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Photography by Tom Powel Imaging. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar

By Will Heinrich 

It’s not everyday that New Yorkers can choose between two concurrent exhibitions of work by Jean Michel Basquiat. “King Pleasure,” an immersive experience designed by the architect David Adjaye and  curated by the artist’s sisters Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, includes a recreation of Jean Michel’s childhood bedroom and his studio and charges $35 admission. “Art and Objecthood,” curated  by the art historian Dieter Buchhart at Nahmad Contemporary, gathers an extraordinary trove of  paintings Basquiat made on doors, windows and a refrigerator. 

Though “King Pleasure” includes a number of never-before-seen pieces, too, its emphasis is distinctly  on the artist’s life, so I’ve focused on the Nahmad show, whose sparse staging give you a better chance  of engaging with the work itself. But you should keep his biographical basics in mind. 

Young and ambitious, Basquiat shot straight into the center of the New York art world when he was  barely out of his teens, showing with some of the country’s most influential gallerists, haunting  nightclubs with Andy Warhol, and producing a staggering quantity of art work before dying of a heroin  overdose, at the age of 27, in 1988. In 2017, one of his paintings sold for more than $110 million, the  highest price ever paid at auction for a work by an American artist. 

He was also the Brooklyn-born son of a Haitian father and Boricua mother, and though his family wasn’t  poor, he spent a few lean years on his own before he started selling work. When he did hit the artistic  big time, he was one of the few Black faces there — and issues of race and class, complicated by his own  extreme experience, are all over his work. 


Like most artists, Basquiat drew as a child, famously copying anatomical drawings from “Gray’s  Anatomy” while recuperating from a car accident. His first real foray into the adult art world, though,  was via the graffiti tag SAMO, which he and his high school friend Al Diaz posted up around SoHo and  the School of Visual Arts. Before continuing on to canvas, Basquiat used “found materials” like  discarded cardboard and paper or construction debris. In part this was born of necessity — canvas costs  money, while broken windows were there for the taking in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s. 

But Basquiat’s use of found materials was also, as the painted windows, doors and sections of wooden  fencing in “Art and Objecthood” make clear, a daring artistic strategy that reverberated through even  his more conventional efforts. Unlike ready-mades, the manufactured goods that Marcel Duchamp  exhibited as art in the early years of the 20th century, Basquiat’s found objects aren’t exactly sculpture.  They’re surfaces for him to paint on. But because they are, also, recognizable objects in their own right,  they have a beguiling sort of ambiguity. You can’t quite see “Untitled (Refrigerator)” (1981) as only an  appliance, or only a surface to draw on — the longer you look, the more it seems to waver between both  categories. And once you’re primed for that sort of ambiguity, you start to see it everywhere. In another  context, “Multiflavors” (1982), a royal-blue canvas on exposed wooden stretchers, might just look like  a painting. Here, it’s a very peculiar object, too. 


Basquiat didn’t spend long writing graffiti, but he used its techniques throughout his career. The graffiti  writer’s pared-down repertoire of easy-to-recognize signs can be as effective on a gallery wall as they  are on the side of a building, and one of his favorites — a simple, icon-like crown — shows up on the first piece in “Art and Objecthood,” a white wooden cabinet door titled “Minor Success” (1980). Beneath  it are a face without features and a cartoonish sports car. 

“If you ask 10 people” about the crown, says Buchhart, the curator, “they’ll tell you 10 different  meanings.” He goes on to cite Basquiat’s often-quoted remark that his artistic subjects — musicians,  athletes, artists — were “royalty, heroism and the streets,” and the way the crown serves to emphasize  images or works particularly special to the artist. 

Essentially, though, the crown claims a figurative mantle of royalty for the artist himself, for the figure  he’s depicting, or both — Basquiat’s faces and bodies often read at least partially as self-portraits. But  it’s also more nuanced than that, particularly as wielded by a young Black artist intent on making  himself a celebrity. You have to ask what kind of social context required him to make such pointed  assertions of dignity. Is it one in which Black faces struggle to be recognized as individuals? Or one in  which status comes from the possession of material objects like a fancy car? 


Another aspect of graffiti that Basquiat kept hold of was the use of writing for visual effect. In many  earlier collages and works on paper, a deluge of all-caps writing fills every available square inch. But  you can’t read from beginning to end and expect to find an argument. What you get instead is a cloud  of loose associations more similar to a picture, in the way you read it, than to ordinary prose or even  poetry. 

This quality is amplified by the way Basquiat mixes drawing and writing together. If you look back at  “Multiflavors,” you’ll find that it has a three-pointed yellow crown in the middle and a cloud of red and  yellow circles to one side, and that the white, yellow and pink writing, arranged over blocks of black and  blue, forms a striking composition. When you come to read it, you find a group of what appear to be  references to advertisements or restaurant signs, phrases like “cheap food” and “HACKED CHICKEN  WITH MULTIFLAVORS.” You can’t definitively say whether it’s satire or poetry, angry or exuberant or  funny. But it could almost be all of them. 


One thing in particular that’s easier to see in “Art and Objecthood” than in the overwhelming visual  cacophony of “King Pleasure” is how conservatively Basquiat organized the elements of his paintings.  The sheer profusion of marks can be misleading, but if you recognize the scratches and scrawls of  “Minor Success,” for example, as providing a texture rather than so many pieces of separate  information, you’ll see that the arrangement of crown, face and car couldn’t be more straightforward.  A squat little refrigerator is adorned with a burst of letters and a face in “Untitled (Refrigerator),” but  they stop just short of the handle, letting the mostly blank lower section balance their effect. And even  when every mark really does carry the same weight, as in an intricately painted yellow door, Basquiat  keeps careful control of shape and color to create an overall effect of harmony and stability that balances  the frantic energy of his lines. 


The most stunning piece in “Art and Objecthood” may be an untitled painting from 1982 — the year the  artist himself claimed to have “made the best paintings ever.” Done in acrylic and enamel on a packing  blanket mounted on exposed wooden stretchers, it shows a Black face with white features and a blood red skull marked with little black dashes like watermelon seeds. 

It’s a searing portrait of the psychic toll of racism: Even as slurs and insulting tropes leave him bloody  and exposed, the figure wears a “white” expression to get along. It’s another stately composition, too,  balancing a dense figure on one side with empty space on the other and underlining both for emphasis.  And it’s as good a place as any to study what may be the single most distinctive feature of Basquiat’s  work — his line. 

The line that describes this skull shivers like someone naked in a snowstorm. It makes a break in the  jaw, uneven eyebrows, a bump on the crown of the skull. It doesn’t leave anything unclear; the drawing  is as easy to read as a geometric diagram. But this shakiness does transmit extra information. It lends  the figure a particular kind of intensity, making the eyes squint and the teeth gnash, and it gives a  similar intensity to the art work as a whole, evoking the tension and energy that must have gone into  making it. At the same time, it gives you a sense, more vivid than any mere biography, of the personality  of the man who drew it — manic and melancholy, electric, incandescent. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art and Objecthood 

Through June 11, Nahmad Contemporary, 980 Madison Avenue, third floor, 646-449- 9118; 

Will Heinrich writes about new developments in contemporary art, and has previously been a critic for The  New Yorker and The New York Observer. His first novel, “The King’s Evil,” won a PEN/Robert Bingham  Fellowship; his most recent novel, “The Pearls,” was published in 2019. @willvheinrich