In a grainy home movie from 1968 — well before he had started on the path that led him to art world fame and an untimely death — an 8-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat, dressed smartly in long shorts and a button-down shirt, gently guides his year-old sister, Jeanine, by the hand in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, with his 4-year-old sister, Lisane, frolicking in the grass beside them.
Those sisters — now 54 and 57 — have spent the last five years poring over their brother’s paintings, drawings, photographs, VHS movies, African sculpture collection, toys and memorabilia to curate a sweeping exhibition of his life and work that opens Saturday at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea.
The show, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” features more than 200 artworks and artifacts from the artist’s estate — 177 of which have never been exhibited before — in a 15,000-square-foot space designed by the architect David Adjaye. Providing perhaps the most detailed personal portrait to date of Basquiat’s development, the show comes at a time when the artist’s market value continues to soar and his themes of race and self-identity have become especially resonant. (The mayor’s office is to proclaim Saturday, the show’s opening, Jean-Michel Basquiat Day.)
“They’re literally opening up the vaults,” said Brett Gorvy, a dealer and a former chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. “These are paintings I’ve only seen in books.”
The 41-foot-wide “Nu Nile,” for example, one of two massive paintings that Basquiat made for the Palladium nightclub in 1985, would likely bring millions at auction.
While nothing in the show is for sale, collectors will have a chance to test the Basquiat art market next month when his 1982 painting “Untitled (Devil),” comes up for auction at Phillips with an estimated price of $70 million. In 2017, his vibrant skull painting from the same year brought $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, becoming the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction and joining a rarefied group of works to break the $100 million mark.
And Basquiat exhibitions continue to flourish. On Monday, the Nahmad Contemporary gallery in Manhattan opens “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art and Objecthood,” which looks at the artist’s unconventional materials (doors, refrigerators, football helmets), curated by the Basquiat scholar Dieter Buchhart. The Broad museum in Los Angeles is currently showing all 13 of the Basquiats in its collection. And in February, the Orlando Museum of Art opened a show of 25 Basquiat works, though their authenticity has been questioned.
As an immersive journey into the making of Basquiat, the Starrett-Lehigh exhibition is an undertaking of a different order. In addition to presenting raw sketches, doodles and scribbled notes by an artist finding his voice, the show feels like a family scrapbook come to life, crammed full of intimate artifacts — Basquiat’s birth announcement (6 lbs., 10 oz.); a school report card from when he lived in Puerto Rico; his blue-green dining china; his signature Comme Des Garçons trench coat.
“The conventional museum exhibition tends to isolate the artwork from real life and they did just the opposite,” said the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who delivered the eulogy when Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at 27 in 1988. “The life story of Jean-Michel and the family story are totally integrated with the presentation of the artworks, and it gives you such deeper insight into how the work was created, how it was inspired.”
“It’s not a professional academic presentation, but that’s what’s so fresh,” Deitch added. “They’ve created a new paradigm of how to create an art exhibition.”
With a soundtrack of music that the artist listened to — Diana Ross’s rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; “(They Long to Be) Close to You” by the Carpenters — the show has recreated Basquiat’s important physical spaces: his family’s dining room in Boerum Hill (with original spice rack and wooden fish platter); his painting studio at 57 Great Jones Street (with stacks of his books, a pair of his wine glasses); the Michael Todd VIP Room of the Palladium — complete with mirrors, draped beads and candelabras — where Basquiat spent many evenings.
“We wanted people to come in and get the experience of Jean-Michel — the human being, the son, the brother, the cousin,” said Jeanine Heriveaux, in a recent sit-down interview with her sister at Starrett-Lehigh. “To walk people through that in a way that felt right and good to us.”
The women, who run the estate with their stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, served as the show’s curators and executive producers, from the songs heard on the speakers in the Todd Room to the wall text — motivated by a desire to gather all of this material in one place, and to flesh out the picture of their brother that has often been mythologized. “For 33 years we have consistently been asked for more information, for more of Jean-Michel, more Jean-Michel — from art collectors down to kids,” Lisane Basquiat said. “This is our way of responding to that.”
Profit also seems to be a clear part of it. The show requires a timed entrance fee — $45 for adults on weekends, $65 to skip the line (less for students, seniors and on weekdays). And a “King Pleasure Emporium” offers licensed Basquiat-inspired athletic wear, leather goods, stationery, pet accessories and housewares — as well as the show’s accompanying $55 book, published by Rizzoli Electa.
