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How an Artist's Death Inspired Basquiat and his Contemporaries to Stand Up and Fight

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat - The Death of Michael Stewart, 1983
July 2, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The 1980s in New York were a period of intense experimentation and freedom of expression, but also the time of racial tensions, AIDS crisis, and the rise of the art market. In such a dazzling, yet anarchic atmosphere, various artists came to prominence and reached stardom in short time. One of them was Jean Michel Basquiat, a talented and engaged individual who unfortunately passed away at a young age.

Currently on display at The Guggenheim Museum is a chiseling exhibition titled Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story. It interprets the social and political implications of this Basquiat work starting from the tragic death of a young Black art student, Michael Stewart, which shook the whole East Village art scene.

Jean-Michel Basquiat - Untitled (Sheriff), 1981
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Untitled (Sheriff), 1981. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 130.8 x 188 cm. Carl Hirschmann Collection. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The Exhibition Context

Namely, the tragic event took place in 1983 at the NYC subway station in the early hours; Stewart was tagging graffiti when police arrested him for alleged misbehavior and the possession of marihuana. The youngster was brutally maltreated which resulted in his death thirteen days after the brutal arrest.

The same year Basquiat produced the painting The Death of Michael Stewart, informally known as Defacement. This piece was initially made on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio and was not meant to be seen widely. The other proponents of the East Village scene reacted by producing artworks as well, organizing benefit events and speaking publicly about police brutality; the whole community engaged in well-articulated activism.

David Hammons - The Man Nobody Killed
David Hammons – The Man Nobody Killed, 1986. Stenciled paint on commercially printed cardboard with cut-and-taped photocopy from a spiral bound periodical with works by various artists. From Eye magazine, no.14, Cobalt Myth Mechanics, 1986. Publisher: Eye Publications, New Yor. Printer: the artist, New York. Each page: 27.9 x 21.6 cm, closed: 27.9 x 22.9 x 1.9 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Henry Church Fund (by exchange), 2015 © The Museum of Modern Art. Licensed by SCALA/ARS New York

The Selection of Works

The installment features paintings and works on paper by Basquiat which reveal his own protest against police brutality, his exploration of black identity, and his attempts to construct the specific visual language of empowerment. These works show his articulation of the state authority and the symbolic of crowns the artist used for the canonization of historical black figures.

Andy Warhol’s screen-printed painting from 1983 incorporating a New York Daily News article on Stewart’s death; Keith Haring’s painting Michael Stewart—U.S.A. for Africa (1985); David Hammons’s stenciled print titled The Man Nobody Killed (1986), George Condo’s painting Portrait of Michael Stewart (1983) and Lyle Ashton Harris’s photographic portrait Saint Michael Stewart (1994) evoke the atmosphere on the art scene after the horrific event took place. All those works prove the solidarity among artists at the time and are contrasted with the archival material related to Stewart’s death.

Keith Haring – Michael Stewart USA for Africa
Keith Haring – Michael Stewart – USA for Africa, 1985. Enamel and acrylic on canvas, 294.6 x 365.8 cm. Collection of Monique and Ziad Ghandour © The Keith Haring Foundation

Basquiat’s Defacement at Guggenheim

It is apparent that the exhibition curator Chaédria LaBouvier was eager to underline the broader social context behind the formative chapter in Basquiat’s career and the importance of the social awareness, and community-based solidarity.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog including essays which reveal a new interpretation of Basquiat’s practice in the context the burgeoning East Village art scene during the early 1980s, as well as Recollections by activists, artists, critics, journalists, and lawyers who were engaged with the case of Stewart’s death.

Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story will be on view at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York until 6 November 2019.

Featured image: Jean-Michel Basquiat – The Death of Michael Stewart, 1983. Acrylic and marker on sheet rock, 34 x 40 inches, framed (86.4 x 101.6 cm). Collection of Nina Clemente, New York © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Allison Chipak © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018. All images courtesy The Guggenheim.