Observation Deck

Basquiat Makes His Way Back to the East Village

The retrospective that acts as a reminder that everything—and nothing—has changed since the 1980s.

Photo courtesy of The Brant Foundation Art Study Center/Facebook

Jean-Michel Basquiat is back in his old stomping ground three decades after his death. Would he be prepared to see how much—and how little—the East Village has changed since 1988?

jean-michel basquiat art
Photo courtesy of Brant Foundation Art Study Center/Facebook

Art collector Peter Brant has promoted art education for the masses since launching his namesake foundation in 1996, and art lovers from across the globe have flocked to the Brant Foundation’s Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut, which opened in 2009. But New Yorkers don’t have to make the trip anytime soon: The foundation has found a new Manhattan home, a 1920s Con Edison substation on East 6th Street that most recently acted as artist Walter de Maria’s studio. To celebrate the new space, the inaugural exhibition—in collaboration with Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton and art historian Dieter Buchhart—features 70 exciting works from Basquiat’s short-lived career (he died from a drug overdose at age 27), many of which haven’t been seen by the public since the artist’s early days showcasing in galleries around the East Village.

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The neighborhood today is definitely not the same gritty landscape that Basquiat knew in the ’80s. The East Village’s most famous stretch, St. Mark’s Place, has become a gleaming example of the city’s rapid gentrification, burying authentic storefronts (Search & Destroy, the recently departed St. Mark’s Comics) with bubble tea cafés and cheap sunglasses booths. CBGB’s original location is now a high-end men’s boutique, which has profited from the space’s roots by selling graphic T-shirts for $98. Apartment rents are officially too high to house the creatives and bohemians of yesteryear, forcing them to build communities in Manhattan’s outskirts. 

search and destroy
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Despite the neighborhood’s evolution, though, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that Basquiat could have painted all of his Neo-Expressionist canvases in 2019. His works that dealt with painful social issues—black incarceration, classism, consumerism—are, unfortunately, still incredibly resonant three decades later. A bright yellow painting titled Hollywood Africans is scribbled with phrases—gangsterism, sugar cane, and What is bwana?—indicating the stereotypes casting directors had about black actors back in the day. (#OscarsSoWhite, anyone?) Another figurative, Irony of a Negro Policeman, acts as a direct critique of his own community, adopting the rules and brutality of a majority that has oppressed them time and time again. Then there’s the untitled 1982 painting that most recently shook the art world, selling at a 2017 auction for an unprecedented $110 million. Admiring from a close distance the intricate lines of the skeletal face grimacing at the surrounding chaos makes you understand why the buyer didn’t want to spend one penny less on it.

The most breathtaking presentation in the gallery is a two-story wall plastered with 16 paintings in a perfect grid. Looking up you can see depictions of Basquiat’s friendship with Andy Warhol (Dos Cabezas); his nightmarish perspective of the livestock industry (Beef Ribs Longhorn); and his simplistic viewpoint of the Empire State Building (Mecca, a work that hangs in one of Jay-Z’s homes).

jean-michel basquiat art
Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Francesco Clemente: When they were kings. / Photo courtesy of Brant Foundation Art Study Center/Facebook

It’s not all darkness inside the sun-soaked Brant Foundation, however. Basquiat’s love of jazz and boxing is prevalent throughout, with artistic tributes to heavyweights like Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Lewis, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker. And then there’s the beauty of the converted building these works temporarily grace. The fourth floor is home to both a sprawling panoramic view of the East Village skyline that inspired Basquiat and an overhead reflective pool with a clear bottom that doubles as a gallery skylight.

Basquiat probably never would have imagined selling his artwork for Central Park penthouse prices nor showcasing them in a prim gallery space like the Brant Foundation. But even a quick walk through the retrospective makes you wonder what kind of inspiration he’d find in New York’s transformation. How would Basquiat depict Hudson Yards, the crumbling MTA, and the Duane Reades residing on every Manhattan block? What about the Kalief Browders and Eric Garners of the world? One can only imagine.

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