Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather” floats from the record player at a meticulous re-creation of the Basquiat family brownstone in Brooklyn. Soon after the song ends, John Coltrane’s saxophone carries through the space of “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure”, a sweeping exhibition dedicated to the late, legendary artist, now on view at the Starrett Lehigh Building in Chelsea.
More than 200 artworks and objects from Basquiat’s estate—most of which have never been publicly displayed—are exhibited in a space designed by the architect David Adjaye. These are placed throughout impressive re-creations of Basquiat’s formative physical spaces, including the dining room of the Boreum Hill house where he grew up; his Great Jones Street painting studio crowded with paintings, books, and a TV that played clips of The Breakfast Club; and the VIP Room of the iconic artist haunt, New York’s Palladium nightclub. Several rooms are accompanied by QR code leading to one of four playlists created for the show in partnership with Spotify.
Each represents a major stage of Basquiat’s life—the first playlist, “Childhood,” includes classics like “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong and Diana Ross’s rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. “Studio Life” skips between the fast jazz of Miles Davis, the bending and ascending guitar pickings of Jimi Hendrix, and stadium rousers from Queen. “Nightclub” is a collection of infectious disco and New Wave: Donna Summer, David Bowie, and Parliament.
From hip-hop to jazz to soul, music had a strong influence on Basquiat’s art practice. He was an avid collector of of albums and has more than 3,000 in his collection. He also dappled in making his own music. He was the frontman of the experimental noise project Gray. In 1983, Basquiat produced the single “Beat Bop” from downtown legends Rammelzee and K-Rob. Original pressings of the track are among the most coveted rap records in history due to the cover art, designed by Basquiat, of a frenzy of some of his best-known motifs, bones and crowns.
The expressive, free-wheeling style of his painting reflects the innovations of his idols, many of which are directly referenced in his works. His painting Horn Players, for example, depicts Charlie “the Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, two artists at the forefront of bebop, the postwar jazz movement marked by improvisation, compositional complexity, and an adventurous spirit.
As a fixture of the downtown New York Club scene, Basquiat knew many of the music era’s towering figures; he famously appeared in the music video for Blondie’s 1981 hit “Rapture.” The first painting her ever sold, Cadillac Moon, was to the band’s lead singer Debbie Harry, who paid $200 for it.
Immersive exhibitions have cropped up in cities worldwide lately, each promising unparalleled access to the hidden lives of canonical artist, but more often offering a flashy mashup up animation and projections of their greatest hits. “King Pleasure,” curated by the late artist’s sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, is the rare experience to mostly fulfill expectations. It begins well before Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ascension into art stardom, with his birth card announcement.
Visitors watch him grow up from there: a grainy family footage of him as a baby is paired with a film of a sharply dressed 8-year-old Basquiat playing in Prospect Park with his sister. There’s a report card from the family’s brief relocation to Puerto Rico, and endearing snatches of poetry, stray thoughts, and sketches from his tenure on the newspaper at his creative arts high school in New York.
Music, however, opens and closes the show: its title, “King Pleasure,” is a nod to the title of a 1987 Basquiat painting that commemorates the influential jazz vocalist of the same name, best known for his hit 1952 rendition of “Moody’s Mood for Love.” The re-creation of the nightclub Palladium, where Basquiat often partied through the night into the dawn, is the last stop. A wall of monitors displays revelers on the dance floor and even on the other side of the exit, you can still hear the disco.
Listen to the “Childhood” playlist below: