Museum  June 7, 2022  Howard Halle

“Basquiat: King Pleasure” Raises Questions About Artistic Legacy

Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure.

Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse: That’s often been the ticket to artistic immortality, even while coming at considerable cost. Such was the case for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), who passed away from a drug overdose at twenty-seven.

Basquiat’s untimely fate catapulted him onto the leaderboard of legends alongside Van Gogh, Picasso, and Kahlo, but it also didn’t hurt that he was movie-idol handsome and sported sculpted dreadlocks that became so iconic, they were appropriated by billionaire rapper Jay-Z in a 2021 ad for Tiffany & Co.

© James Van der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982.

A habitue of the downtown club scene, and wingman to Andy Warhol (or perhaps, the other way around), Basquiat epitomized art stardom during the 1980s, when figurative painting booted Minimalism and Conceptualism to the curb. Those years sparked a market boom in which Basquiat’s efforts practically printed money; they still do, as a Basquiat just fetched $85 million at auction. Yet, it’s fair to ask if he would have been so acclaimed had he persisted into old age: Coevals who did, artists such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle, don’t occupy the same penthouse level in the public’s imagination, and even Jeff Koons must contend with residing several floors down.

Absent an alternative timeline, there’s no way to know for sure.

Basquiat: King Pleasure at the Starrett–Lehigh Building certainly has no intention of finding out. Mounted by the artist’s family, using its own cache of paintings and works on paper, the show confesses that it’s not an overview of Basquiat’s oeuvre, but rather a celebration of his life: A hagiography, in other words, with a ticket price well north of what you’d pay at MoMA or The Met.

Judged by bells and whistles alone, the proceedings admittedly deliver some bang for your buck. Wrapped in a sleek, wood-clad installation by British-Ghanian starchitect, Sir David Adjaye, the exhibition offers a bulging assortment of Basquiat’s works, along with video testimonials to his genius. There are also recreations of his childhood home in Brooklyn, his studio, his first gallery, and the VIP lounge he decorated for the era’s mega-hot spot, the Palladium. 

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat- King Pleasure. Photo by Ivane Katamashvili featuring the wood-pannel-esq architectural framework of the show provided by Sir David Adjaye.
Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure.

Charles the First, 1982 © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat Licensed by Artestar, New York.
© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Charles the First, 1982.

detail view of promo Basquiat Exhibition Identity Poster by Christopher Makos
Christopher Makos.

Detail of Basquiat Exhibition Identity Poster.

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure. Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.
Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure.

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure. Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.
Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure.

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure. Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.
Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

Interior view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure.

Adding to the theme-park vibe, visitors are restricted to moving in one direction, with traffic enforced by guards in black mufti. The journey ends at a vast gift shop that includes such Basquiat-branded wares as a doggie-sized hoodie. The 800-pound gorilla of a question here, of course, is not whether Basquiat’s candle-in-the-wind existence deserves such adulation, but whether his career justified it. 

Yes and no. Basquiat was originally a graffiti artist who covered downtown exteriors with the tag “SAMO©,” shorthand for “Same Ol’,” which was itself abbreviated from “Same Ol’ Shit” (an alleged reference to weed). An intuitive painter, he skipped over the maturation process to emerge fully formed. His output was prolific, perhaps too much so since it resulted in an evenness of effect that makes it difficult to differentiate one piece from the next—and easier to forge, as a recent rash of Basquiat fakes in Florida attests.

Photo by Ivane Katamashvili.

The gift shop at Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure.

But he imbued Neo-Expressionism with bare-wire ferocity, borrowing from African art (as well as Picasso’s co-option of same), to develop a vocabulary of 'naïve' imagery and scribbled texts that depicted Black culture, and its expropriation by White America. Racism and police brutality were typical topics, as was the omnipresence of death, which he represented with skeletal and skull-like forms. In both composition and temperament, he remained a street artist who’d substituted canvas for walls.

Another favored subject was Rap music’s commodification, and yet Basquiat himself courted celebrity assiduously, allowing his gifts to be exploited. Warhol, for instance, collaborated with him on a series of paintings that essentially profited off the younger artist’s fame. The situation persists today, as even Baquiat’s family can’t seem to honor his memory without resorting to a cash-generating machine. 

And what about the art? There are a couple of surprises on view, including a vast monochrome canvas in marigold with a small, childlike sketch of a mandril at its center, and another painting featuring a powder blue background scrawled with “The Death of Marat” in homage to David’s eponymous masterpiece. Both are alluring if a little bit dumb.

From his earliest days, Basquiat employed a crown as his signature, which seems fitting considering that his afterlife has become positively pharaonic. Basquiat: King Pleasure strives to build a pyramid in his name, but if the show succeeds at all, it’s as an object lesson in how to trivialize an artist’s legacy by giving it the hard sell.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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