This exhibition consists of a single, exceptional painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), a celebrated artist who was born and raised in Brooklyn. The painting, of a disembodied head, is on view for the first time in a museum. Created in 1982, the year Basquiat took New York by storm, the painting, Untitled, is emblematic of his early success and spectacular rise in the market-driven art world of that time. In the single decade of his artistic career, cut short by premature death, he went from writing witty, cryptic aphorisms on the street to being an international art star whose works were highly coveted by collectors.
This opportunity to see Untitled is made possible by the extraordinary generosity of Yusaku Maezawa, a collector based in Tokyo. Announcing this recent acquisition on Instagram, he wrote: “When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.” Later he added: “I hope it brings as much joy to others as it does to me, and that this masterpiece by the 21-year-old Basquiat inspires our future generations.” This painting, along with another by Basquiat in Mr. Maezawa’s collection, will eventually be housed in a museum he is building in his hometown of Chiba, Japan.
Following the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective Basquiat in 2005 and our acclaimed exhibition Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks in 2015, One Basquiat underscores the Museum’s longstanding commitment to this dazzling artist. His compelling visual intelligence, and the dynamics of his personal story, will continue to attract legions of aspiring artists and admirers of all ages.
One Basquiat is organized by Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.
This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Mr. Yusaku Maezawa.
Basquiat and Brooklyn
Jean-Michel Basquiat and the borough of Brooklyn are inextricably linked. Basquiat was a Brooklynite, born in 1960 at Brooklyn Hospital to parents of Caribbean heritage. His father, Gérard, a Haitian immigrant, was an accountant; his mother, Matilde, of Puerto Rican descent, was a homemaker. At an early age, the young Jean-Michel was an eager reader of texts in French and Spanish as well as English. He had two younger sisters, Lisane and Jeanine, and at various times the family lived in the neighborhoods of Park Slope, East Flatbush, and Boerum Hill.
Culture played a significant role in the Basquiat household. His father was a jazz aficionado and the proud owner of a large record collection. The young Jean-Michel’s early interest in drawing was encouraged and nurtured, particularly by his mother, who took him to museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art—and the Brooklyn Museum, where at the age of six he became a Junior Member. (Later he continued to affectionately call it “the Brooklyn.”)
When Basquiat was seven, he was struck by a car while playing basketball in the street. During his monthlong recovery in King’s County Hospital, his mother gave him a copy of the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy, which seems to have contributed to his lifelong interest in human anatomy and perhaps inspired the name of the band Gray, which he formed in 1979. Also when he was seven, his parents separated, after which he and his sisters lived with their father.
Basquiat left high school in 1978, a year before he was scheduled to graduate, and began spending much of his time in Manhattan in the downtown cultural scene (the area below 14th Street). In those days, the designation “downtown” was as much a state of mind as a geographical location, seen in opposition to the conventional culture of the time. He frequented venues including Club 57, CBGB, and the Mudd Club, where his band Gray often played, meeting the denizens of downtown along with graffiti artists and rappers. In his fluid movement between Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, Basquiat continued a historical connection that had begun a generation before, when jazz musicians arriving from the South moved into Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, where affordable housing was available, along with easy transportation to their gigs at clubs in Greenwich Village.
Ten years after leaving high school, Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 27. He was laid to rest in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, amid Civil War heroes, Abolitionists, and a number of other major American artists. He remains an inspiration to aspiring young artists around the world.
Basquiat’s meteoric success took place within the active and enlarged art market of the 1980s. During that decade, with Ronald Reagan in the White House, art became another investment with which to diversify portfolios. Citibank, for example, had an art advisory service overseen by Jeffrey Deitch, who later became a legendary art dealer. After the domination of austere Minimalist art during the 1970s, the 1980s witnessed the comeback of a more “painterly” kind of painting. Styles grouped under the rubric of Neo-Expressionism were the next new thing. Basquiat’s work displays the expressionistic qualities of the hand drawn and brushed, along with a sense of text as image.
Although SoHo was the epicenter of the gallery world at that time, smaller galleries were beginning to proliferate in the East Village, showing more adventurous work by younger artists. The focus stretched farther east. A new class of collectors was drawn to this scene and could be found gallery-hopping and shopping, trailed by their limousines, in a seamless melding of culture and commerce that continues to this day.
In Untitled, on view here, a bold, crowned, spectral head hovers against a vivid blue ground. The painting was made in January 1982. Basquiat had first tackled this imagery in 1981 on another large canvas, now called Untitled [Head], that he began and then put aside for several months before finishing it toward the end of the year. Some of his friends speculate that this hesitation, so different from his usual practice of completing paintings quickly, indicated a degree of surprise and initial discomfort with the potent energy emanating from the image.
Untitled, which appears to be Basquiat’s second painting of a monumental head, initiated one of the most significant years in his career, a time when he produced some of his most powerful works. Other depictions of free-floating heads appear several times that year in smaller works on paper. Heads, both skeletal and cartoon-like, play a role in larger compositions as well, along with the human body and fragmentary text.
Remembering Basquiat’s early familiarity with an anatomy textbook, given to him as a child, the ambitions of this image become even more remarkable. Although this painting and Untitled [Head] are sometimes mistakenly described as skulls, clearly they depict living subjects, with staring, searching eyes, with drawn lines of force that convey something of the workings of the nervous system, and with suggestions of an active facial musculature. At the same time, the way the cranium bulges out toward our left in Untitled emphasizes the location of the brain—the central, animating intelligence.
In comparison even to the well-known Untitled [Head], the ferocity of Untitled stands out, the result of the heavy black strokes that delineate the cranium and accent wide-open eyes and the bared teeth within a box-like mouth. The bold composition and the raw energy of the brushwork and drawn lines create an iconic painting that represents Basquiat at his artistic height during this key year.
These clips were shot in 1980–81 during the filming of New York Beat (released in 2001 as Downtown ’81). The film was loosely based on the downtown art scene, with Basquiat playing a street artist. The soundtrack for these short outtakes is music by Gray, the noise band that Basquiat formed in 1979 with Michael Holman, Shannon Dawson, Vincent Gallo, Wayne Clifford, and Nicholas Taylor.