Artists Features

Basquiat and the Collecting of History

Why is one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists underrepresented in museum collections?

opposite Jean-Michel Basquiat photographed at his Great Jones Street studio, New York City, 1987.DMITRI KASTERINE/KASTERINE.COM

Jean-Michel Basquiat photographed at his Great Jones Street studio, New York City, 1987.


In 1959, Frank Stella’s The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II, widely regarded today as one of the most important of his “Black Paintings,” was acquired for the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The artist was only 23 years old. That same year, the painting had been included in MoMA’s “Sixteen Americans” exhibition, organized by Dorothy Miller, Alfred Barr’s assistant curator and one of the museum’s most forward-thinking minds. (Owing to Barr’s own foresight, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, had been purchased for the museum in the late 1930s.) Stella’s famous statement, “What you see is what you see,” may likely be traced to this major debut, because what most critics saw at the time was not much at all. Stella’s paintings were referred to as “unspeakably boring,” and the New York Times critic John Canaday declared the show’s participants—among them Jay DeFeo, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Rauschenberg—“the sixteen artists most slated for oblivion.” Stella, in an interview with Claudia Bodin, recalled of his instantaneous fame and notoriety that the head of publicity at MoMA “wouldn’t give photos of my ‘Black Paintings’ to the international press because she didn’t want to embarrass the museum. So it remained local news.” Albeit inadvertently, Stella identifies a curious turn on showing at the internationally renowned museum, one that may remain true more than a half century later. To be a New York painter is to risk being regarded, critically and institutionally, as a local artist, someone you might see trudging along the Bowery, or shoehorned into a studio that’s only a cab ride away. Some will inevitably be seen as more local than others. In that same interview, Stella remarked on the MoMA purchase:

It was supposed to cost twelve hundred dollars. Leo [Castelli] called me and told me they only wanted to pay nine hundred dollars for it. I didn’t want to sell the work so cheaply, but I agreed in the end. Alfred Barr, the director of MoMA at the time, was able to purchase works that cost less than one thousand dollars for the collection without asking the trustees for approval.

One can only wonder how many other $900 works slipped in through the side door of the museum’s collection while Barr was at the helm, and to what extent acquisitive privilege extends, and is exercised, today.

To paraphrase Stella’s oft-repeated line as a comment on what should be in museums by now: what you don’t see isn’t there. Focusing particularly on the period now entering history, the 1980s, among many contemporary artworks that are neither at MoMA nor visible at most other museums in this country is a significant painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. (The new Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition of works from its collection is an exception.) More than 25 years after his death, Basquiat remains the central, most celebrated—and tragic—figure of this period. He embodied the promise, energy, and excess of his time, and was crucial to the opening of museum doors and the inclusiveness that followed in the ’90s. And yet a Basquiat painting is absent from MoMA’s collection. This was also the case for another ’80s star, Julian Schnabel, until just months ago. (Previously, the artist had been represented by four works on paper and a copy of his film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, gifted by Miramax, though no print of his directorial debut, Basquiat, is similarly preserved.) Schnabel’s painting St. Sebastian (1979), which came from the artist’s own collection, entered MoMA this past March, with contributions from a number of donors, for a reported $3 million. Writing on the purchase in a New York Times article on MoMA’s acquisition of Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze (1960), Randy Kennedy noted how long it had taken the museum to officially endorse Schnabel, despite his importance in the ’80s and influential resurgence:

William Rubin, who was for many years the Modern’s powerful curator of painting and sculpture, had a position against Mr. Schnabel’s painting so fixed that he wrote a 1984 letter to the New York Times suggesting a correction to a sentence in an article that said “the Modern has not yet acquired” a Schnabel. He said the sentence should not have included the word “yet.”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, Al Jolson, 1981, a drawing in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.


Despite the fact that Basquiat’s excellent Glenn (1985) is now on display at MoMA, it’s still true that the museum has not yet acquired a painting by the artist. Glenn is accompanied by a wall label identifying it as a loan from a private collection, not as the museum’s own work, nor as a promised gift. This is an exceptional instance. The museum is not in the habit of presenting, outside of special exhibitions, works from private collections, as doing so would elevate the status of art held in private hands so that they may then be sold with value-added provenance. In this moment, the inclusion of the word “yet” is entirely appropriate. The presence of this painting on long-term loan can be seen as a very public announcement that a Basquiat is absent from the museum’s holdings, an enticement for owners and donors who may come forth—or come to the rescue, as it were.

