World-renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s contributions to art expanded beyond his paintbrush.
A Brooklyn, New York, native with Haitian and Puerto Rican roots, his experience fueled the creativity behind his work that touched upon a social and cultural narrative that remains relevant to this day.
More than 30 years after his death, at age 27, Basquiat’s influence in artistry lives on in those who are both inspired and intrigued by his work — including his family. His sisters, Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat, along with their stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, initially thought to curate an exhibition of Basquiat’s work in 2017, but they put the idea on the shelf until 2020, as the world reeled from social injustice protests and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The family’s vision has since turned into reality through “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” an exhibit featuring 200 recovered paintings, drawings and various collections from the late artist previously concealed from public view. Opening Saturday, the exhibition spans more than 15,000 square feet in Manhattan’s Starrett-Lehigh building and includes re-creations of Basquiat’s New York City studio, a nightclub and rooms of his childhood home to give a glimpse of his life through the eyes of his friends and family. Upon entering, patrons hear Basquiat’s voice recite the Book of Genesis, a chapter in the Bible that details the creation of humanity.
“The theme is really Jean-Michel as a human being,” Heriveaux said. “Before he was an artist, he was a son. He was a brother. He was a nephew — and we’re trying to show that human side of Jean-Michel and where he came from, his childhood and our personal relationships with him.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Basquiat grew up surrounded by a family that fully embraced their culture and identity. Many of his pieces from the early 1980s — including “Gold Griot,” “Big Joy” and “Hollywood Africans” — speak to the experiences of Black people and their portrayal in society. Throughout his career, many of his pieces incorporated graffiti, like “Self-Portrait,” which helped graffiti gain recognition in the elite art world.
Basquiat’s art was first publicized in a 1980 group exhibition called “Times Square Show.” In 1981, he created “Red Kings,” one of his many influential pieces. It featured a crown that became a signature in his paintings.
Basquiat collaborated with multiple artists, including longtime friend Andy Warhol, whom Basquiat painted alongside himself in the 1982 piece “Dos Cabezas.” Basquiat also shared interests with artist Shenge Ka Pharaoh regarding African ideologies and issues facing Black communities.
Being Haitian and Puerto Rican, Basquiat often detailed his experiences as a Black man, including challenges of racism and his fear of being accosted by police. Although he was successful, Heriveaux said her brother often had difficulties catching a taxi because of his skin color. She also said her brother was deeply affected by the 1983 death of Michael Stewart, a Black man who died after police arrested him, accusing him of writing graffiti on a New York City subway station wall.
“It shook him so much,” Heriveaux said. “He stated that he thought that could be him. Whatever thoughts that were occurring in his mind … he sketched about them. He painted about them.”
Decades after his works first showed in galleries, his art continues to speak to others who encounter the same obstacles he faced.
“I see a generation of people who are confronting challenges with the way that this world culture handles racism, classism — you know, social issues,” Lisane Basquiat said, “and I think that those issues are disturbing to younger people, and Jean-Michel speaks to those.”
Despite the struggles he experienced, Basquiat used his work to uplift Black people. The exhibit’s reference to “king” derives from one of his paintings with the infamous crown, a symbol that influenced many other Black artists, including Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. Besides hip-hop, Lisane Basquiat said her brother’s impact permeates through fashion, sports and music of all genres.
“Jean-Michel was one of the very few people early on to claim a crown — to claim that he was royalty,” she said.
Lisane Basquiat said even for those who are not familiar with the artist, viewers will learn of her brother’s resilience and determination, while gaining insight into a human being who “had a dream and went for it.” She also hopes this exhibit evokes inspiration and appreciation for family legacy and ancestral roots, she added.
“Jean-Michel was an artist who gave you what he had, unfiltered and unedited,” Lisane Basquiat said, “and so many of us filter and edit — and it holds us back from the ways that we can be fully real, that we can express ourselves. And so what I’d love for people to walk in understanding is that it’s possible to do that … to see what happens when you get out of your own way.”