Death of an artist: the powerful protest of Jean-Michel Basquiat

It’s a sign of the times when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, one of the standard bearers for modern art, hosts an exhibition exposing the brutality of the city’s police force.

In the age of Trump, the United States has become a radically divided nation where issues such as refugees, racism and gun laws are never out of the headlines. It seems we’ve finally reached the stage when even the great art museums are laying down the battle-lines.

Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story looks at the death of 23-year-old Michael Stewart – a historic case of injustice that has new relevance in the current political climate. The title comes from a small painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat who, since his death in 1988 at the age of only 27, has become one of the iconic painters of the late 20th century.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, left, and Keith Haring at the opening reception for Julian Schnabel at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987. Credit:George Hirose

Guest curator Chaedria LaBouvier is the first African-American woman to be invited to organise a show for the Guggenheim. Journalist, activist and self-described “revolutionist”, LaBouvier has taken a partisan approach, tracking back over the events of September 15, 1983, when Stewart, an aspiring African-American artist and model, was arrested at 2.50am for allegedly writing graffiti on the wall of a subway station. Shortly afterwards he was delivered to the hospital unconscious, hog-tied and bearing all the signs of a savage beating.

Thirteen days later Stewart died, and coroner Dr Elliot M. Gross came down with three successive findings exonerating the police of any blame. Gross’ most controversial act was to remove Stewart’s eyes, post-mortem, and put them in a bleaching solution that erased any traces of haemorrhaging, an indicator of strangulation.

Six officers would stand trial and be acquitted, a verdict that suggests Stewart somehow beat himself up, applied blunt force to the back of his own neck and strangled himself. To Stewart’s family, friends and supporters it was the most transparent of cover-ups.

Jean-Michel BasquiatDefacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)1983Credit:Allison Chipak/Solomon R. Guggenheim

Today it looks even more brazen. A civil law suit would be settled in 1987 for a $1.7 million, but the police have continued to deny any responsibility.

For the Bohemians of the East Village, Stewart’s death was a terrifying wake-up call. Aspiring artists and musicians had viewed the ’80s as one long succession of all-night parties held in fashionable clubs, fuelled by huge quantities of booze and drugs. Graffiti art had begun to migrate from the subways to the art galleries, with figures such as Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf becoming the vanguard of a highly collectable new wave.

It was a bubble that bore no relation to the rest of Ronald Reagan’s America. Many saw the police as indifferent to the East Village drug culture, in which deals were enacted in broad daylight. Stewart was a new entrant in the scene – a quietly spoken young man from a middle-class family who still lived with his parents in Brooklyn and had no connection with the graffiti artists. He was the least likely person to get involved in a violent altercation with police.

Remember Michael Stewart” button, designed by Eric Drooker (1984)Credit:Allison Chipak/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundeation

The graffiti artists were always running from the cops but until the Stewart incident they hadn’t viewed an arrest as potentially life-threatening. Neither had they been aware of the very different way a black man might be treated, as opposed to a white artist such as Haring who had been detained and released on repeated occasions.

For Basquiat and his peers, it was no news that the police were racist but they never suspected such attitudes might lead to murderous violence. When he was told about the assault on Stewart, Basquiat kept repeating: “It could have been me.”

His artistic response was a small sketch painted on a wall in Haring’s studio showing two pink-faced, fang-toothed policemen beating a featurless black figure that seems to be wearing a halo. Across the top he has written ¿defacimento? In graffiti slang this means to write over another artist’s work, but in this context the “defacement” is the obliteration of a life.

Basquiat kept repeating: ‘It could have been me.’

It’s a crude little daub, most probably based on a more considered drawing by David Wojnarowicz that appeared on a flyer for a protest meeting in which two skull-faced policemen beat a handcuffed black figure. Nevertheless, Basquiat’s image has had a fascinating afterlife. Haring cut the picture from the wall and put it in an elaborate gold frame. It was hanging over Haring’s bed when he died in 1990.

La Hara by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1981)Credit:Arora Collection/Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

In the context of the Stewart incident, and Basquiat’s preoccupation with issues of race and black identity, Defacement has become a talisman. It signifies a moment of awareness and resistance to a problem the vast majority of Americans had never recognised: the disproportionate level of police violence directed against blacks and Latinos, and the lack of accountability for such actions.

In Jennifer Clement’s memoir Widow Basquiat (2000), the artist’s long-term girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk says that everything he did “was an attack on racism”. She might have added that Basquiat was permanently conflicted by his status as honorary “noble savage” in a scene in which the dealers, collectors and curators were almost exclusively white.

The incestuous nature of that art scene is revealed by the fact that Mallouk was also involved with Stewart at the time of his death, and would lead the campaign for justice.

Irony of a Negro Policeman by John-Michel Basquiat, 1981Credit:© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The exhibition includes Basquiat’s paintings Irony of a Negro Policeman and La Hara (both 1981), the first being a death’s-head figure in a blue uniform enclosed by a meandering white line. The second features an image of an aggressive, red-eyed cop, with a title that conflates la jara, which is Puerto Rican slang for “police”, with O’Hara, a typically Irish name. These grotesque paintings show Basquiat already thinking of the police as the enemy, with the black policeman portrayed as a grim reaper to his own community.

In a display dominated by documentation of the Stewart story, the largest and most confronting work is not by Basquiat but Haring, whose Michael Stewart – USA for Africa (1985) shows the victim having his neck stretched to giraffe-like proportions by a pair of pink fists. The action takes place in front of a globe of the world that splits and issues a river of blood from which tiny hands wave helplessly.

Michael Stewart – USA for Africa by Keith Haring (1985)Credit:The Keith Haring Foundation

It all adds up to a fractured, angry collage of an exhibition that taps into a public consciousness sensitised to police violence by the beating of Rodney King in 1991, and other well-documented cases. With the involuntary assistance of a US President whose inflammatory rhetoric is widely believed to be encouraging violence and racism, Basquiat’s Defacement is attracting large audiences.

The lure is not simply political anger but the Basquiat factor, which has seen the artist’s reputation assume outlandish dimensions in recent years, aided by booming auction prices and a string of museum surveys.

The next Basquiat blockbuster, in tandem with the work of Haring, will be held at the National Gallery of Victoria starting on  December 1. It will allow Australian audiences to see whether those tremors that shook a provincial corner of New York in the 1980s still have the capacity to move the world.

Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York until November 6.

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