NEW YORK, NY.-
In a grainy home movie from 1968 well before he had started on the path that led him to art world fame and an untimely death an 8-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat, dressed smartly in long shorts and a button-down shirt, gently guides his year-old sister, Jeanine, by the hand in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, with his 4-year-old sister, Lisane, frolicking in the grass beside them.
Those sisters now 54 and 57 have spent the last five years poring over their brothers paintings, drawings, photographs, VHS movies, African sculpture collection, toys and memorabilia to curate a sweeping exhibition of his life and work that opens April 9 at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan.
The show, Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, features more than 200 artworks and artifacts from the artists estate 177 of which have never been exhibited before in a 15,000-square-foot space designed by architect David Adjaye. Providing perhaps the most detailed personal portrait to date of Basquiats development, the show comes at a time when the artists market value continues to soar and his themes of race and self-identity have become especially resonant. (The mayors office proclaimed Saturday, the shows opening, Jean-Michel Basquiat Day.)
Theyre literally opening up the vaults, said Brett Gorvy, a dealer and a former chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christies. These are paintings Ive only seen in books.
The 41-foot-wide Nu Nile, for example, one of two massive paintings that Basquiat made for the Palladium nightclub in 1985, would likely bring millions at auction.
While nothing in the show is for sale, collectors will have a chance to test the Basquiat art market next month when his 1982 painting Untitled (Devil), comes up for auction at Phillips with an estimated price of $70 million. In 2017, his vibrant skull painting from the same year brought $110.5 million at Sothebys, becoming the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction and joining a rarefied group of works to break the $100 million mark.
And Basquiat exhibitions continue to flourish. On Monday, the Nahmad Contemporary gallery in Manhattan opens Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art and Objecthood, which looks at the artists unconventional materials (doors, refrigerators, football helmets), curated by Basquiat scholar Dieter Buchhart. The Broad museum in Los Angeles is currently showing all 13 of the Basquiats in its collection. And in February, the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida opened a show of 25 Basquiat works, though their authenticity has been questioned.
As an immersive journey into the making of Basquiat, the Starrett-Lehigh exhibition is an undertaking of a different order. In addition to presenting raw sketches, doodles and scribbled notes by an artist finding his voice, the show feels like a family scrapbook come to life, crammed full of intimate artifacts: Basquiats birth announcement (6 pounds, 10 ounces); a school report card from when he lived in Puerto Rico; his blue-green dining china; his signature Comme Des Garçons trench coat.
The conventional museum exhibition tends to isolate the artwork from real life, and they did just the opposite, said Jeffrey Deitch, an art dealer who delivered the eulogy when Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at 27 in 1988. The life story of Jean-Michel and the family story are totally integrated with the presentation of the artworks, and it gives you such deeper insight into how the work was created, how it was inspired.
Its not a professional academic presentation, but thats whats so fresh, Deitch added. Theyve created a new paradigm of how to create an art exhibition.
With a soundtrack of music that the artist listened to Diana Ross rendition of Aint No Mountain High Enough; (They Long to Be) Close to You by the Carpenters the show has re-created Basquiats important physical spaces: his familys dining room in Boerum Hill (with original spice rack and wooden fish platter); his painting studio at 57 Great Jones St. (with stacks of his books, a pair of his wine glasses); the Michael Todd VIP Room of the Palladium complete with mirrors, draped beads and candelabras where Basquiat spent many evenings.
We wanted people to come in and get the experience of Jean-Michel the human being, the son, the brother, the cousin, Jeanine Heriveaux said in a recent sit-down interview with her sister at Starrett-Lehigh. To walk people through that in a way that felt right and good to us.
The women, who run the estate with their stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, served as the shows curators and executive producers, from the songs heard on the speakers in the Todd Room to the wall text motivated by a desire to gather all of this material in one place, and to flesh out the picture of their brother that has often been mythologized.
For 33 years we have consistently been asked for more information, for more of Jean-Michel, more Jean-Michel, from art collectors down to kids, Lisane Basquiat said. This is our way of responding to that.
Profit also seems to be a clear part of it. The show requires a timed entrance fee: $45 for adults on weekends, $65 to skip the line (less for students, seniors and weekday visitors). And a King Pleasure Emporium offers licensed Basquiat-inspired athletic wear, leather goods, stationery, pet accessories and housewares as well as the shows accompanying $55 book, published by Rizzoli Electa.
