled as the couple — who, sadly, avoided apprehension — attempted to just walk out of the gallery holding the artwork. Ballsy! I mention this to illustrate the fact that Basquiat’s popularity hasn’t waned in the 34 years since his death from an accidental drug overdose at age 28. Though he did not get to live a long life, Jean-Michel Basquiat lives on through his art, and King Pleasure is here to make sure he is not forgotten.
Organized and curated by Basquiat’s family (sisters Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, and stepmother Nora) from the family’s personal archive, the exhibition of over 200 never-before-seen and rarely shown paintings, drawings, multimedia presentations, ephemera, artifacts and personal possessions tell the story of Jean-Michel from an intimate perspective, intertwining his artistic endeavors with his personal life, influences, and the times in which he lived.
“The decision to curate an exhibition devoted to Jean-Michel’s artwork from the family’s collection did not come easily,” Jeanine Heriveaux explains. “The impetus to do this stemmed from conversations we had that his works needed to be seen. This is not meant to be a scholarly exhibition, but a fresh perspective told from our family’s point of view. Creating the themes, choosing the words, and revisiting our family stories has been joyful and profoundly healing for my sister Lisane, our stepmother Nora, and me. Carefully going through what he left behind — books, hundreds of VHS movies, his collection of African sculptures, toys, and other objects, and his many sketchbooks and notes — has afforded us an even richer understanding of my brother.”
Lisane Basquiat adds, “This exhibition is a celebration of the life, legacy and voice of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Our family remains deeply happy, humbled, and in awe of how impactful his life and work were and how widely appreciated he continues to be. It is an intimate and personal perspective on my brother’s life that only we as his family can share. Each section of the exhibition — featuring photographs, personal affects, and extraordinary drawings and paintings from our family’s collection — is the distilled result of countless hours spent pouring over all things Jean-Michel, the artist, and the broader context of his life.”
With Covid protocols now out of vogue, and art fans desperate for a Big Art Show that offers more cultural substance than just selfie-stations and images projected on walls, the immersive, biographical King Pleasure — already a hot ticket — is poised to do a booming business over the summer months.
Not surprisingly, the influence of Pop Art’s first superstar, Andy Warhol, shows up early on. As Basquiat’s mentor, collaborator and close friend, Warhol was instrumental in bringing the young artist’s work to the attention of the right people, and inducting him into the most influential social circles. These two artist’s legacies remain enmeshed now that they are both gone, and their story goes far beyond the visual oeuvres they left behind.
I’ve been a Warhol fan for more than 40 years, but when I saw the Brooklyn Museum’s recent exhibit, Andy Warhol: Revelation, I realized that 90% of the works shown were completely new to me. I had no idea Warhol had created a vast body of work inspired by his Catholic faith and its enigmatic iconography. Art is not static, and there is always more to be revealed. No matter how much you think you know about Jean-Michel Basquiat, King Pleasure will reveal the man behind the art in ways you would not have anticipated, because his entire life is explored.
Basquiat’s contributions to the history of art and his explorations of multifaceted cultural phenomena – including music, the Black experience, pop culture, Black American sports figures, literature, and other sources –are showcased through immersive environments providing unique insight into the late artist’s creative life and his singular voice that propelled a social and cultural narrative that continues to this day.
“Jean-Michel always wanted to be famous for his art,” states a plaque on the gallery wall. “He wanted to be recognized along with all of the ‘greats’ that he read about and admired. Making art is what his soul needed, and it was at the core of who he was. His goal was to be an artist and he took to making it – with drive, commitment, and unwavering determination – by any means necessary.”
The year 1982 was pivotal for Basquiat’s career: solo shows in New York in Los Angeles, being one of the youngest of 176 artists exhibited at Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany, and growing acclaim from the art world.
Named after his Blue Ribbon series of paintings, this gallery highlights many of the important works in the estate’s collection, works that are extraordinary for their depth of meeting, their scale, or because of their significance to the family.
According to many observers, Jean-Michel produced some of his best work in 1982, which has been attributed to him securing and painting in a proper studio space for the first time. Five of the works featured — Untitled (Ernok), Untitled (Venus), Untitled (Ajax), Untitled (Rinse), and Cabeza were painted in 1982 and all were created with wood supports.
Several works featured are from 1984 including two untitled paintings; works Jean-Michel made from wood fencing taken from behind the studio he rented in Venice Beach, California.
Dry Cell was painted in 1988 and was one of the last paintings created by Jean-Michel. He gifted this painting to his father.
In 1983, the artist moved into his Great Jones Street Studio, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life. Much of what he surrounded himself with has been preserved and is presented here: sketchbooks, notes, clothing, records, books, movies, and objects, from African art to toys he collected.
The re-creation of his studio evokes the environment where Basquiat created many works of art and provides a glimpse of his surroundings and the things he kept close.
Basquiat’s art works have a way of tugging at the coattails and reminding the viewer to pay attention and dig a bit deeper to question what has been normalized and accepted within society. He held up a mirror to the hypocrisies and self-righteousness that are at the root of so much cultural discord, and he did it with a right smile.
His art challenges our illusions, encouraging us to do better and to see more clearly. The works in this gallery are like a history lesson. Jean-Michel serves up power, race, science, war, and religion in paintings and drawings that are simple, direct, and deeply profound.
Perhaps the most fun gallery of King Pleasure is a recreation of the VIP Room at The Palladium club, and its celebration of late night New York City in the 1980s.
Jean-Michel loved to party, and from his late teens he was a denizen of the late night club scene in New York. From the Mudd Club and CBGB to the artist-favorite Area (known for its themed nights which were akin to monumental art installations), and The Palladium, where he was commissioned to make paintings for the VIP room.
For Jean-Michel, clubs were as much about partying as they were about connection — to the music he loved and the people who inspired him (in whom he in turn inspired). New York in the 1980s reminds one of the moments you walked into a dark room filled with pumping music and dancing people. Any weight of the world would fall away once you joined in –- and everyone would party the entire night in celebration of life.
Beautiful, funny, profound, heartbreaking and, ultimately, wildly inspirational, Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure really is a must-see exhibit and experience for fans as well as newbies.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure is on now at the Starrett Lehigh Building, Located at 601 West 26th Street, accessible via the entrance 27th Street, just West of 11th Avenue. The exhibit currently has no end date. Get more information and buy discounted tickets in advance at This Link. Note: while a ‘Skip The Line’ option is available at a considerable mark-up on the price of a general admission ticket, it did allow us to knock at least 30 minutes of wait time off our entry. My ticket was free, so I’d say it was definitely worth it. Your mileage may vary.
Special Announcement: Tuesday, June 28th will be Family Day, With Children’s’ Tickets Priced at just $15!
Note: Tickets for King Pleasure are now heavily discounted on Gold Star Events.
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