In a gritty 1968 home movie—well before he had started on the path that led him to world fame and an untimely death—an 8-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat, smartly dressed in long shorts and a button-down shirt, accompanies his year-old sister, Jeanine, gently by the hand in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, with his 4-year-old sister, Lisane, frolicking in the grass next to them.
Those sisters — now 54 and 57 — have spent the past five years studying their brother’s paintings, drawings, photographs, VHS films, African sculptures, toys and memorabilia to put together a comprehensive exhibition of his life and work that Saturday. opens at the Starrett. -Lehigh Building in Chelsea.
The show, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” showcases more than 200 works of art and artifacts from the artist’s estate — 177 of which have never been exhibited before — in a 15,000-square-foot space designed by the architect David Adjaye. Possibly the most detailed personal portrait of Basquiat’s development to date, the show comes at a time when the artist’s market value continues to rise and his themes of race and self-identity have become particularly resonating. (The mayor’s office announces Jean-Michel Basquiat Day Saturday, the show’s opening.)
“They’re literally opening the vaults,” said Brett Gorvy, a dealer and former chairman and international head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s. “These are paintings I’ve only seen in books.”
The 41-foot-wide “Nu Nile,” for example, one of two huge paintings Basquiat created for the Palladium nightclub in 1985, would likely fetch 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)” goes up for auction at Phillips for an estimated $70 million. In 2017, his vibrant skull painting from the same year fetched $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, becoming the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction and joining a tenuous group of works to break the $100 million mark.
And Basquiat exhibits continue to thrive. On Monday, the Nahmad Contemporary gallery in Manhattan opens “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art and Objecthood,” which will examine the artist’s unconventional materials (doors, refrigerators, football helmets), curated by Basquiat scientist Dieter Buchhart. The Broad Museum in Los Angeles currently displays all 13 Basquiats in its collection. And in February, the Orlando Museum of Art opened an exhibition of 25 Basquiat works, though their authenticity has been questioned.
Like an immersive journey into the making of Basquiat, the Starrett-Lehigh Exhibition is an undertaking of a different order. In addition to showcasing rough sketches, doodles, and scribbled notes from an artist who finds his voice, the show feels like a family scrapbook come to life, crammed with intimate artifacts—Basquiat’s birth announcement (6 lbs., 10 oz.); a school report card from when he lived in Puerto Rico; his blue-green crockery; his signature Comme Des Garçons trench coat.
“The conventional museum exhibit tends to isolate the artwork from real life and they did the exact opposite,” said dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who delivered the eulogy when Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. “Jean-Michel’s life story and family story are fully integrated into the presentation of the artworks and it gives you such a deeper insight into how the work was made, how it was inspired.”
“It’s not a professional academic presentation, but that’s what’s so fresh,” Deitch added. “They have created a new paradigm for creating an art exhibition.”
Featuring a soundtrack of music the artist was listening to – Diana Ross’ rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; The Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You” – the show recreated Basquiat’s key physical spaces: his family’s dining room in Boerum Hill (with original spice rack and wooden seafood platter); his painting studio at 57 Great Jones Street (with piles of books, a few of his wine glasses); the Michael Todd VIP Room of the Palladium—complete with mirrors, draped beads, and candlesticks—where Basquiat spent many evenings.
“We wanted people to come in and get the Jean-Michel experience — the human, the son, the brother, the cousin,” Jeanine Heriveaux said in a recent interview with her sister at Starrett-Lehigh. “To get people through that in a way that felt right and right for us.”
The women, who run the estate with their stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, acted as curators and executive producers on the show, from the songs heard on the speakers in the Todd Room to the wall lyrics – motivated by a desire to this material in one place, and to elaborate the image of their brother, which has often been mythologized. “For 33 years we have been constantly asked for more information, for more about Jean-Michel, more Jean-Michel – from art collectors to children,” says Lisane Basquiat. “This is our way of responding to that.”
Profit seems to be a clear part of that too. The show requires a timed admission fee – $45 for adults on weekends, $65 to skip the line (less for students, seniors, and on weekdays). And a “King Pleasure Emporium” offers licensed Basquiat-inspired sportswear, leather goods, stationery, pet accessories, and home goods — as well as the accompanying $55 book published by Rizzoli Electa.
