Arts An Intimate Look at the Life of Jean-Michel Basquiat

by David Kaufman | September 26, 2022

Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of a handful of late-20th-century artists with near-universal name recognition.

Before his tragic death at 27, Basquiat helped define New York’s cultural landscape during a gritty-yet-glam moment between the funk and grime of the late 1970s and the money-hungry consumer culture that would dominate the 1980s.  

Basquiat’s inimitable style was realized across an array of formats and media: graphic street art, traditional portraiture, punk-edged postcards and large-scale murals. Pairing contemporary painting with a personal universe of symbols, numbers, words and diagrams, he devised a highly individualized style that still feels valuable and relevant.

“His work is provocative and causes you to dig deep and really think about what is on that page,” says his sister, Jeanine Heriveaux. “Jean-Michel painted about topics and opinions and issues that we, as a human family, are still grappling with today.”

Recreating Basquiat’s world

This sense of relevancy courses through every moment of “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©,” a genre-redefining exhibition at the mammoth Starrett-Lehigh building in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood.

The exhibition is nothing if not ambitious: More than 200 works, artifacts and ephemera are displayed in traditional, gallery-like settings and also embedded within the quotidian (and after-hours) places that defined Basquiat’s daily life. The work includes depictions of his childhood living room in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and the painting studio in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood where he created so much of his art.

Devised and curated by Basquiat’s sisters — Heriveaux along with Lisane Basquiat — all of the works in the exhibition are from the artist’s estate, which his sisters manage and control. Most of the pieces have never been shown and were edited and assembled by his sisters and a team of collaborators over the past five years.

“We’re not curators, so there was a real enormity to taking on this project,” says Lisane Basquiat. “An enormity compounded by having to honor our family and parents and brother who passed away so young.”

Accented by videos and home movies — along with a period-perfect soundtrack — the show is immersive and approachable with ample amounts of high culture accompanied by rousing doses of showmanship. How else to describe the life-sized recreation of the VIP room at the legendary Palladium nightclub where Basquiat hung out with celebrity-status friends? 

“Jean-Michel's work is an experience; he's telling stories,” says Lisane. “We wanted to add context to how he came into the world, but also to the way that he lived and how important music, food, film, books and other things were to him.”

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

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

Basquiat and social justice

Throughout the show, Basquiat’s sisters have succeeded at surfacing the artist's intersecting views on race and class and culture and commodification, much of which feels impressively prescient two years after the death of George Floyd. “When it comes to topics that Jean-Michel spoke to all those years ago – classism, racism, capitalism, colonialism – in many ways, the needle still hasn’t moved very much,” says Lisane.

But styled with his signature dreadlocks, a rarity in the early 80s, Basquiat leaned into his own brilliance while inspiring the same in others. He still does. “People celebrate his courage and his tenacity and the fact that he was bold enough to speak about the things that were going on among human beings that are not right,” says Lisane.

Basquiat’s well-known crown motif was a bold statement on equity for Black people. “It's important for people to see themselves — to crown themselves — in the way that Jean-Michel did,” says Lisane. “Because it's hard for a person of color in this world. And if we're not careful, we can see ourselves through the eyes of people who may not appreciate us. It's really important to see ourselves through the eyes of people who love us.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982, James Van der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982. Courtesy of the James Van der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Owning your own narrative

The exhibit, which was mounted with support from Citi, reinforces Basquiat’s core mythology while introducing viewers to entirely new sides of the artist. “This is another reason why we decided to do this exhibition," says Jeanine. "We felt not enough of his home life and his family life were included in the narrative of this amazing artist.” 

One early section, for instance, focuses on the two years Basquiat spent in Puerto Rico. It informs visitors about Basquiat’s maternal Latin heritage, which has often been overlooked in favor of his father’s Haitian side. These were formative, teenage years that left a strong mark on the young Basquiat. “One of the things that Jean-Michel teaches us is that you have to own your own narrative,” says Lisane.

This exhibit is clearly an effort to help develop those additional narratives through an intimate lens. Rather than focus on Basquiat as a celebrity (or commodity), it centers Basquiat around his school, family, paintbrushes, childhood toys and favorite clothing, like the designer trench coat he famously sported everywhere. “There’s even a copy of his first report card,” Lisane says. “It talks about how chatty and creative he was.”

But equally, “King Pleasure” celebrates New York, the urban landscape that served as a canvas for Basquiat’s surprisingly sizable oeuvre as well as the mythology it has since inspired.

Basquiat’s sisters Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat.

Basquiat’s sisters Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat. Photo courtesy of Miranda Penn Turin.

David Kaufman

is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Post, Monocle, AirMail and The Financial Times. The former global digital director at Architectural Digest, he lives in New York City with his twin sons.