Adjaye Associates designs an exhibition on the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat: king of pleasure
601 West 26th Street, New York
To start experimenting Jean-Michel Basquiat: king of pleasure before I even set foot in the Starrett-Lehigh Building in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, I queued up “Listen Like Basquiat: Childhood,” one of four Spotify playlists curated to accompany the exhibit. . The voices of Lena Horne and Dinah Washington support me in what is otherwise an overwhelming day. When I arrived I was greeted by a recording of Jean-Michel reading book of genesisas well as a number of portraits from different stages of his life.
As a whole, the exhibition looks less like a retrospective than a collection of family photos. This statement does not disparage the curatorial work involved in the exhibition, namely the staging of more than 200 paintings, drawings, ephemera and meticulously staged artifacts to recreate the brown stone of Basquiat’s childhood in Brooklyn. (where he was born in 1960), his studio on Great Jones Street (where he died in 1988). It makes sense: while Jean-Michel’s father, Gérard, was the administrator of his son’s estate until his death in 2013, his sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, now lead their brother’s inheritance. . Alongside their mother-in-law Nora Fitzpatrick and their children, they curated the environments that make up the 12,000 square foot exhibit.
The staging reminded me of the words of the bell hooks essay “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life”: “To enter the black houses of my childhood was to enter a world that valued the visual, which affirmed our collective desire to participate in a non-institutionalised curatorial”. treat. For black people constructing our identities within the apartheid culture, these walls were essential to the process of decolonization. In opposition to colonizing socialization, to internalized racism, these walls announced our visual complexity. In pleasure kingI was immersed in the family context, the lineage and the visual world that affirmed Jean-Michel’s Darkness and shaped him as an artist.
In service of this vision, the exhibit design by Adjaye Associates offers a refreshing solution, eschewing the white-walled gallery experience in favor of a 2-foot-wide laminated timber panel layout. The first meetings with the family were a collaborative process of establishing a material vocabulary that would speak to each section of Basquiat’s life; the wood stain coordinates with sections of the show, reinforcing the narrative framing that takes viewers through each biographical chapter. Additionally, the device is modular, so the staging could travel for future iterations of the show.
The show generates an intimacy with a legendary artist. When I heard Marc McQuade, Managing Partner at Adjaye Associates, talk about the feeling of first setting foot in the Basquiat family’s Brooklyn brownstone or seeing Jean-Michel’s bike in the warehouse at middle of his paintings, a certain archival fever has set in. I saw it in McQuade’s eyes when he recounted the weighted joy Lisane, Jeanine and Nora felt as they dug up objects, dusting them off to reveal a childhood memory. Their care, combined with the know-how of the creators, avoids the “Disneyization” of Jean-Michel’s life.
While the paintings themselves are, of course, breathtaking, my breath was also taken away by Adjaye Associates’ recreation of two spaces: the Brooklyn brownstone and the studio on Great Jones. As I walked through the reconstructed family dining room, I had a moment of recognition. Something about the floral dresser and wallpaper brings me back to the house my mother grew up in in Alabama—those finishes could have come from the mid-century home of any middle-class black family. In the studio, the team’s attention to detail is immaculate: cigarettes, with packaging design adapted to the times, litter the floor; its boombox and turntable take pride of place; Basquiat’s own footprints mark the sketches; and the LED lights that illuminate the paintings elsewhere are replaced by projectors like those that Jean-Michel would have used. There’s something so intimate about this light to me: Avoiding “museum-grade” lighting for the real thing is a simple yet profound gesture.
My favorite piece of the exhibition is the last one. “Light Night NYC” recreates the Palladium nightclub, where Basquiat’s murals were featured in the VIP room and behind the bar. (The club, operated by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, featured an interior designed by Arata Isozaki.) 1980s nightclub and new wave blasts, and a video wall displaying nightclub scenes from Jean’s life -Michel anchor space. It is a reminder of the dynamism of his life, lived among people, festive and in motion. The hall embodies Jeanine’s desire “to have a show that everyone wants to experience. We want them to see Jean-Michel in themselves, an artist who looks like them. We want it to be completely accessible for those who have felt intimidated in the past when going to a museum.
While that’s certainly how I felt seeing the show, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the show’s high price tag makes it harder for anyone in New York with an entertainer’s budget to attend. – those who, like Jean-Michel, do not want to return home until they have succeeded. Still, I left the show full of energy with the help of Donna Summer. Jean-Michel’s light shone during his 28 years. For those of us who are still around, the scenes from pleasure king drives us to action. There is still so much to do.
Irene Vázquez is a poet, journalist and editor based in Hoboken, New Jersey.