Lena Hornes’ “Stormy Weather” flows from the turntable by a careful re-creation of the Basquiat family’s brownstone in Brooklyn. Shortly after the song ends, John Coltrane’s saxophone carries through the room “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure”, an extensive exhibition dedicated to the late, legendary artist, which can now be seen in the Starrett Lehigh Building in Chelsea.
More than 200 works of art and artifacts from Basquiat’s estate – most of which have never been exhibited in public – are on display in a room designed by architect David Adjaye. These are located in impressive reproductions of Basquiat’s formative physical spaces, including the dining room of the Boreum Hill house where he grew up; his Great Jones Street painting studio filled with paintings, books and a TV playing clips of The breakfast club; and the VIP room at the iconic artist home, New York’s Palladium nightclub. Several rooms are accompanied by QR code leading to one of four playlists created for the show in collaboration with Spotify.
Each represents a major phase of Basquiat’s life – the first playlist, “Childhood”, features classics such as “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong and Diana Ross’ rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. “Studio Life” jumps between Miles Davis’ fast-paced jazz, Jimi Hendrix’s bent and ascending guitar playing and stadium rousers from Queen. “Nightclub” is a collection of infectious disco and New Wave: Donna Summer, David Bowie and Parliament.
From hip-hop to jazz to soul, music had a strong influence on Basquiat’s art practice. He was an avid collector of albums and has more than 3,000 in his collection. He was also spotted in making his own music. He was the front man for the experimental noise project Gray. In 1983, Basquiat produced the single “Beat Bop” from downtown legends Rammelzee and K-Rob. Original prints of the track are among the most coveted rap records in history due to the cover art, designed by Basquiat, of a madness of some of his most famous motifs, bones and crowns.
The expressive, free-flowing style of his painting reflects the innovations of his idols, many of which are directly referenced in his works. His painting Horn playersfor example, Charlie “The Bird” depicts Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, two artists at the helm of bebop, the post-war jazz movement characterized by improvisation, compositional complexity, and an adventurous spirit.
As part of the New York Club scene, Basquiat knew many of the towering figures of the music era; he appeared famously in the music video for Blondie’s hit “Rapture” from 1981. The first painting she ever sold, Cadillac Moonwas to the band’s lead singer Debbie Harry, who paid $ 200 for it.
Immersive exhibitions have appeared in cities around the world recently, each promising unsurpassed access to the hidden lives of canonical artists, but more often offering a flashy mashup animation and projections of their greatest hits. “King Pleasure”, curated by the late artist’s sisters Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, is the rare experience that mostly meets expectations. It begins a good while before Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rise to art star status, with his birth certificate announcement.
Visitors watch him grow up from there: a grainy family footage of him as a baby is paired with a film of a sharply dressed 8-year-old Basquiat playing in Prospect Park with his sister. There is a report from the family’s brief move to Puerto Rico and captivating pieces of poetry, misguided thoughts and sketches from his tenure in the newspaper at his creative art high school in New York.
However, music opens and closes the show: its title, “King Pleasure,” is a nod to the title of a 1987 Basquiat painting commemorating the influential jazz vocalist of the same name, best known for his 1952 hit rendition of “Moody’s.” for love. “The re-creation of the Palladium nightclub, where Basquiat often partyed through the night until dawn, is the last stop. A wall of monitors shows partygoers on the dance floor, and even on the other side of the exit you can still hear the disco.
Listen to the “Childhood” playlist below: