Decoding Defacement and The Guggenheim’s Take on Basquiat

Decoding Defacement and The Guggenheim's Take on Basquiat

Claire Killian

Who is Jean-Michel Basquiat? Truly, he is undefinable, his work has a little bit of Banksy in it, a bit of Warhol, and a whole lot of woke. Basquiat was a black man, born in Brooklyn to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitan father. As a teen, he dropped out of highschool and sold souvenirs on the sidewalk to make ends meet. His work as an artist gradually started to gain notoriety. Basquiat is best known for bringing Afro-Latino culture and struggles to the elite art community. His work does not shy away from the harsh reality of his world, with many pieces depicting or denoting police brutality. His popular pieces on the canonization and glorification of black culture draw a stark contrast to the resentment emanating from his work on police brutality. The crown motif, which appears in many of his paintings, expresses pride and suggests regality in the black community where he grew up. Born in 1960, he did most of his work in the 70s and 80s, and championed the popular SAMO movement. SAMO is short for ‘same old s***’, a nickname Basquiat and his friends had for marijuana, became a veritable rallying cry for minority artists, and really anyone disgusted by the world they lived in.

His work offers a powerful criticism society, and forces viewers to face their own biases, vices, and blindness. Basquiat was, unlike many popular artists, relatively professionally successful during his lifetime, even collaborating with more established names such as Andy Warhol. Despite these successes, he struggled with drug abuse, which eventually killed him in 1988, at age 27. Now, nearly thirty years since his death, the Guggenheim is opening an exhibit on his work. The exhibit is curated by Chaédria LaBouvier, a young, solo, black woman, which is a first for the museum, and runs until November sixth. It even has it’s own Spotify playlist, selected by Jon Batiste.

Basquiat’s work helped to redefine the modern art world, as one of the first visibly and unapologetically black artists to break the mold of formal art, especially while tackling such controversial subjects. The exhibit is built around the death of Michael Stewart, another young, black, artist within Basquiat’s circle. Stewart was allegedly graffitiing a subway station, when he was violently attacked by the transit police. While accounts of what actually happened vary as to how much blame should be put on whom, the altercation became aggressive, and Stweart later died from his injuries. His death sparked outrage within Basquiat’s community, as artists lashed out at the unwarranted death of one of their own. This outrage manifested itself into a tidal wave of work, criticizing the police for their actions, and turning Stewart into an immortal martyr.

The Guggenheim’s exhibit is split into two main sections, between Basquiat’s work, and the work of other artists in response to Stweart’s death. It is surprisingly small, with maybe eight works in the front gallery, and ten in the back. For anyone familiar with Basquiat’s work, it will not surprise them when I say that, even though his paintings are thirty years old, they are jarringly relevant. In the past years we have seen dozens of the most shocking cases of police brutality, resulting in the death of young, bright minds like Michael Stewart. This exhibit offers a poignant critique of how this country, and really the global community, handles race relations. It is well curated, concise, and powerful, and I would highly recommend seeing it. For anyone who looks around at the world dissatisfied, maybe a little scared, or even very angry, but with an unflinching passion to do something about it, Basquiat is for you.