If you have ever wanted to get inside an artist's head and understand where they were coming from, "Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure" will be the closest thing you'll experience to that.
This major exhibition, opening Saturday, April 9, at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, has an advantage that many other shows do not have—it was organized and curated by Basquiat's family (with famed architect David Adjaye and design firm Pentagram), who have done a painstaking job of showing both the famous artist's intimate side and his genius.
"This is a way for us to collaborate as a community and fill in the spaces from all of our perspectives on Jean-Michel and his impact on the world. It’s a gift to our family and others that they can look at this personal account of who he was,” his sister Lisane Basquiat said in a statement. "We wanted to bring his 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."
The exhibit, which features more than 200 rarely seen works, isn't merely Basquiat's work hung on walls, it immerses viewers in creatively designed spaces to give a sense of place and context. It's broken up into distinct and vibrant categories—"1960," "KINGS COUNTY," "WORLD FAMOUS," "IDEAL" "ART GALLERY," "PALLADIUM," and "PLACE JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT"—that viewers can float through. Basquiat's work is front and center of it all, but certain highlights make his work come alive as if it had just been painted. Visitors can take another step to fully immerse themselves by scanning a Spotify code to access a playlist of music the artist listened to.
In the section "KINGS COUNTY," which presents an overview of Basquiat's childhood in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico, his home has been recreated with ephemera and early works, while images and video from his youth are projected on a "living room" wall. Across the way, a dining room with a hanging rotary phone and plants presents a space that literally welcomes people into the artist's space—as if his family is inviting you in. Surrounding this space are early works of Basquiat's (a hand-drawn cover of a school magazine) as well as personal effects and home videos.
"IDEAL" recreates Basquiat's 57 Great Jones Street studio in Noho (from August 1983) with a small construction of the facade with his bike parked out front (it was his main method of transportation as he had trouble catching a cab). Inside are drawings, sketches, personal effects and furniture, including a TV playing 80s films, a boombox, and things to set the scene like cigarette butts, paint splattered on the floor and books scattered about.
It is without a doubt a clever and imaginative way to display more works that gives viewer a glimpse of what it probably looked like as Basquiat created the works many of us see in galleries today.
It's easy to spend a lot of time in this section, scanning every inch to find little details that give away something about the artist's personality.
"The studio was always a little chaotic, a cacophony of music and television playing while Jean-Michel worked," the family says. "Often in the middle of a visit, he would get up and start painting, leaving footprints on some of his works as he walked to others across the room."
"We really want people to have a chance to see his creativity, get into his process and leave inspired,” Lisane added.
By the time Basquiat "made it" with solo shows in New York and Los Angeles in 1982, becoming the youngest of 176 artists exhibited at Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany and making the cover of New York Times Magazine in 1985, he had forged relationships with iconic artists like Andy Warhol, gallerists like Annina Nosei, musicians like Madonna, John Lurie, David Byrne, Debbie Harry and Fred Brathwaite (Fab 5 Freddy), among others. At this time, Basquiat was a regular at the iconic nightclub Palladium, where he was photographed partying with friends, including Warhol.
In 1985, he created two paintings, "Nu-Nile" and "Untitled," for the Palladium’s VIP area, the Michael Todd Room. These two pieces are back in full in an impressive recreation of the club, which includes a long bar, spotlights, a working DJ booth, and tables with candelabras.
According to his family, he loved to party and hung out at the Mudd Club, where he and his friends were referred to as the “baby crowd” because they were so young, CBGB, Area, which was known for its themed nights, and the Palladium. "For Jean-Michel, clubs were as much about partying as they were about connection—to the music he loved and the people who inspired him (and whom he in turn inspired)," the family says.
If there's one art exhibit you see this spring, let it be "Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure." Being able to step into his recreated art studio, especially, feels like being given the keys to the iconic artist's inner life for a moment. Few exhibits have been able to achieve this.
"It was important to have a show that all people want to experience. We want them to see Jean-Michel in themselves, an artist that looks like them. We want it to be completely accessible for those who have felt intimidated in the past by going to a museum,” his sister Jeanine Heriveaux explained.
“I want people to walk away with inspiration, hope and confidence in themselves to do the same thing with whatever it is for them—whether it’s painting, music or being an accountant," added his other sister Lisane Basquiat. "To live their lives with that same commitment, dedication and grit."
Head to kingpleasure.basquiat.com to get your tickets to the show, which opens April 9. It'll be open on Mondays through Thursdays. Tickets are $35 for adults ($42 on weekends), $32 for seniors ($42 on weekends), students and military, $30 for children 2-13 ($40 on weekends) and $65 if you want to skip the line.