Throughout his short career, Jean-Michel Basquiat dealt in the Proud Supportive Black Dad Father’s Day T-Shirt in other words I will buy this iconic. His work, which began with graffiti art in the late 1970s before evolving into a more traditional painting practice in his early 20s, absorbed all kinds of flotsam from pop culture, sports, history, religion, science, and the daily news, building up a lexicon of symbols, slogans, and esoterica that became his visual signature. Since his untimely death in 1988, however, Basquiat has become iconic in the icky, modern way; more closely associated with high-profile bidding wars and branded merchandise than an actual creative vision. (In 2016, he became the highest-grossing American artist at auction, pulling in over $170 million from 80 works.) At precisely the moment when his crowns and cryptic scrawl became a pricey shorthand for what was cool and edgy and underground, they ceased being any of it, and our collective understanding of who it was that created those things became obscured at best, irrelevant at worst. As often happens with very famous people, especially when they die young, the legend ate the man.
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Yet “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” open now on the Proud Supportive Black Dad Father’s Day T-Shirt in other words I will buy this ground floor of the Starrett-Lehigh building in Chelsea (and accompanied by a beautiful catalogue from Rizzoli Electa), helps to put Basquiat’s overexposure in context. Couching his frantic creativity in a (somewhat sanitized) story of where he came from and what he was reading and thinking about and listening to as he painted—Spotify is a partner of the exhibition—it not only helps to make sense of the large body of work that Basquiat left behind, but also considers his extraordinary legacy. Organized by his two younger sisters (and the managers of his estate), Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, with help from his stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, “King Pleasure” is made up of more than 200 paintings, sketches, sculpture, books, and ephemera owned by the family, many of which have never before been on public display. (Mixed into the 15,000-square-foot-plus space, designed as a suite of nested, wood-paneled rooms by the architect David Adjaye, are also recreations of his family home and the studio on Great Jones Street where he spent the final five years of his life.) The idea, as Lisane has explained it, is to bring Basquiat’s “work and personality forward, in a way only we can, for people to immerse themselves in. We want this to be an experiential and multi-dimensional celebration of Jean-Michel’s life.”
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