• gerard van weyenbergh

In New York, a very hagiographic Basquiat exhibition


Hagiography= idealizing or idolizing biography

The artist seen and celebrated by his family

A major New York exhibition organized by the family of Jean-Michel Basquiat brings together a number of previously unseen works by the artist, but veers into hagiography and sentimentalism.

New York. Legend Jean-Michel Basquiat , who died aged 27 in 1988 from a heroin overdose, is doing well. In 2017, one of his paintings had exceeded 110 million dollars (102 M€) at Sotheby's, a record making him one of the most expensive American artists in history. Since then, his works have appeared on the T-shirts of a famous brand; a film and a television series are in preparation; and the exhibitions follow one another: this year alone, the name “Basquiat” attracts crowds at the New York gallery Nahmad Contemporary, at the Broad museum in Los Angeles and at the Orlando Art Museum in Florida.

It is therefore not surprising that the entourage of the artist, who is in charge of his estate, want to have your piece of the cake. Jean-Michel's two sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux , thus brought together in New York, in a colossal exhibition, nearly 200 paintings, drawings, objects and archive documents belonging to the family, most of them never seen before. so far. Scenographed by the Anglo-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, " Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure " traces the life of the artist through the memories of his relatives and the evocation of some of his places of life, reconstructed under the form of “period rooms” : his parents' living room in Brooklyn, his studio or even a VIP lounge at the Palladium club which the artist frequented regularly.


To show these works to the public and tell about "their" Jean-Michel, the Basquiat sisters did not choose a museum but a large building in Chelsea, the gallery district: "This is not an academic exhibition but a new perspective , told from the point of view of our family”, they explain in the introductory text. “We wanted people to experience Jean-Michel the man, the son, the brother, the cousin,” adds Jeanine; "to give his work the context that is missing in the narrative of art history", adds Lisane, precisely even if it means leaving the history of art aside. This is also where the shoe pinches: by refusing too much to get to the bottom of things, the purpose of the exhibition borders in fact on hagiography and self-celebration.

Masterpieces and bric-a-brac

Nu-Nile (1985), a large painting installed behind the bar at the Palladium, would undoubtedly fly away today at auction for several million. Just like Three Quarters of Olympia Minus the Servant (1982), a piquant rewrite of Manet's work, or Untitled (Venus) (1982), which pays homage to Picasso . "They literally opened the doors of their safe ," comments gallerist Brett Gorvy. These are paintings that I have only seen in books. We discover the three portraits that Andy Warhol made of the Basquiat parents and Jeanine. On 14,000 square meters, unseen masterpieces are unveiled one after the other.


The chronological journey takes the visitor from the early years of little Basquiat with his family in Brooklyn, until his sudden notoriety in the early 1980s and his installation in his famous studio on Great Jones Street, all lulled by music l having accompanied him at different periods of his life. The exhibition concludes with the artist's relationship to the making of American democracy and to police violence, before inviting the visitor into the Palladium's VIP lounge . Change of atmosphere.


If the works are exceptional, they are nevertheless in the minority, because most of the objects collected come from what Lisane calls Basquiat's "personal effects" , supposed to give“a glimpse of his creative process” : this is the case of books on Michelangelo and Picasso, magazines on African art, comic strips, works by Sam Doyle and Alison Saar collected by the artist . His birth announcement, his childhood photographs, his passport, the words of his teachers in his notebooks, his bicycle and his trench coat, on the other hand, give more the impression of a scrapbooking session in family. The works are suffocated by these somewhat futile relics capable of feeding the legend, which are usually reserved for exhibitions on Napoleon. Or on Johnny Hallyday.


On the wall and near the works, no explanatory or contextual texts: only memories of sisters, cousins, nephews. We find the same people interviewed by Sophia Loren Heriveaux, the artist's niece, in a series of videos that punctuate the exhibition. We learn how Jean-Michel convinced Jeanine to jump with an umbrella from the top of a cupboard to do like Mary Poppins; or how he taught Lisane to hold her glass so as not to be bothered in high school. As charming as they are, these memories do not bring much, even give the impression that the exhibition puts his family on stage more than the artist himself. An omnipresence of his own who builds an idyllic image of this family life united behind their hero, yet contradicted by the artist himself:“When I was little my mother beat me severely when I wore my underwear inside out, which for her meant that I was gay”, could we read for example in the biography that Phoebe Hoban devoted to him in 1998.

We are far from the fairy tale.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,

through September 30 (TBC), Starrett-Lehigh, 601 West 26th Street, New York, kingpleasure.basquiat.com

Seen in Le Journal des arts - Barthelemy Glama