Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure Comes to Los Angeles REVIEW: Basquiat King Pleasure at The Grand LA
LOS ANGELES, CA-
“He blew through this world with a perspective, a talent, and gifts that were unique. He’d be speaking the truth about racial injustice, about social injustice, about people and humans and how we all relate to each other.” – Lisane Basquiat (sister)
Jean-Michel Basquiat, artist naif, young, black, a child of immigrants, and without money or previous art world connections, defied all expectations and shot like a lightening bolt to the top of the seemingly impenetrable early 1980s New York City art world. There his flame burned bright, albeit briefly- he had become an art star which meant parties, dance clubs, frolicking with celebrities- his very first painting sale in 1981was to Debbie Harry for $200- as well as hanging out with an admiring Andy Warhol and dating an ingenue Madonna. Not too surprisingly his quick ascension came along with too many expectations, too much pressure and finally escapism with drugs. He died from a heroin overdose at age 27 with a net worth of over ten million dollars after a short, but extremely prolific 7-year career in which he created more than 600 paintings and over 1,500 drawings.
Although Brooklyn was Basquiat’s birthplace and Manhattan his creative playground, Los Angeles has its own connection to the artist. Basquiat lived and worked in Venice for about a year and a half between 1982 and 1984 while preparing for a show at the Larry Gagosian Gallery. So it makes complete sense that L.A. should be the second stop, after NYC, for the major exhibition Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure taking place from March 31- July 31 at The Grand LA, a space designed by architect Frank Gehry. The Grand LA is the perfect location to plan a Basquiat binge. Directly across the street, the Broad displays a substantial collection of twelve of Basquiat’s large scale paintings while MOCA down the block shows an additional half a dozen.
King Pleasure takes a slightly different and much more intimate view of Basquiat’s art than a typical art show might present. This exhibit, produced and curated by Basquiat’s two younger sisters, one of whom was only fourteen when her brother brought Warhol to their Brooklyn brownstone for a family dinner. Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux have helped put together over 200 pieces of their brother’s work, including paintings, sketches, personal belongings and a full scale recreation of two rooms of the modest Basquiat home. Although Warhol’s Pittsburgh beginnings were similarly working class, picturing him later in his career sitting at this humble rectangular wooden table shown on display, eating fish dinner with the Basquiat family helps show the esteem in which he held Basquiat and dually gives insight into the world from which Basquiat emerged.
Basquiat’s work, child like, yet intelligent, bringing in influences from the music world and popular culture, yet dealing with socio-political issues and pointedly critiquing racism, class structure and human relationships, is something I have long felt was important. So I looked forward to this exhibit and its fresh perspective. I was impressed with the attention to personal detail that the sisters, now in control of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, scattered throughout the three galleries which total 15,000 square-feet. From doodles and cartoons Basquiat sketched as a child, heartwarming videos of family memories and descriptions of his early personality and influences, drawings from his high school newspaper, and even his birth announcement, all helped to broaden the picture of the artist’s intentional self-creation and self-awareness. It helped me a feel a connection to the boy and young man he was, where he came from, how determined he was, and how shooting to success suddenly at age 21 must have been an exciting, but pretty confusing head trip. Maps of both New York City and later Los Angeles detail of Basquiat’s meaningful places and his relationship to them, while a life sized replica of the NYC artist studio on Great Jones Street in the Bowery was filled with his personal tchotchkes, books, record albums and art supplies. That original studio, which Basquiat leased from Warhol in 1983 and lived until his death 5 years later, is now renting for $60,000 a month with a 10-year minimum.
“The decision to curate an exhibition devoted to Jean-Michel’s artwork from the family collection did not come easily. The impetus to do this stemmed from conversations we had that his works needed to be seen. This is not meant to be a scholarly exhibition, but a fresh perspective told from our family’s point of view. Creating the themes, choosing the works, and resisting our family stories has been joyful and profoundly healing for my sister Lisane, our stepmother Nora, and me. Carefully going through what he had left behind- books, hundreds of VHS movies, his collection of African sculptures, toys and other objects, and his many sketchbooks and notes- has afforded us an even richer understanding of our brother.” – Jeanine Basquiat Heriveaux
To prepare for viewing this exhibit, I took my own personal journey to visit Basquiat’s world. I’d already many times seen his work on display here in L.A. at the Broad and MOCA, and once upon a time watched the 1996 bio-drama Basquiat, directed by Julian Schnabel, but I wanted more. I ended up watching three full-length films featuring Basquiat- all of which I highly recommend. The first was Downtown 81, a fictional type fairy tale, shot from 1980-1981 with Basquiat playing himself in his own Manhattan art and music world featuring a cameo of Debbie Harry playing a fairy godmother disguised as a homeless woman. The film shows Basquiat’s innate charisma and charm, handsome, soft-spoken, and likable, as well as New York City at its lowest point of poverty and highest point of creativity, before the corporations and $60,000 a month artist studios took over. Afterward I watched the first of two documentaries- Tamara Davis’ Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which focuses on casual interviews in Los Angeles of Basquiat telling his story in his own words to Davis, a friend. The second documentary, Rage to Riches, produced by the BBC in 2017, involved the first real interviews with his sisters, and was probably the most thorough and insightful.
“It was very important to Jean-Michel that he be regarded as a great artist, versus a black artist. While he was also incredibly connected to the black experience and to his blackness, because he was a black man.” sister Lisane Basquiat, 2017 BBC documentary Rage to Riches.
The impact of Jean-Michel Basquiat, as an artist and as a human are extremely important, and not because of the color of his skin, but for the whole package of who he was and the many different influences and experiences that he stirred up to channel his consciousness into what he created. Yes, he became an art world darling, a cool kid, embraced and put on a pedestal, but often misunderstood by the wealthy patrons who snatched up his art at high prices. But at the very core he represents those who might not feel like they have a voice and teaches those people how they can find and use that voice. He broke barriers, he slipped through cracks, he emerged- but he saw the hypocrisy all around him and he feverishly worked to get it all down in the short time he had. If this exhibit can show one person, one child- black or any color- to believe in herself or himself, to search for truth and to tell that story, to create art from the soul in any medium, to live deeply, rather than to merely exist, then its inspiration will ripple for years and it will have succeeded wildly.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, The Grand LA, 100 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. March 31- July 31, 2023. Tickets $32-$35, with discounts for seniors, students and military. A limited number of $15 Rush tickets are released on a first-come, first-served basis.To learn more about the exhibit, visit the King Pleasure website. Follo Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.