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King Pleasure: The Unseen Genius of the New Jean-Michel Basquiat Exhibit

Source: Patrick McMullan / Getty

The highly anticipated exhibit featuring previously unseen works of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat will open this weekend in New York City. We had a chance to take an exclusive look at the exhibit before its opening.

Jean-Michel Basquiat continues to have a tremendous artistic and cultural impact through his neo-expressionist artwork that incorporated music, the Black American and Diasporic experience, literature, pop culture, and sociopolitical themes. While many exhibitions and shows have featured some of his work, there hasn’t been an encompassing experience that touches upon Jean-Michel as a person concerning his art. King Pleasure, a new exhibition of Basquiat’s works, looks to fill that void, thanks to his family, who have overseen its curation and organization since conceiving it in 2017 before having to shelve it due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The exhibition’s title comes from a 1987 painting done by Basquiat, which bears the name of jazz vocalist King Pleasure, known for his hit “Moody’s Mood For Love,” which was his father Gerard Basquiat’s favorite song. The desire to show Basquiat in all of his multitudes as a person and artist is the driving force behind the decision of the estate to make this exhibit happen. “We wanted to bring his work and personality forward, in a way only his family can, for people to immerse themselves in,” Lisane Basquiat said. “We want this to be a multi-dimensional celebration of Jean-Michel’s life.” Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, his sisters, helped put the exhibit together after taking over control of the estate after their father’s passing in 2013. Renowned architect Sir David Adjaye OBE assisted in the design layout of the exhibition space.

Upon stepping into the exhibition at the Starrett-Lehigh Building on Manhattan’s West Side, a celebration is what immediately jumps out at you from the carefully crafted wood walls bearing photographs of the artist beaming out at you to the soundtrack that flows from speakers above. The exhibit features over 200 works plus artifacts of Basquiat, most of which have been in the possession of the estate and have never been publicly shown before. The seven sections include a display chronicling his birth and childhood in Brooklyn and in Puerto Rico, a section detailing his artistic rise, a gallery that contains the bulk of artwork that made him famous, and a recreation of his studio on Great Jones Street along with a reproduction of the VIP area of the 1980s Palladium nightclub that Basquiat created two paintings for which stand proudly on display astride a dance floor beckoning you to get your two-step on.

The multitude of works on display evokes natural magnetic energy underscored by video installations that let attendees hear stories from Basquiat’s sisters and other family members and friends, Jeffrey Deitch and Annina Nosei. Walking through every section allows you to immerse yourself in a vibe that plants you in the electricity of New York City’s downtown scene and lets you in deeper into Basquiat’s process of thought and creation and all that influenced him. 

The art world can sometimes render an artist into a commodity beyond their control, and Black artists fall prey to that more often than not, even as many uplifts their work whenever they can. This has posed an issue recently for Basquiat and his works. A recent campaign by Tiffanys exploring modern love featuring Beyonce and Jay-Z received backlash from those close to the artist due to the presence of a 1982 painting of his, Equals Pi in photography for the campaign. In the exhibit itself, one friend speaks of the struggle before Gerard. The latter left his career as an accountant to head the estate and rebuffed any attempts to dilute his son’s artistic message and personality. With this exhibit, the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat have continued its mission of celebration and, in a sense, determined reclamation and redefinition of their brother. He was and is a radiant child of culture and thought.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure opens on Saturday, April 9th. Tickets and reservations can be made at the exhibit’s website.

Photo: Patrick McMullan / Getty