Some longtime Basquiatphiles dont have a problem with the commercial component.
Its wonderful that art products with Jean-Michel Basquiats imagery are available to people who dont have the resources to buy a super expensive drawing or painting, Deitch said.
I like it that the art gets out, he continued, adding that it could enable the family to earn revenue through the licensing without having to sell the art.
Although spearheaded by the sisters, the exhibition has been a full family affair. Fitzpatrick co-authored the book with Lisane and Jeanine. Jeanine Heriveaux's daughter Sophia came up with the name of the show, inspired by the title of a 1987 Basquiat painting (featuring the artists recurring crown motif) and the jazz vocalist whose 1952 hit, Moodys Mood for Love, was a favorite of Basquiats father, Gerard.
Everyone in the family has pitched in, in one way or another, Lisane Basquiat said. Its a way for us to bring our lineage together and document what has happened so far through Jean-Michel. We lost a brother 33 years ago, and our parents lost a son. This project has been an opportunity for us. Its been cathartic.
The show is organized into themes, starting with 1960, the year of Basquiats birth, and Kings County, which describes the artists childhood in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico. An annotated map of New York City locates places of importance in Basquiats life the Chock Full o Nuts where his mother liked the coffee; Pearl Paint, where he purchased art supplies; Sheepshead Bay Piers, where his family went to eat clams.
There is also a series of oral history videos featuring friends and family members, like Reuben Andrades, a cousin, who talks about how Basquiat used to draw figures he called The Frizzies that were like Smurfs with social positions (firemen, police officers).
In one video, Jeanine Heriveaux describes how her brother persuaded her to jump off an armoire with an umbrella and try to fly like Mary Poppins. (It did not work.) In another, Lisane Basquiat recalls how Jean-Michel suggested while visiting a friend in a suburban backyard that they all sing Im Black and Im proud at the top of their lungs (until an adult came and told us to cut it out).
The only works in the show that are not by Basquiat are silk-screen family portraits by Warhol, who was a close friend of the artist.
The childhood home movies presage the sartorial elegance that became Basquiats hallmark as an adult there he is in a cinched bathrobe, a navy cap, suspenders.
The poignancy of a life snuffed out too soon pervades the show, attesting to the Basquiat allure that has captivated aspiring painters, graffiti artists, museum curators and moneyed collectors.
Hes an artist who sums up a lot of the 20th century Picasso, Rauschenberg, Twombly but he is also influential to a new generation of artists, said Joe Nahmad, a gallerist. He leads you into the future to what is happening today.
The sisters show can sometimes feel like hagiography; there is little discussion of Basquiats demons or the aspects of his home life that may have been difficult. According to Phoebe Hobans 1998 biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, the artist said in an interview, When I was a kid my mother beat me severely for having my underwear on backwards, which to her meant I was gay.
He told girlfriends and art dealers that he had been badly beaten by his father as a child, Hoban continues. Gerard Basquiat adamantly denies that he ever did more than spank his son with a belt.
The catalog occasionally deals with the darker aspects of Basquiats history, describing how his parents Gerard, a Haitian immigrant, and Matilde, a Brooklyn-born artist of Puerto Rican descent, separated. How Gerard (who died in 2013) raised all three children and sometimes struggled to reconcile his ideas of success with his sons less conventional goals.
Jean-Michel was committed to being an artist, and my fathers fears for him not having a life with stability and security came out as anger and frustration, Lisane Basquiat writes in the catalog. Jean-Michel ran away a few times. One day he was there, and then one day he wasnt there was really no discussion about it. Jean-Michel was never going to conform to the vision my father had for his life.
She added in a statement Friday that we grew up in the 1960s, when spanking was a common form of disciplinary action. That doesnt overshadow the incredible passion and commitment that they demonstrated to the three of us. Our parents loved us. They didnt always get it right, but they put their heart and soul into helping us become the best we could be.
The sisters said they recognize that the show represents their version of events. They are not scholars or curators. They set out to tell the story of the loving, mischievous, creative young man they grew up with who became a major artist.
Jean-Michel is and has always been fire. Fire, Lisane Basquiat writes. He was Jeanines and my protective, rambunctious, and pioneering older brother who paved the path for so much. Jean-Michel was huge energy entering this world.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times