Thirty-four years after his death at 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat has become something of a mythical apparition, inextricable from our understanding of what it means to be a superstar artist: an effortlessly beautiful, furiously productive inventor of an entire visual system to contain, ward off, and annotate the world, aloof yet seemingly game, fluent in all manner of celebrity, and ultimately tragic. After all the books, documentaries, movies, and retrospectives, the young man himself, whoever he was or could have been, has somehow become ever more remote, especially as his paintings became some of the most expensive objects on the planet.
But not to his family. They knew Jean-Michel and held on to their memory of the playful, mischievous, restless person he was, even after he left them behind in Brooklyn for downtown Manhattan and became famous. After he died, they managed his estate, but his story was mostly told by other people. Then, a few years back, his sister Lisane Basquiat explains, she and her stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, “started talking about how we had all these works and they were sitting in a vault and they really needed to be shared and seen.” Eventually, Lisane and her sister, Jeanine Heriveaux, set to work on an exhibition of artworks, artifacts, home movies, and video interviews of friends and family all designed to reclaim their brother as one of their own. Titled King Pleasure, after the musician’s name he wrote on one of his canvases, it’s a pop-up mini-museum and biographical reliquary inside the Starrett-Lehigh Building and will run through the summer.
Two nights before it opened, family and friends gathered, partying in a re-creation of the Mike Todd Room at the Palladium nightclub. As Heriveaux told the crowd, the show intended to “complete the narrative of Jean-Michel. To allow people to understand that he had a family, that he had a father, that he had sisters and a stepmother” — and here someone shouted “Amen!” — “and that little bit was missing from the story.” Everyone cheered, and “Planet Rock,” by Afrika Bambaataa, came over the speakers: “The DJ plays your favorite blasts / Takes you back to the past, music’s magic, poof.”