In our all-or-nothing culture, creative work is too often either apotheosized or ignored. You're a rock star or you're nothing. The public has little appetite for nuance.
-Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books 11/4/21
All I could think of as I walked through the narrow, packed gallery was that this adorable, talented boy died of an overdose at 27, that the narrative of his tormented inner life has been lost in the exploitation of his work, and that both his mentally ill abusive Latino mother, who nurtured his artistic inclinations before she succumbed to her own demons, and his abusive Haitian father, have escaped responsibility for their son's short life in the hagiography of this exhibition. Basquiat ended up homeless on the streets of New York, became addicted to cocaine and heroin, suffered greatly as he tried to get sober, and then was gone. And despite this awful backstory, or perhaps because of it, he created a lasting body of work now worth millions, $110.5 million just recently.
The work is intentional, energetic, mysterious, uplifting, sometimes crass, usually profound and inspiring, especially to young artists today, by all accounts. But in the years since his death, it has been sold at auction for profit by his family; his two sisters, with the help of their step-mother, mounted this immersive exhibition. Is any of this profit going to rehab programs, or research about trauma and addiction? I have found no evidence of this in the Basquiat family's internet footprint, and my query to the media relations department was answered anonymously: the pricing is "commensurate" with other New York City attractions such as the Van Gogh immersive exhibtion, which had no original art at all.
How do the artifacts, scraps of paper, and re-created living spaces illuminate Basquiat's life and his artistic process? I am not sure they do. Indeed, at times, it feels voyeuristic, rather than informative, to be looking inside the cleansed, pristine living spaces of the dysfunctional Basquiat household. Not to mention that there is no place for the voyeurs-- aka audience-- to rest and contemplate, and no backtracking once one gets to the end. Is there accommodation for those with a disability? I hope so.
I had entered on a press pass, but my cousin, a well known print-maker who adores Basquiat's work, had bought a $45 ticket without flinching. I pondered that price, and the opportunity to skip the line with me if she had paid $65. Price for seniors, students and military: $42 and for children under 13: $40. That's a whopping lot of money for a family, say. No surprise that on the day I was there, just about everyone in the gallery was an older lighter-skinned person, commensurate with where most of the privilege resides in the United States. The irony of this would not have been lost on Basquiat who railed articulately against economic and racial injustice.