New York Stories: Jean-Michel Basquiat – King Pleasure

The exhibition at the Starrett-Lehigh building in Chelsea features more than 200 artworks and artefacts from the collection of the artist’s estate, most of which have never been seen.

While visiting New York City, I was lucky enough to see the new exhibit honouring the late Jean-Michel Basquiat work –  King Pleasure

Curated by his sisters, Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat, and his stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, the exhibits present a different perspective on Basquiat’s life, career, and success. 

The core part of the exhibit is made up of more than 200 paintings, sketches, sculpture, books, and ephemera owned by the family, many of which have never before been on public display.

However, the other part of the exhibit replicates his family’s kitchen and living room right down to the paintings their parents hung on the walls and the books they had on display. You can also get to walk through his art studio, including his piles of VHS tapes, the Comme des Garçons clothing he’d wear while painting, and his records and record player.

This intimate display helps to put Basquiat’s overexposure in context – the story of where he came from, what he was reading and thinking about and listening to as he painted. It not only helps to make sense of the large body of work that Basquiat left behind, but also considers his extraordinary legacy.

King Pleasure is divided into seven themes. Firstly, 1960 and the Introduction, which sets the scene with a map of Basquiat’s New York (including call-outs to the schools he attended growing up and the galleries, nightclubs, and restaurants that he frequented as an adult). Alongside this you get to see some sweet home videos of him as a child. Then there is a selection of self-portraits; Kings County, which looks into the artist’s early years in Brooklyn and, later, Puerto Rico. Next, World Famous which is about his first big strides in the international art world, when he began showing work in New York, Los Angeles, and Europe. Ideal is devoted to the Great Jones space (owned by Andy Warhol). The Art Gallery comprises of 100 rarely or never-before-seen works, divided by subject. Then there is Palladium, a recreation of that nightclub’s VIP area, the Michael Todd Room, for which Basquiat created two large, now-lost paintings in 1985; and finally Place Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is the  closing tribute.

Throughout my early years as designer, I often looked at Basquiat’s work, but I never realised how complex. Seeing his paintings at scale, you really see the detail to them. His thoughts were truly captured. 

It’s also interesting to see how his art work is almost compulsively to his day-to-day living. Basquiat would use whatever surfaces he had handy – canvas or paper, walls, blankets, refrigerator doors, plexiglass, and wood fencing – and his formal style ranged from exquisite figuration to bold gestures and text-based prints. It’s clear that his own lived experience was so layered and unusual; and he was able to capture these moments. 

As a young Black man, Basquiat achieved the unthinkable – he actually became one of the greats. He was a man who covered the New York Times Magazine in 1985, and yet, because he was Black, had trouble hailing a cab so he mostly travelled by bike. 

Yet, decades after his works first showed in galleries, his art continues to speak to us who face the same obstacles.

“I see a generation of people who are confronting challenges with the way that this world culture handles racism, classism — you know, social issues and I think that those issues are disturbing to younger people, and Jean-Michel speaks to those.”

Lisane Basquiat

Despite the struggles he experienced, Basquiat used his work to uplift Black people. The exhibit’s reference to “king” derives from one of his paintings with the infamous crown, a symbol that influenced many other Black artists.

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