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.
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.
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.
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.