After repeated visits to the Jean-Michel Basquiat “King Pleasure” exhibit at Starrett-Lehigh, what this show reminds me most of is the New York Transit Museum on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn. If you’re not a longtime New York resident that comparison may not make immediate sense (and Basquiat is the more expensive outing: it’s $32 for adults on weekdays and $40 on the weekends). The Brooklyn son of a Haitian father and a mother of Puerto Rican descent, Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 27 but has become so ubiquitous in the 34 years since that he’s only slightly less famous than the A train and probably more famous than the 7. So at both “King Pleasure” and the Transit Museum there’s an experience of something we’re deeply familiar with, as well as unknown things related to a known body of work.
Basquiat’s younger sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, became the executors of his estate after his father Gerard’s death in 2013. “King Pleasure” places that family at the center of the exhibit. Lisane and Jeanine appear in several video interviews—I love the one about the three kids messing with the babysitter—and the exhibit ends with a puzzling discussion of Gerard’s role in his son’s career conducted by some art world talking heads. In the first third of the exhibit, you’ll see a convincing recreation of the family’s dining and living rooms, with wallpaper that this Brooklyn child also experienced. (Brown and white flowers on a wild yellow background, stand up.)
“We wanted to make sure that the narrative included not just the Jean-Michel that partied, who had a lot of girlfriends,” Jeanine Heriveaux told me, “but as the human being he was, along with all the things that shaped him as an artist.”
“This exhibit is also about a point in time—our childhood,” Lisane Basquiat added. “That time of hanging out in New York in clubs, Kraftwerk, Keith Haring—all of that.”
The show is organized a bit like an amusement park ride (or Ikea) in that you walk through on a forward path and are discouraged from turning backwards. (There are gentle docents there to remind you of this telos.) The first painting you see, on your left as you walk in, is a four foot by four foot head, an untitled acrylic and oil stick painting from 1983. Yellow, black, salmon, white, bright blue, ochre, none of these colors dimmed by admixture. It’s a head, it’s a skull—it absolutely shouts. (It also echoes the wallpaper colors more than a little.) In the same room, there are photos and videos of young Jean-Michel on the streets of Brooklyn, and then, through a passageway, you find a small room with some sketchbooks from his time at City-as-School High School, in addition to illustrations he made for school magazines. The spidery ballpoint pen superheroes look a lot like drawings your dad may have in his closet, but before his teens are over, Jean-Michel’s letters are becoming blocky, as seen in his SAMO tags, as his figures turn into etiolated cartoons and spiky beasts. Soon enough, the horns and crown and labels are busting out all over. As you wind through the miraculous gut of the show, you discover things that not even the Basquiat freaks (like me) have seen before. (It should be noted that this is all in the show’s exceptional catalog, edited by Lisane, Jeanine, and Nora Fitzpatrick. Catalogs rarely get this kind of care and attention, aided by work of design firm Pentagram. Close to the top of the Basquiat book pile, if not the champ itself.)
“The huge yellow painting, Dry Cell, has never been seen,” Lisane said. “That was painted and given to my dad when it was still wet.”
In the large middle room where you find Dry Cell—a massive painting of a mandrill—you get a strong but not overwhelming selection of his later works, some on canvas, some on doors and bits of wood. The first time through, I got a vivid sense of Basquiat roaming New York like a crosswalk painter, drawing his lines across someone else’s world and leaving a map for everyone. The second and third times through, I saw something different. Basquiat painted on refrigerator doors and scraps of wood and walls and planks. Frozen and illuminated in an exhibit, this all looks like the debris from shipwreck, the evidence of Basquiat running aground on planet earth and slowly rebuilding the vessel that brought him here, invisibly, creating new visible parts for this ark, in paintings.
Beyond the center room is another recreation, two halves split apart by the viewer’s aisle: Basquiat’s studio at Great Jones Street. The Breakfast Club is playing on VHS, records are spinning on a turntable, and there’s a home movie of Basquiat painting, extremely quickly, running an oil stick upwards to make straight lines, writing the word “Herbert Hoover” from the bottom up.
“Jean-Michel would get into a flow,” Lisane said. “There’d be music playing and something on TV, and he’d be smoking a cigarette and drinking wine, with books all over the place.”
“We would sit around his kitchen table,” Jeanine said. “He would have a thought, mid-sentence, while we were talking, and get up to paint and then come back. He wasn’t one that needed peace and tranquility as he was painting.”
“He created all the time,” Lisane said. “Everything about him was art. And he was obsessed with VHS tapes. All the tapes that were there in the studio were from his collection but that’s not nearly the amount that he left behind.”
The ephemera is sprinkled amidst 177 paintings and drawings, a steeplechase that took me on average 80 minutes to look at properly. Several of my favorites are at the end, where several text-heavy pieces hang near a massive painting of Charlie Parker.
“There’s a lot of dialogue in Jean-Michel’s work,” said Lisane. “He loved old Hollywood, the Stooges, the Marx Brothers, that kind of slapstick.”
Though neither of his sisters could identify the source (and neither can I), the painting that haunted me all summer was a benevolent transcription from some late night movie that absolutely would have played on Channel 9 after a Marx Brothers movie in the ‘80s.
The work is untitled and undated crayon on paper black on white. The biggest word is “BLAM.” set off to the left. The rest of the piece is phrases, with a few simple shapes (half moon, rectangle). “SH! I’M SUPPOSED TO BE A COUNT!” “BIG BIB.” “DANCING AWKWARDLY” “BIG COP IN A CAN©” and a dozen others. I imagine me, six years younger than Jean-Michel, watching the same movie on WOR, playing bass along to the TV while Basquiat stomped through his studio, working on three different paintings, one of them just the snippet of the movie that felt and looked right, images and words and life preservers all at once.
The ‘King Pleasure’ exhibit has reduced admission for children under 13 on its Family Day, October 10. Information is available here.