Written by First Person, Visual Art

Walls Covered in Basquiat

“What might be if he lived? What does it mean that his image is defined and further commoditized without his consent, by the same gatekeepers who contributed to the turbulence in his short life? And under these circumstances: who is art for?”

The Museum of Modern Art owns no paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

Still, the Basquiat-less MoMA is my golden ticket to see the inaugural show at the Brant Foundation’s East Village space, co-produced by Louis Vuitton and curated by Dr. Dieter Buchhart. Tickets to the exhibition are sold out in advance or require enough cachet to be on an unspecified list. I get to attend, because I was gifted an extravagant museum membership that includes talks with artists amongst their work, walk-throughs with curators, and the occasional studio visit. They arrange for us to tour the show after hours, with a tour led by the associate director of the foundation. 

The show is impressive: four floors of the enigmatic painter’s work—mostly owned by the foundation itself, but a few on loan from private collectors—set against the backdrop of the East Village, where he painted many of them. From the program, it is clear that this proximity matters most, although I am unsure whether Basquiat would recognize his old neighborhood now. The focus on “reconnecting the East Village to a seminal figure of its past” who composed “over 1,000 paintings and more than 2,000 drawings in a decade” makes it seem like the pieces were created by the neighborhood itself, instead of a breathing human being. Art back in its home, its wellspring of inspiration, and where the artist once lived on the street and sold drawings to afford food.

I know little about Jean-Michel Basquiat when I arrive at the exhibit: I’ve just heard his name thrown around in the corners of pop culture where I tend to lurk, mostly mentions in hip hop where he flips back and forth between status object to be acquired and artistic god to be emulated. Genius—the online music publication and lyrics authority—tags more lines than I can count where his name is dropped, often in the same breath as Picasso and Van Gogh. I know of his death, too young and too tragic, which I suspect sealed the eventual fate of his artistic legacy, further elevating the mythology of him, perhaps contributing to the eventual price surge of his pieces. He seems all things to all people: fashion icon, art world darling, boy genius who died too soon. His image, never quite evolving, fixed in the minds of those who survived him and radiating from the paintings he left behind.

Before I visited the Brant in 2019, the only Basquiat piece that I’d seen up close was Glenn, an enormous acrylic head overlaying a series of drawings in pencil and chalk. I liked that it made me question myself as I read through the text on each drawing. Equal parts manifesto and source code, demanding time and patience from the viewer to read and absorb and then feel. Was he shouting or engaging in energetic conversation? Was the aggression I interpreted some preconceived notion I was projecting onto it? I assumed that the painting was on canvas, but now know that it, like so many of his works, was painted on an enormous slab of wood. It hung by the escalators in the Museum of Modern Art, arguably one of the highest-trafficked areas of the museum, but in reality, an inopportune place to mop up the details. Eventually, Glenn disappeared from the wall, no longer on loan to the museum. It hangs in a private collection now. For some reason, a majority of public art institutions failed to see the value in Basquiat’s major works and over time were effectively priced out of today’s market. 

I hop off my bike, still sweaty (some might say “glowing”) from the effort of the bridge from north Brooklyn. As usual, I take a moment to compose myself, all too aware of the ways that I do not fit, like a dress both too tight and too loose that demands your attention for the entire evening. I am a textbook introvert, and often the sole Black person attending, and my awkwardness and self-consciousness draft off one another like professional cyclists. My date is late from work; I enter alone. I introduce myself to the door attendant with an oversized smile, an attempt to communicate that I’m in the right place: Yes, I am a member. Who is this performance for? It might just be for me. Heavy subtext for an introduction by the coat check. 

We start on the top floor, housing earlier works, including Car Crash—documenting the childhood trauma that led to a hospital stay and Basquiat’s obsession with Gray’s Anatomy, a fascination with flesh and bone that dominates so many of the works in the collection. The painting, set near a stunning floor-to-ceiling window in a small gallery off the main room, overlooks the tops of nearby East Village buildings, prompting one of my fellow art patrons to ask if they were what inspired Basquiat’s signature crown. Our guide doesn’t know, saying she’ll look it up, but of course doesn’t. A quick Google search confirms the answer is “no.” According to Francesco Clemente: “Jean-Michel’s crown has three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion. Jean measured his skill against all he deemed strong, without prejudice as to their taste or age.” He painted them to challenge our perception of Western history, reframing his Black heroes within its gaze, suggesting nobility in their lineages and his, and continuing their work. His crowns are malleable, sometimes appearing as halos or made of thorns. It’s a burden to be the only one in the room with this knowledge.

The painting itself—oil on burlap stretched over a hastily made frame—forms a rough rendering of trauma, a bent body thrown between cars, painted a white nothingness against the backdrop of the vehicle’s bright green. The juxtaposition is a bit of a gut punch. 

We travel from floor to floor awestruck by the confidence of the colors, the contrast of black against them, and how, despite time, the immediacy of each piece still feels relevant. Each painting, whether on canvas or a found object (he was fond of painting on doors), is compressed like a zip drive, like the ideas are too big for the medium. I see myself, his Blackness reflected on me, the fragility of the body exposed and exalted in paint.

