In the phenomenal essay “Black Like B.,” originally published in 1992 and reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, Greg Tate writes of Basquiat: “When he was alive he was self-destructive; dead he’s a signature, a self-invention, a figment of the pigment.” Society at large could tolerate Basquiat more easily when he became, as Tate puts it, “just another dead black genius.” Stewart never got the genius stamp, but the show helps extend his legacy, which could otherwise be lost to history. Today, the general populace is probably less aware of Stewart himself than of Radio Raheem, the character in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing who was inspired by Stewart. The film was dedicated to Stewart’s family and those of Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, and Yvonne Smallwood, black people who died at the hands of police in the 1980s.
“With The Death of Michael Stewart as its centerpiece,” the show’s opening wall text reads, “this exhibition examines Basquiat’s exploration of black identity, his protest against police brutality, and his attempts to craft a singular aesthetic language of empowerment.” But if Basquiat did strive for a sense of empowerment in his art, it is tough to see it in his representation of a black man being beaten by cops and rendered as a vague silhouette. In the painting, Stewart’s head has no face, only devil horns—or are they cat ears? Around him is a circle suggesting a rope tightening into a noose—or is it the halo of an angel ready for flight? Regardless, he looks like a black ghost. That is what he is, and what Basquiat is, too.
LaBouvier notes in the catalogue that whenever Stewart’s death was mentioned, Basquiat said, “It could have been me.” But wasn’t it also him? Didn’t he share the same fate as Michael Stewart? Both Basquiat and Stewart lived short lives, their premature deaths a product of racist violence in various forms. Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector writes that in the 1980s “it was apparently less of a crime to be queer and white than to be black. Basquiat knew this intrinsically; he lived it daily.” Anecdotes tying Basquiat’s substance abuse to his daily struggles as a black man are common. To take one of the many instances, author Jennifer Clement—in a book about the relationship between Basquiat and his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk, Widow Basquiat: A Love Story (2000)—recounts a night on which Basquiat was so upset by an encounter with a patronizing white woman that he threw away his dinner and did some coke. Although he achieved a level of success in his time, he still found everyday life so unlivable that he had to escape it.
And how unlivable life for black people has remained. Yet black cultural production continues to bloom in the face of catastrophe, as does black organizing. Notably absent from the exhibition’s press materials is discussion of Mothers Against Police Brutality, an organization that LaBouvier and her mother founded after LaBouvier’s brother, Clinton Allen, was shot seven times and killed by Dallas Police in March 2013. Despite the absence of his name, he haunts this show, along with Stewart, Basquiat, and all the others who have died due to the white supremacist forces that Basquiat’s painting, bearing the pain he could not himself carry, portrays.