At the recent Art Dealers Association of America show in New York, the dealer Christophe van de Weghe exhibited one of the collaborative Basquiat and Andy Warhol paintings from the mid-’80s, which had been a critical and commercial failure at the time. When asked why there was no Basquiat at MoMA van de Weghe matter-of-factly said, “They missed it.” While in every way true, there’s no satisfactory explanation behind the answer. To “miss something” suggests an instance. How did the museum, and others across the country, miss Basquiat for so long? In the ’80s, the ’90s, through and past the 2000s? Hadn’t collectors and board members offered works over those many years? Moreover, to miss something also implies that what has been missed may be subsequently found, that is, if the need and desire exists.

When tallying the scorecard for museums and the representation of ’80s artists, a particular story unfolds. Allowing for ’60s and ’70s figures such as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter to be considered ’80s artists in America, because of their later reception and acquisition, a skewing toward Europe in that era suggests, culturally at least, that Germany won the war. At MoMA, including all mediums, large and small, there are 17 works by Anselm Kiefer, 41 by Rosemarie Trockel, 93 by Martin Kippenberger, 106 by Richter, and 137 by Polke.

The only American, New York–based artist who comes close to rivaling them is Cindy Sherman, since the museum owns a complete set of her “Untitled Film Stills” (comprising 69 images) along with 24 separate photos and six early films. MoMA has four drawings by Basquiat, a portfolio of five prints, a test pressing of a vinyl record, and a large screenprint (not unique, but from an edition of ten). The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds just two works on paper by Basquiat, given by the artist’s estate. The Brooklyn Museum, despite having mounted a 2005 retrospective and currently presenting “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” owns just one drawing and a print, both donations. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art there is a painting and a drawing.

Only the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. are able to present a fully formed view of this artist, with significant paintings among a half dozen of his works in each collection. There are none at the Guggenheim, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or the Seattle Art Museum. MoMA, dedicated to telling the story of modern art, may well have been threatened by postmodernism as it took hold in the ’80s. Despite being in the midst of all the intensive activity of artists in New York at the time, the museum appears to have overlooked the decade. Though by no means devoted to contemporary art, were they willing to be seen as merely the keepers of the past? Postmodernism’s real threat to the museum was to advance art’s narrative as post-MoMA.


Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1986.


When asked what may have prevented MoMA from acquiring a Basquiat painting, Mary Boone, who represented the artist in New York in the mid-’80s, responded, “It wasn’t money, it was interest.” She added, “In his lifetime the most expensive painting was $80,000.” The Basquiat painting now on view at the museum has a striking and iconic central head set on a ground comprised of approximately 70 collaged drawings, all fantastically engaging works in their own right. Formerly in the collection of Larry Warsh, it was sold at auction in November 2004 at Christie’s for $1.4 million, below its pre-sale estimate of $1.5 million to $2 million. Its current valuation would be more in the range of $12 million to $15 million. Museums, of course, have to walk a fine line when confronted with inconvenient gaps in the narratives that precede them, omissions which they inherit and may haunt them and need to be addressed. In Tamra Davis’s Basquiat documentary, The Radiant Child (2010), MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture Ann Temkin, who had worked alongside William Rubin, is asked about the artist’s absence from their collection. Her response is measured; she chooses her words as if placing one foot in front of the other on slippery stones while crossing a stream:

When you first see brand-new work, chances are if it’s really significant it will be uncomfortable to somebody like myself because I am so immersed in what painting up until now looked like. And with Basquiat many art professionals had skepticism about what he was doing because the paintings didn’t necessarily fit their idea about museum painting, and yet, of course, that’s exactly what’s necessary in order to create the art of the future.

Those comments were made more than four years ago. Since then there have been changes at MoMA, evident in works by African American artists from the collection being placed on view, in the active acquisition of artworks by artists of color (a Kerry James Marshall painting entered the collection this past March), and in Temkin’s recent hiring of the African American art historian Darby English. All this activity is against the backdrop of a time when, as Temkin said, Basquiat’s work elicited discomfort from curators and didn’t “fit their idea about museum painting.” Had that skepticism surfaced in 1959, particularly in light of dismissive critical opinions, where would Stella’s The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II be today? There’s no way of knowing.

