“Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure ©,” organized by Basquiat’s sisters Jeanine and Lisane and their stepmother Nora Fitzpatrick, is like no other exhibition of Basquiat’s work. Yieldstreet is proud to be one of the sponsors of the exhibition located at 601 West 26th street in the Starrett Lehigh building. It invites the viewers to quite literally step into his world and brings a new, intimate perspective to the public’s understanding of the Brooklyn native’s short-lived yet immensely influential career. In galleries designed by knighted architect Sir David Adjaye, known for designing D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which painstakingly recreate places that were important to Basquiat, the nearly two hundred works (most of which have never left the family) recast the artist’s narrative by highlighting his creative childhood, strong familial network, and cultural context as a Haïtian-Puerto Rican New Yorker.
The immersive exhibition begins with a map of key locations: the New York Telephone Company, where his mother Mathilde worked; the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, where his father Gerard would take him and his younger sisters on the weekend; and Annina Nosei Gallery, where he had his first solo exhibition in 1981, among many other clubs, restaurants, and art venues. Rather than academicizing, as a traditional monographic museum show would, the Basquiat sisters approach their brother’s life as insiders and confidants, offering cherished memories of a childhood spent visiting the Brooklyn Museum with their mother (an artist herself), two years spent in Puerto Rico, and abundant hijinks. Basquiat showed an interest in drawing from a very young age and was encouraged by Mathilde to copy his favorite cartoons, experiments whose charming results, including a Basquiat-ized Rocky Racoon, dot the walls of the exhibition. Nearly unchanged from childhood, Basquiat’s linework and mark-making communicate with an immediacy and consistency which speak to his paintings’ intuitive appeal and raw emotionality.
The intimate nature of “King Pleasure ©” is heightened by its immersivity. A reproduction of the Basquiat family home’s living and dining rooms, replete with the original spice rack, transports the viewer to middle-class Black life in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood in the 1970s. Another one of the exhibition’s highlights restages the scene in Basquiat’s studio at 57 Great Jones Street during the summer of 1983, filling it with numerous paintings set against the wall or on the floor, articles of clothing, his bicycle, African sculptures and toys from his collection, and books from which he drew—including, famously, the copy of Gray’s Anatomy his mother gave him when he was hit by a car and had his spleen removed at age seven. Another mise-en-scene recreates the Palladium, a nightclub where Basquiat partied with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring and presents two mural-sized paintings he created exclusively for its VIP room that awe with their scale and visual impact. Instead of partially fabricated narratives from films like Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), the audience becomes privy to intimate footage of home videos and childhood photos.
The galleries are filled with the music Basquiat grew up with and painted to, like jazz by bebop master Charlie Parker and the dulcet tones of Diana Ross. One room contains his drawings and paintings of Black giants of music—Grace Jones, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, and Tommy Potter—as a celebration of the iconic cultural figures who inspired the young artist on his quest for recognition from the white art world establishment. Another gallery, titled “Irony of the Negro Policeman,” comments directly on the subjugation of African Americans in America. 1983’s Jailbirds portrays two cops with cartoonish smiles senselessly beating a much smaller figure, while in a preserved notebook, Basquiat writes about how getting out of jail is worth more than a million dollars.
“King Pleasure ©” establishes Basquiat’s drive to create as integral to his character while also showing the ways in which his family’s support helped him on his path to fame. The exhibition also includes the final painting Basquiat made and gave directly to his kin:
Dry Cell, an image of a male mandrill against a striking yellow background. Finally stepping into the spotlight from behind the curtain, where they have for years managed their brother’s estate, copyrights, and licensing deals, the Basquiat sisters have exposed a more personal, sensitive side of their famous elder brother.
Last year, sales of Basquiat generated $439.6 million, placing him behind only Pablo Picasso. Next month, a Basquiat painting from 1982, widely considered the peak of his output, is expected to sell at auction for more than $70 million, $12 million higher than the price last paid by Yusaku Maezawa in 2017. “King Pleasure ©” is a fascinating portrayal of the making of one of the most celebrated painters of the last fifty years, and it should be experienced by anyone with a curiosity about art and Basquiat’s rich legacy.
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