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Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum presents Basquiat’s ‘Defacement: The Untold Story’ 

Guggenheim Museum
Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘The Death of Michael Stewart,’ 1983, acrylic and marker on sheet rock, 34 x 40 inches, framed (86.4 x 101.6 cm). Collection of Nina Clemente, New York © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York Photo: Allison Chipak © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018

NEW YORK – From June 21 to Nov. 6, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presents Basquiat’s “Defacement: The Untold Story.” This focused, thematic exhibition of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988), supplemented with work by others of his generation, explores a formative chapter in the artist’s career through the lens of his identity and the role of cultural activism in New York City during the early 1980s.

The exhibition is organized by guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier.

The exhibition takes as its starting point the painting The Death of Michael Stewart, informally known as Defacement, created by Basquiat in 1983 to commemorate the fate of the young black artist Michael Stewart at the hands of New York City transit police after allegedly tagging a wall in an East Village subway station. Originally painted on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio, the work was not meant to be seen widely and has rarely been exhibited in a public context. With approximately 20 paintings and works on paper by Basquiat and his contemporaries, this presentation examines Basquiat’s exploration of black identity, his protest against police brutality, and his attempts to craft a singular aesthetic language of empowerment.

The works on view by Basquiat further illustrate his engagement with state authority as well as demonstrate his adaptation of crowns as symbols for the canonization of historical black figures. Also featured are archival material related to Stewart’s death, including Keith Haring’s diary and protest posters, along with samples of artwork from Stewart’s estate.

Paintings and prints made by other artists in response to Stewart’s death and the subsequent criminal trial of the police officers charged in his death include Haring’s Michael Stewart—U.S.A. for Africa (1985); Andy Warhol’s screenprinted “headline” painting from 1983 incorporating a New York Daily News article on Stewart’s death; David Hammons’s stenciled print titled The Man Nobody Killed (1986), George Condo’s Portrait of Michael Stewart (1983) and Lyle Ashton Harris’s photographic portrait Saint Michael Stewart (1994), all of which are testaments to the solidarity among artists at the time and the years following.

An illustrated publication presents new scholarship on Basquiat and the burgeoning East Village art scene during the early 1980s, an era marked by the rise of the art market, the AIDS crisis and the activism it engendered, and persistent racial tensions in the city. The essays are supplemented by a section of recollections by key activists, critics, artists, lawyers and journalists who were directly involved in the aftermath of Stewart’s death.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 in New York City and died there in 1988. His work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions.

Chaédria LaBouvier is a writer and Basquiat scholar. She holds an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA’s Film School, and is a graduate of Williams College where she majored in History (Military Strategy and Colonialism). In fall 2016, she organized a one-work exhibition of Basquiat’s painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) with accompanying programs for the Reading Room at Williams College Museum of Art.