On a recent visit to New York City, I was lucky enough to catch Jean-Michel Basquiat’s King Pleasure, the first-ever exhibit carefully curated by his estate. This intimate, expansive show displays over 200 never before or rarely seen paintings, sketches, and ephemera by the beloved late artist. Architect David Adjaye turned the ground floor of Chelsea’s Starrett-Lehigh building into a fitting tribute to a cultural icon of the greatest city in the world.
Incredible creativity is visible from the minute you walk in, and the exhibit’s powerful stories, strokes, and colors immediately give you a feel of how good it’s going to be. King Pleasure transported me into Basquiat’s world through its replicas of his living spaces, childhood drawings, family photos, and the personal objects that bring him to life.
The beginning of the exhibit displays Basquiat’s early cultural influences through art, sports, and music, and you can see how his exposure to Black creators would go on to inspire much of his work. There’s also a space dedicated to his famous studio that displays how he worked and what he used as inspiration. It was carefully curated by his close family, which gives this specific part of the exhibit a sense of authenticity and warmth.
One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibit is the music playing throughout the various spaces. You can hear the artists Basquiat listened to when he was painting or partying, including Elton John, Charlie Parker, and the great Jimi Hendrix. The contrast between the songs made me think of the contrasts in Basquiat’s art, which can go from smooth and simple to chaotic and wild. Exhibit sponsor Spotify created a “Listen Like Basquiat” playlist for the exhibit, so you don’t have to attend the show to hear music from his childhood, nightlife, and studio life.
As I walked through King Pleasure, what struck me the most is how relevant Basquiat’s work still is to this day. As a man of color, Basquiat experienced police brutality and racial discrimination firsthand, and you can see references to this throughout the exhibit. He often biked around the city because he had trouble catching a taxi, and you can find his bicycle on display in the exhibition. He often used his art and unique voice to raise attention to the very common issue of police brutality, and his painting Jailbirds is a great example.
In September of 1983, another young, aspiring artist named Michael Stewart was badly beaten by the police and died days later. This situation shocked the East Village art scene, which Basquiat felt deeply. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, his sister Jeanine Heriveaux mentioned that recent political issues like the 2020 murder of George Floyd inspired the Basquiat family to create the show. King Pleasure is full of evidence that Basquiat witnessed similar injustices, which made think how little we have learned as a society. Almost 50 years after the iconic Black artist’s heyday, we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
This showroom of Basquiat’s unseen art shows the world a different side of this creative and struggling artist. In a way, it allows us to see through the troubled genius label to the everyday human being we’re still getting to know. Throughout King Pleasure, you can feel all the inviting, sometimes loud warmth of the artist’s chosen city, which makes it feel different from a typical museum exhibit.
Just when you think the exhibit is over, it sucks you back into the ’80s nightlife vibe with a replica of the VIP room from the iconic East Village club Palladium. In this space, you’ll find two magnificent, massive paintings Basquiat created for this place where he often partied, showing how New York’s wild spirit from the past is very much alive. Thanks to the late night ambiance of the music and lighting, I couldn’t help but leave King Pleasure feeling energized and ready to party, even if it was only 3 PM.