It’s been a little over a month since the Brant Foundation brought Jean-Michel Basquiat back to his East Village roots in a show so popular it just kept selling out as more tickets were released. Now, a new Basquiat exhibit—with different works—has opened uptown at The Guggenheim, and it's one of the artist’s most personal exhibits to date.
Basquiat's Defacement: The Untold Story centers around the1983 painting "The Death of Michael Stewart" (informally known as "Defacement") which Basquiat created to memorialize the emerging artist who was beaten to death by New York City police after allegedly scrawling graffiti in an East Village subway station. The piece was originally painted on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio and, as outlined by the museum, "was not meant to be seen publicly or enter the art market." Viewed alongside works by other artists responding to Stewart’s death—like Haring, David Hammons, and Andy Warhol—in part, the exhibit examines “Basquiat’s exploration of black identity, his protest against police brutality, and his attempts to craft a singular, aesthetic language of empowerment."
As a whole, the exhibit is meant to focus on "a formative chapter in the artist’s career through the lens of his identity and the role of cultural activism in New York City during the early 1980s."
The conceptual artist died from an accidental overdose in 1988 at the age of 27 and since then, has become a large part of the pop cultural landscape. He created over 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings in less than a decade, some of which have sold for over $100 million. Influenced by comics, advertising, pop art, hip-hop, headlines, amongst other things, Basquiat’s work, often described as neo-expressionist, is chaotic.
His graffiti-like images and scrawled text have become a staple in the art world, but this exhibition presents a different side of the artist and a chance to better understand his oeuvre, as guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier explains: "It lacks majesty... [and is] devoid of the typical motifs of the sharply pointed crowns, copyright symbols, and other signifiers of black achievement that Basquiat employs to address the traumas of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, failed and successful revolutions, and colonialism."
LaBouvier saw "Defacement" for the first time in 2015. She’d been studying Basquiat since the age of 19, but she chose to zoom in on this particular piece of work in part because, as she describes, the painting was "visually different." Surprised that there was little, if any research on the piece, she explains that she “kind of fell down the rabbit hole and thought 'I really got something.'" LaBouvier first brought the piece to Williams College Museum of Art, where she went to school, and the Guggenheim invited her to expand on it shortly after. "There were a lot of people who didn't think this painting deserved this kind of inquiry, but I did and so I think it feels good to know that I was right," she says.
That the exhibit centers around police brutality is also significant to her. LaBouvier lost her brother to police violence and believes art is a good entry point to the conversation around these ongoing tragedies. "Art is great because it’s non-verbal," she says. "It allows you to pace yourself and meditate and I think that's the whole goal."
LaBouvier is making history with this exhibit—she’s now become The Guggenheim’s first black female curator. When asked how she feels about the feat, LaBouvier told Gothamist, "I'm so exhausted still, so I don't know to be honest... It's a lot of hard work, a lot of trench work. That kind of change doesn't come easy and so I think I'm super aware of that. I'm consciously hopeful." It’s a milestone that’s worth celebrating but it’s also one that LaBouvier dubs "complicated" because, as she asks, "What all did we miss in these past 80 years?"
This all helps to make "Defacement" feels like a necessary if not overdue shift. And though it only takes up space in two rooms, situated in the corner on the 7th floor, it’s an impressive start. "This is a new chapter of art history," LaBouvier says. "These are some of the best artists of the 20th century and they were all galvanized around a story, but also a human being, Michael Stewart. And I hope that people come out of this knowing that this was a person with a very lived life and hopes and dreams... I hope it humanizes him more."
Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story is on view at The Guggenheim from June 21st through November 6th, 2019.