Some longtime Basquiatphiles don’t have a problem with the commercial component. “It’s wonderful that art products with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s imagery are available to people who don’t have the resources to buy a super expensive drawing or painting,” Deitch said.
“I like it that the art gets out,” he continued, adding that it could enable the family “to earn revenue through the licensing without having to sell the art.”
Although spearheaded by the sisters, the exhibition has been a full family affair. Fitzpatrick co-authored the book with Lisane and Jeanine. Jeanine’s daughter Sophia came up with the name of the show, inspired by the title of a 1987 Basquiat painting (featuring the artist’s recurring crown motif) — and the jazz vocalist whose 1952 hit, “Moody’s Mood for Love,” was a favorite of Basquiat’s father, Gerard.
“Everyone in the family has pitched in, in one way or another,” Lisane said. “It’s a way for us to bring our lineage together and document what has happened so far through Jean-Michel. We lost a brother 33 years ago and our parents lost a son. This project has been an opportunity for us. It’s been cathartic.”
The show is organized into themes, starting with 1960, the year of Basquiat’s birth, and “Kings County,” which describes the artist’s childhood in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico. An annotated map of New York City locates places of importance in Basquiat’s life — the Chock Full o’ Nuts where his mother liked the coffee; Pearl Paint, where he purchased art supplies; Sheepshead Bay Piers, where his family went to eat clams.
There is also a series of oral history videos featuring friends and family members, like Reuben Andrades, a cousin, who talks about how Basquiat used to draw figures he called “The Frizzies” that were like Smurfs with social positions (“firemen, police officers”).
In one video, Jeanine describes how her brother convinced her to jump off an armoire with an umbrella and try to fly like Mary Poppins. (“It did not work.”) In another, Lisane recalls how Jean-Michel suggested while visiting a friend in a suburban backyard that they all sing “I’m Black and I’m proud” at the top of their lungs (“until an adult came and told us to cut it out”).
The only works in the show that are not by Basquiat are silk-screen family portraits by Warhol, who was a close friend of the artist.
The childhood home movies presage the sartorial elegance that became Basquiat’s hallmark as an adult — there he is in a cinched bathrobe, a navy cap, suspenders.
The poignancy of a life snuffed out too soon pervades the show, attesting to the Basquiat allure that has captivated aspiring painters, graffiti artists, museum curators and moneyed collectors. “He’s an artist who sums up a lot of the 20th century — Picasso, Rauschenberg, Twombly — but he is also influential to a new generation of artists,” said the gallerist Joe Nahmad. “He leads you into the future — to what is happening today.”
The sisters’ show can sometimes feel like hagiography; there is little discussion of Basquiat’s demons or the aspects of his home life that may have been difficult. According to Phoebe Hoban’s 1998 biography, “Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art,” the artist said in an interview, “‘When I was a kid my mother beat me severely for having my underwear on backwards, which to her meant I was gay.’”
“He told girlfriends and art dealers that he had been badly beaten by his father as a child,” Hoban continues. “Gerard Basquiat adamantly denies that he ever did more than spank his son with a belt.”
The catalog occasionally deals with the darker aspects of Basquiat’s history, describing how his parents — Gerard, a Haitian immigrant, and Matilde, a Brooklyn-born artist of Puerto Rican descent, separated. How Gerard (who died in 2013) raised all three children and sometimes struggled to reconcile his ideas of success with his son’s less conventional goals.
“Jean-Michel was committed to being an artist, and my father’s fears for him — not having a life with stability and security — came out as anger and frustration,” Lisane writes in the catalog. “Jean-Michel ran away a few times. One day he was there, and then one day he wasn’t — there was really no discussion about it. Jean-Michel was never going to conform to the vision my father had for his life.”
Lisane added in a statement Friday that “we grew up in the 1960s when spanking was a common form of disciplinary action. That doesn’t overshadow the incredible passion and commitment that they demonstrated to the three of us. Our parents loved us. They didn’t always get it right. but they put their heart and soul into helping us become the best we could be.”
The sisters said they recognize that the show represents their version of events. They are not scholars or curators. They set out to tell the story of the loving, mischievous, creative young man they grew up with who became a major artist.
“Jean-Michel is and has always been fire. Fire,” Lisane writes. “He was Jeanine’s and my protective, rambunctious, and pioneering older brother who paved the path for so much. Jean-Michel was huge energy entering this world.”