Museums all around the world have staged Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospectives over the years, building up the mythology around the pioneering graffiti artist and Neo-Expressionist. This month, an exhibit in his hometown, New York City, offers a more personal side of the artist, thanks to the show’s creators: Basquiat’s own sisters.
“We’re the only ones who could do it,” says Lisane Basquiat, who collaborated with fellow sister Jeanine Heriveaux on Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©, which opens April 9 at the historic Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea.
Wanting to “contribute some fact” to the legends that have surrounded Basquiat since his 1988 death, the sisters set out to present the artist as a son, brother, and human. In addition to more than 200 rarely and never-before seen works from his estate’s collection, the show reconstructs several settings from his life, including his family’s Brooklyn home, where he learned to love music and boxing from his Haitian father, and from which he regularly accompanied his mother to museums and libraries. In making their selections, the family and their collaborators focused on works that Lisane says “nod in the direction of his upbringing, his perspective on race and culture and music and sport.”
Aside from the home space, which includes early sketchbooks and home movies, the exhibit also recreates Basquiat’s Great Jones Street art studio, incorporating ephemera such as his furniture and bicycle (which he favored because of his difficulties hailing cabs), and the VIP Michael Todd Room from the ’80s nightclub Palladium, which featured two of his large-scale murals, one reaching 40 feet in width.
While he is now known for works that continue to sell for tens of millions of dollars and inspire street artists and luxury brands alike, Basquiat’s sisters remember him as a loving, protective brother with a broad mischievous streak, who would order prank food deliveries to everyone on their block while the siblings would giggle in the window. “He was definitely the one you wanted to hang out with,” Heriveaux says.
“You knew you’d be going to a cool party or having a great experience.”
Even as he became increasingly successful, Basquiat never forgot where he came from. “He soaked up knowledge based on his experiences and travels, and always wanted to share that with his family and friends,” Lisane says. Similarly, this show establishes him in the context of his community. “He was determined to define his place as an artist and as a man and as a Black man,” Lisane says. “He sent a very clear message to his peers in the Black community: You have a crown. He placed the crown upon his own head.”