As far as Basquiat’s “Black Paintings” are concerned, the defense that they “didn’t fit” within the history of museum art evades the fact that this was an artist who was, above all, recording history in his writing and his picture-making—activities he entwined with the very ideas of quotation and collection. Not all that different, except in terms of visual articulation and subject matter, is the work of an artist such as Sherrie Levine, who was embraced by MoMA and other museums at the time. In 1993, Temkin organized an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art of Levine’s Newborn (1993), a work that quotes directly from Brancusi. Museums, of course, are collectors of history, and many curators are drawn to those artists for whom this activity is central to their endeavor, particularly via acts of absorption and translation. Basquiat’s art, as it has been comparatively inscribed within a historical context, refers to Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet, and Warhol—all artists in MoMA’s permanent collection—as well as to Leonardo da Vinci and to African and Egyptian art, as Richard Marshall explores in the essay “Repelling Ghosts,” in the catalogue for the 1992 Basquiat retrospective at the Whitney, four years after the artist’s death. In the same publication, the title of Dick Hebdige’s essay, “Welcome to the Terrordome,” sets up multiple points of entry for what may be called the “fear factor” implicit in this artist’s self-image as well as the voice with which he originally announced himself to the New York art world—SAMO©, which stood for “same old shit.” In the case of Basquiat, the writing on the wall was literal, clear to see from the very start. Among many memorable messages he and his collaborator Al Diaz wrote between the late ’70s and early ’80s, often in the streets around SoHo galleries:





Temkin’s remark concludes with what we might term “the necessity of discomfort,” the sense that discomfort enables us to see forward. But looking forward is not the art historian’s vantage. Contemporary art can be thought of as pre-historic, art that is not only too new but also immersed in the market, from the flimsy walls of art fairs to the auction house, rather than ready for the hallowed halls of the museum. Between 1983 and 1987, as Mary Boone noted, expressly wanting to go on record, “MoMA turned down two Basquiats, a Schnabel plate painting from his first show, a Polke, and a [Brice] Marden, as well as a [Francis] Picabia gift.” Museums are always aware of the inevitable uplift that institutional exhibitions and acquisitions provide and are never too eager to help galleries promote artists and raise their prices. In terms of the recent past, this was never more true than in the highflying ’80s, a time when the reputations and fortunes of certain artists and dealers rose appreciably, when collectors once again gained prominence and ascended to museum boards. Museums had to be wary. In the ’80s there was also the potential for collectors who, after assembling many works by an artist, might begin to sell, in effect becoming private dealers and profiting from the museum’s imprimatur. (Though the “big bad ’80s” don’t even begin to compare with the insider trading of buyer-collectors today.) At that time, when the market and its players seemed to have short-circuited the usual path an artist and his or her work would take to achieve a higher level of recognition, critics and curators may well have felt irrelevant, instilled with an unwillingness to convey their once-valued endorsement and risk being seen as helping spin art’s merry-go-round ever faster just to watch all the money fly off.


Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Edo Bertoglio’s film Downtown 81, 1980–81.


This situation alone doesn’t account for the reluctance of museums to fully engage with art in the moment. What sets the ’80s apart from what came immediately before, particularly the conceptualism and minimalism of the ’60s and ’70s, is content, which was, in many ways, based upon the discontent of its creators—art meant to mischievously push buttons and deflate “boosh-wah-zee fantasies,” teasing the end of the avant-garde. The discomfort and even outrage with which certain artworks are met may have strong parallels with the sense of rage that fuels or serves as the undertow for their creation. “The necessity of discomfort” may not, in the ’80s, have been sufficient to persuade museums to acquire works by a young artist of color, meteorically risen from the street—or so it seemed—whose value, both monetary and aesthetic, had perhaps been inflated by any number of promoters and dealers with their own investments and interests at stake. More than that, with respect to the content of Basquiat’s work, it was not enough to convince them to hang on their walls art that raised the unpleasant specters of “Jim Crow,” “Al Jolson,” “Gangsterism,” “The Deep South,” “Famous Negro Athletes,” “Hollywood Africans,” “Obnoxious Liberals,” “Mr. Greedy,” colonialization, racism, slavery, and “The Men’s Shelter on Third Street.” Hollywood Africans (1983), now on view at the Whitney, was a 1984 gift to the Whitney of Douglas S. Cramer, who at the time was much more closely associated with MoMA, where he served as a trustee and chairman of the painting and sculpture committee, and to which he donated more than a hundred works of art. And yet Hollywood Africans did not end up on 53rd Street.

Herbert and Lenore Schorr, Basquiat’s earliest, most devoted private collectors (they acquired and have never sold approximately 20 paintings and 20 drawings, and were personally close to the artist), recount a number of instances in which New York museums rejected his work. The Schorrs attempted, while the artist was still alive, to donate Untitled (1986), a major drawing, nearly 8 by 10 feet, to MoMA. In their account, a curator in the department of prints and drawings, Magdalena Dabrowski, relayed the message that the museum was not interested, saying, in effect, that the work was “not worth the storage space.” The drawing was then sent to the Whitney, where Richard Marshall was unsuccessful in convincing an acquisition committee, whom he told, according to the Schorrs, “You’ll be sorry.” Three years after Basquiat’s death, when Bernice Rose was preparing the exhibition “Allegories of Modernism: Contemporary Drawing” at MoMA, she visited the Schorrs hoping to borrow the 1987 drawing previously offered; unbeknownst to her, they had not bought it. She admitted to the Schorrs, “We didn’t appreciate him when he was alive.” Recalling the various frustrations and affronts surrounding Basquiat and the New York museum world, the Schorrs concluded with their most recent interaction, from the early 2000s, when they offered a painting to MoMA but the museum “couldn’t raise the money from the board.”

