King Pleasure, a special exhibition by Basquiat, offers glimpses of an inviting, non-standard installation
Janyce Denise Glasper sees the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition organized by the beloved artist’s sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, and calls it powerful, meaningful and moving. The Chelsea paid show, with exhibition design by Sir David Adjaye, OBE, has been extended until 3 September 2022.
After seeing Now is the time at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks at the Brooklyn Museum, king of pleasure, my third exhibition experience with Jean-Michel Basquiat, offers further insight into the short life and career of the brilliant, trilingual artist. With over two hundred artworks and objects on display, curated by his two sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, king of pleasure takes place in the spacious Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea. Sir David Adjaye OBE – the prominent designer behind the Smithsonian’s National African American Museum of History and Culture – beautifully recreates the Basquiat family home and holds up a three-dimensional scrapbook for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s biggest fans. Instead of the typical white gallery walls, the rustic wood makes the exhibition feel more homely and inviting – less institutional. Basquiat’s angular, astute personality shines through in works that are as attractive and charismatic as the artist himself.
king of pleasure begins with enlarged photographs of Basquiat and high-resolution reproductions of his text-based work. The late artist’s soft voice recites abstract poetry from the invisible speakers. Spectators are advised to move straight ahead and not venture backwards. The first room contains mixed media drawings and paintings. Basquiat’s three self-portraits are haunting silhouettes. In Untitled (1960) his year of birth is scrawled in red and orange. The character’s eyes appear direct, although they contain no pupils. The open mouth shows his diastema – the characteristic gap between his two front teeth. Locs rise above his wrapped head. Untitled (Self-Portrait) continues Basquiat’s investment in assembling the very essence that defines him – his locs, the gap between his teeth, the imagery of his black skin achieved through the smooth, rich oil stick. In Untitled (1984), layered over two collaged drawings, the character’s lips are sealed and eyes are tinted entirely white – the sclera (white) evidently taking over. In the two separate drawings, a scapula is drawn over pink paint with the word ‘Scapula’ crossed out on it, and an ivory carving floats next to an elephant. The interest in naming objects and actions, transforming artworks into pictograms is a prominent theme.
This room also features a map of Basquiat’s frequent haunts in New York City, a baby blue birth announcement and VHS home videos of his childhood with his sisters Lisane and Jeanine and proud parents Gérard and Matilde. Andy Warhol’s huge silkscreen portrait of Basquiat closes this chapter. The second room has screen prints of Gérard, Jeanine and Matilde on the left side wall and below are videos of his family sharing their fond memories. On the other hand, Basquiat’s whimsical high school drawings and writings from his days as an illustrator for the City-as-School newsletter, teenage sketchbooks, and various drawings and writings ranging from cartoons to police brutality.
After passing the newly designed vintage living room and classic Basquiat family kitchen (old family photos are projected onto the living room wallpaper), beautiful abstract paintings and drawings take up the main space of the creamy white painted wooden walls. Basquiat analyzes art history, particularly the white canon, societal expectations, and Hollywood stereotypes. He bare his whole heart and soul with language, gritty lines and impactful colors. His experiments with cheap paper, a refrigerator door, and found furniture show an artist on the verge of immediate urgency. “Cabeza,” an acrylic and oilpen painting on a blanket mounted on a wooden support, centers a fragmented, jet-black figure on a mottled, pale yellow background. The body’s white outline includes Basquiat’s mysterious word “AOPKHES” below the collarbone and carefully rendered internal organs. The character’s face has a sinister charm – the red-rimmed right eye is larger than the left, the yellow-black square teeth in an open mouth that doesn’t quite smile, and the few unruly strands of hair.
Basquiat does not censor his intentions. He is an artist who is very aware of his worth and uses this beneficial knowledge to stand up for himself and others. The wrathful “Untitled (Rinso)”, an acrylic and oilstick painting, critiques the industrial complex and capitalism by using the first mass-marketed laundry soap in America – Rinso – “the greatest development in the history of soap.” Capitalized Words take up most of this composition, with the slave jargon “no suh” repeated under his signature crown. One figure lifts a weight and on the other side is “Everlast” – a popular brand of boxing gloves. The words “sapphire” and “kingfish” are crossed out.
In a recreation of Basquiat’s IDEAL studio, his paints and oil pastels stand neatly alongside a ceramic bowl filled with Marlboro cigarettes and a bottle of red wine. Stacked books include titles on Egyptian Painting and Black Hollywood. Scarface, It’s A Wonderful Life, Amadeus and many other VHS tapes surround an old Sony TV/VCR. His signature olive green jacket hangs on the wall. A projection of his painting plays in the corner. For a moment it certainly seems as if he turns around, smiles and shares the abstract poetry that he recited to you at the entrance to this exhibition.
The grand finale left me in more awe than I thought possible. I was in the company of two monumental murals originally installed in the Michael Todd Room, a VIP lounge at the former Palladium nightclub. A forty-foot acrylic and oilpen work, “Nu-Nile” consists of multiple panels linked by the dreamy cinematic red. Once your eyes sink into this stunning composition, you are actively engaged in deciphering the meanings behind Basquiat’s inventiveness: exploding heads, earths, crowns, ebony heads and ebony figures, and copyright/trademarks of the words “gasoline”, “oil”, and “Notary”. In the mixed media collage Untitled (Palladium), a yellow, red and green scorpionfish charges forward over copied drawings – all containing an intriguing head. In my many delightful minutes spent in his presence, my touched eyes performed the interactions my hands longed for. I found myself engrossed in his deliberately crossed out word lists, the bold outlines and shapes (particularly with teeth) in his profiled faces, and the crumpled creases caused by pasted papers.
The strong, meaningful king of pleasure honors the undeniable genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Those who knew him best tell us he was a brother, a son, a friend who will be missed forever. This is your chance to learn about the man who was placed on the pedestal of black art. Expect to hear from his rarely seen art and writings, his travels to Africa, his DJ/clubbing days with Grace Jones and the late Keith Haring, and the way he moved the young nieces he never met to keep his legacy alive. Basquiat loved art in all forms and challenged the gatekeepers. To this day, he continues to inspire generations of artists to boldly take up the space they deserve.
King Pleasure, extended through September 3, 2022, is a timed exhibition at the Starrett-Lehigh Building, 601 W. 26th Avenue, New York, New York 10001. The entrance is at W. 27th Street. Tickets can be bought here. The opening times are Monday and Tuesday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.