By Lori Perkins
So here’s the wild thing–I am the same age as Jean-Michel Basquait. We traversed the same territory at the same time–New York City’s Mudd Club and CBGB’s, although his circle was artists, and mine was musicians (even though I was getting a degree in art history). I was never a huge fan of his work, because I saw it as art chosen by old people as the hip new thing. When I was working at a local art gallery we used to say that Any Warhol had four doubles who went around pretending to be him just to make sure he was sighted everywhere, and I thought of Basquait as one of his entourage members.
I saw a huge retrospective of Basquait’s work in Paris, with high falutin’ gallery notes, and it did little to add to my understanding of what Basquait was about. However, the current exhibit of 200 works and artifacts, most of which have never been seen before, place the artist in the midst of his family, and his life in New York, and I see him and his work in a whole new light. He was a NYC child of immigrants (Haitian father, Puerto Rican mother) who grew up in Brooklyn playing stickball in the streets and watching Saturday morning cartoons and drawing them. He went to St. Anne’s in Brooklyn when his Catholic parents could afford it, and then City As School, an innovative high school created in the 80’s that placed “non-thriving” students in work environments where they could pursue their interests (I had an internship program with CAS when I ran a local newspaper in Washington Heights). His mother was committed to an asylum when he was about 10. He had two younger sisters, who collected all the brilliant, important ephemera of his short life (he died of a heroin overdose at 27), and organized it to tell a much fuller story. This new exhibit, organized by his sisters and his stepmother, finally made me “get” Basquait, and really see him as the ultimate Black NY artist he was.
His sister Janine Heriveaux told NBC News, “The theme is really Jean-Michel as a human being. Before he was an artist, he was a son. He was a brother. He was a nephew-and we’re trying to show that human side of Jean-Michel and where he came from, his childhood and our personal relationships with him.”
There are so many fascinating pieces and details in this exhibit: The blue china set of Asian-inspired everyday dishes he used; a recreation of his studio with the 80’s music he loved playing such as “Tommy” and “Heart of Glass” with discarded VHS tapes and books and paint tubes; recreations of his parents’ dining room and living room in Boerum Hill; “Drycell” - the giant yellow painting of a gorilla he gave to his father (his last painting); his many pieces dedicated to the Black jazz musicians of the 50’s (Miles Davis, Monk and Bird, and the noticeable lack of reference to Hendrix, whose exhibit at the Rock’n’Roll Museum in Seattle greatly resembles this one for its familial curation ). Then there are the interviews with his sisters, nephew, cousins, and a handful of art professionals (to give it gravitas, I guess), which are all worthwhile.
And the final room of the paintings that once adorned the walls of the Palladium, where Basquait partied with New York’s elite, is just the right ending to this monumental experience.
This King Pleasure exhibit was named after a 1987 painting of a bebop-loving bartender turned jazz vocalist whose first hit, in 1952, “Moody’s Mood For Love,” catapulted him to fame. The song was a favorite of the WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker, who played it at the close of his show every night in the 1970s. Those kind of details in this exhibit made me see Basquait not as the art-world protégé he had been touted as, but as a New Yorker who absorbed all and made art about it, including his consistent exploration of Blackness in America.
This is a truly absorbing exhibit, well worth the $35 and walk down long avenue blocks to reach 11th Avenue and 26th Street.