Some old Basquiatphiles have no problem with the commercial component. “It’s great that art products featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat’s images are available to people who don’t have the means to buy a super-expensive drawing or painting,” Deitch said.
“I like that the art is coming out,” he continued, adding that it could allow the family “to earn revenue through licensing without having to sell the art.”
Although led by the sisters, the exhibition has been a fully-fledged family affair. Fitzpatrick co-wrote the book with Lisane and Jeanine. Jeanine’s daughter Sophia coined the show’s name, inspired by the title of a 1987 Basquiat painting (featuring the artist’s recurring crown motif)—and the jazz vocalist whose 1952 hit, “Moody’s Mood for Love,” was a favorite of Basquiat’s father, Gerard.
“Everyone in the family has been involved in one way or another,” Lisane said. “It’s a way for us to bring our heritage together and document what has happened so far through Jean-Michel. We lost a brother 33 years ago and our parents a son. This project was an opportunity for us. It has been purifying.”
The show is organized into themes, starting with 1960, Basquiat’s birth year, and “Kings County,” which chronicles the artist’s childhood in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico. An annotated map of New York City pinpoints key places in Basquiat’s life – the Chock Full o’ Nuts where his mother loved the coffee; Pearl Paint, where he bought art supplies; Sheepshead Bay Piers, where his family went to eat mussels.
There’s also a series of oral history videos featuring friends and relatives, such as a cousin’s Reuben Andrades, who recounts how Basquiat drew characters he called “The Frizzies” who were like smurfs with social positions (“firefighters, police officers”).
In a video, Jeanine describes how her brother convinced her to jump off a closet with an umbrella and try to fly like Mary Poppins. (“It didn’t work.”) In another, Lisane recalls how Jean-Michel, while visiting a friend in a suburban backyard, suggested that they all sing “I’m Black and I’m pride” at the top of their lungs. (“until an adult came and told us to cut it out”).
The only works in the exhibition that are not by Basquiat are family portraits on silkscreen by Warhol, a close friend of the artist.
The childhood home movies foreshadow the sartorial elegance that became Basquiat’s trademark as an adult – there he is in a form-fitting robe, navy cap, suspenders.
The poignancy of a life extinguished too soon permeates the show, a testament to the Basquiat allure that has captivated aspiring painters, graffiti artists, museum curators and wealthy collectors. “He’s an artist who sums up much of the 20th century — Picasso, Rauschenberg, Twombly — but he’s also an influence on a new generation of artists,” said gallery owner Joe Nahmad. “He leads you into the future – into what’s happening today.”
The sisters’ show can sometimes feel like hagiography; there is little discussion of Basquiat’s demons or the aspects of his family life that may have been difficult. According to Phoebe Hoban’s 1998 biography, “Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art,” the artist said in an interview, “When I was a kid, my mom beat me hard for wearing my underwear backwards, which meant to her that I was gay.’”
“He told friends and art dealers that he had been severely beaten by his father as a child,” continues Hoban. “Gerard Basquiat adamantly denies that he ever did anything more than beat his son with a belt.”
But the catalog occasionally covers the darker aspects of Basquiat’s history, describing how his parents—Gerard, a Haitian immigrant, and Matilde, a Brooklyn-born artist of Puerto Rican descent—died apart. How Gerard (who died in 2013) raised all three children and sometimes struggled to reconcile his ideas of success with his son’s less conventional goals.
“Jean-Michel was determined to become an artist, and my father’s fears for him – not living with stability and security – came out as anger and frustration,” Lisane writes in the catalog. “Jean-Michel has run away a few times. One day he was there, and one day he wasn’t there – there was really no discussion about it. Jean-Michel would never conform to the vision my father had for his life.”
The sisters said they recognize that the show represents their version of events. They are not scholars or curators. They wanted to tell the story of the loving, mischievous, creative young man they grew up with and who became a great artist.
“Jean-Michel is and has always been fire. Brand,” Lisane writes. “He was Jeanine’s and my protective, dashing and trailblazing older brother who paved the way for so much. Jean-Michel was a tremendous energy that came into this world.”