But the curation also makes me feel exposed and alone, like an alarm blaring at a frequency attuned to my ears. The foundation presents each piece without any written guidance at all. No theme or grouping of work by period, no explanation of the artist’s motivation or focus on subject. Instead, names and dates are listed on an iPad stashed in a corner out of the way. Even descriptions of materials are absent. On the first floor it strikes me as odd. By the second, I am confused. When we reach the third, I am ready to lead a one-person uprising. Without tags, the works are reduced to pretty objects; the show resembles an extravagant home filled with expensive art. 

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 26, 2015: A Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) visitor looks at a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat titled ‘Glenn,’ painted in 1984, on display at the museum in Midtown Manhattan in New York City. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

I take it personally, Googling between paintings, taking a picture of said iPad as my personal guide, seeing the lack of curation as evidence that the foundation doesn’t care about the art, what it’s saying, and most of all, who is saying it. I judge them. The curatorial choices seem aimed to defang, to further control our perception, to obscure intention. On one wall of breathtaking height hangs a grid of sixteen paintings, each canvas impossible to read. I look to my peers for confirmation that this is bizarre, but the crowd is aggressively unbothered, filling the room with chatter and laughter. I overhear someone say, “Cool self-portrait with Warhol, bro,” and almost throw a shoe. After venting my outrage to my partner (who is white) and the other black person in attendance, by chance a friend from Princeton (the smallest world!), I try to drop it. 

And although I entered the Brant without knowing a thing, I leave worried that Basquiat’s legacy is locked up in a temperature-controlled gilded cage. 

I question my outrage, hoping logic will make it disappear. Did I enter the show primed to expect an in-depth conversation about Basquiat’s motivations, as in previous gallery Q&As, many of them led by the artists themselves? Did I bias myself by reading an article that suggested private museums like the Brant often serve as tax shelters for wealthy art consumers, expensive storage for tax-exempt assets? Maybe. Regardless, I leave disheartened, knowing once art is purchased, you can do whatever you want with it. Without the artist, we’re left with our own suppositions. Is Basquiat’s crown simply an aesthetic embellishment—a stand-in for the rooftops dotting our view? Does it even matter if we believe it to be true? 

The indifference stung. There is a protective quality in my tendency to turn inwards and latch onto feelings of hurt, and to prioritize my gut when I suspect that racism, unintended or otherwise, is afoot. It’s not just a defense mechanism. I process and process, like tides washing over sea glass. I want for someone to humanize the works, to see them whole, an extension of a real person. And underneath it, the hope that they’ll see me the same way.

To cope with my big unwieldy feelings, I watch a documentary about Basquiat just two days later and can’t help but see my discomfort mirroring his. The anger refuses to recede; I’m left with more questions than answers. What might be if he lived? What does it mean that his image is defined and further commoditized without his consent, by the same gatekeepers who contributed to the turbulence in his short life? And under these circumstances: who is art for? It sits with me for days and then weeks and then months. Even as I write this, the edges still cut. 

I try to imagine how he created under the weight of it, through the accolades slick with veiled racism, producing the volume of work that the Brant Foundation cited in their program: 1000 paintings and 2000 drawings in a decade. It is beyond my limited scope. Basquiat told a friend once, “I’m not a real person, I am a legend.” And perhaps he was right. Almost a billion dollars of his paintings and drawings—including one that broke the sales record for a U.S.-born artist—in a gallery he wouldn’t recognize in his similarly unrecognizable neighborhood. 

The art is the same, but the context has changed. 

Hoping to realign my internal sense of injustice, I visit the Guggenheim for the first time on yet another pilgrimage, this one curated by Chaédria LaBouvier. A writer and activist with Black Lives Matter, LaBouvier is the first Black woman to curate an exhibit here, and I can’t wait to see Basquiat, and in turn, myself, through her eyes. It centers on Defacement (1983), a drawing cut out from a graffitied wall in Keith Haring’s apartment in a gold frame, an acrylic imagining of Michael Stewart’s last conscious moments. Stewart’s life hinted at an upward trajectory: student at Pratt, painter, photographer, Basquiat’s peer. His death, all too familiar, echoing the growing list of names we speak as we march in peaceful protest to fulfill the promises of Emancipation and the Civil Rights movement, and see memorialized in murals across the country. The police claimed he defaced an East Village subway station with graffiti; his death resulted from injuries sustained in their custody. Recalling Basquiat’s rendering of himself in Car Crash, Stewart’s form is nearly formless, between cartoonish police officers in playful colors, batons poised for action. Nine additional pieces by Jean-Michel accompany Defacement, a few suggesting a tenuous relationship with the police and each speaking to an exploration of his Blackness. But in this gallery, it is acknowledged, given breath, instead of stifled. I look around and exhale, no longer alone. 

I am the same, but the context has changed.

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