Still from The Radiant Child, 2010.COURTESY ARTHOUSE FILMS/CINEDIGM

Still from The Radiant Child, 2010.


Stills from The Radiant Child, 2010.COURTESY ARTHOUSE FILMS/CINEDIGM

Stills from The Radiant Child, 2010.


In The Radiant Child, the single most contentious critic in the 1980s, Hilton Kramer, maligns Basquiat and a period when artists of color and women sought and achieved greater visibility in galleries and museums. Ever-willing to provoke, steely, and in no way afraid to be seen as the neo-con he so thoroughly embodied, Kramer carps, “The art world, which is full of left-wing types, was feeling that they, you know, they needed to take a bow in that direction—the disadvantaged, minorities and so on.” Of Basquiat, he insists, “His contribution to art is so minuscule as to be practically nil.” To what extent, even muted, this sort of attitude may have existed in the rest of the art world at that time is not easily gauged. With the exception of Kramer, posing as the new centurion, who reveled in his bully pulpit, most in the polite gallery and museum world keep unvarnished opinions close to the vest. On the heels of Kramer’s remarks, the documentary offers footage of a Basquiat interview in which he is asked, “You like to be called the black Picasso?” To which he responds, “Not so much. It’s flattering but it’s also demeaning,” and adds, “Most of my reviews have been reviews of my personality more so than my work.” When pressed for his reaction to this treatment, he says, “They’re just racists, most of those people. They have this image of me—wild man, running wild, monkey man, whatever the fuck they think.”

One of the better-known images of Basquiat is the photograph taken by Lizzie Himmel that appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1985, accompanying the article “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist.” He is seated in front of a painting in his studio, in a vintage Art Deco chair, wearing an impeccable dark suit, but barefoot, his dreads closely cropped. His expression registers a wary, slightly tired defiance, as if he can see all those who will be looking at and judging him in the printed image. And yet a photograph, even a great “psychologically revealing” picture, is not the person. The best artists—and this includes the most open and sociable—whether cerebral or expressionist in their work, are always in large part interior, just as they inhabit their work somewhere inside its contours and physiology. Most people who visit museums have never met the people who brought the art into the world. But there are critics, curators, collectors, dealers, and fellow artists who have, and for them, the art on display allows them to see the artist in the room. It’s that after-image which persists. For the public, an artist’s reputation or notoriety can either animate or impede the work itself. (How many contemplate a great, late de Kooning and wonder: alcohol, dementia?) For those to whom Basquiat referred as fixated on a stereotypical image of him, and on his personality, it’s possible that in the years after his death, when confronted with his work, they see him, 27 years old, having extinguished his talent so prematurely, dead of a drug overdose. This can only reinforce an earlier mistaken impression and prior apprehension—a picture of Basquiat as a black graffiti writer, someone who came from the street and didn’t belong in the museum, defacing the walls of SoHo with his aphoristic social critique, an almost self-fulfilling prophecy:


Annina Nosei, Basquiat’s first dealer, counters this image, recalling how he, at the age of 19, gave her as a birthday present a book on Marcel Duchamp. “What graffiti artist,” she challenges, “knew about Duchamp?” Among 14 works by David Hammons in the MoMA collection, most acquired within the past ten years, there is a bookwork, The Holy Bible: Old Testament (2002). Opening the cover you discover that it actually contains a rebound copy of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, by his foremost scholar, Arturo Schwarz. If there is any coincidental circularity here, it can be found in the fact that an essential part of Basquiat’s legacy resides in his opening of galleries and museums to artists in the years after his passing, to many who had not previously been present. He didn’t live to see the ’90s, a period which witnessed a greater inclusiveness, or to stand alongside one of his paintings on view at MoMA. But then we live in a time when the recognition for artists vacillates between posthumous and premature—who can tell when it’s too soon? Indulging ourselves in a moment of speculative fiction, would an American museum brave enough to acquire Picasso in the late ’30s or Stella in the late ’50s have bought a Basquiat painting in the ’80s? Art moves simultaneously in multiple directions, and so too does its history.

Bob Nickas is a writer and a curator based in New York.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 66 under the title “Basquiat and the Collecting of History.”

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