‘Jean-Michel Basquiat’ at the Brant Shows His Bifurcated Life

A few years ago, a plaza in Paris was named after the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Brooklyn-born painter who became a global sensation in the early 1980s and died at 27 of a heroin overdose. No similar honor has been bestowed upon Basquiat by the City of New York. However, the opening of the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in the East Village, with an exhibition of nearly 70 works by Basquiat created from 1980 to 1987, serves as a fitting temporary shrine. The Brant in Manhattan is also part of a wave of private museums opening across the country, including the Hill Art Foundation in Chelsea; the expansion of Glenstone in Maryland; and the Marciano and Broad collections in Los Angeles.

But first, Basquiat. The story of this painter of Haitian and Puerto-Rican descent is one of the most documented in contemporary art history. Basquiat moved to Manhattan — partly to escape his strict accountant father — couch-surfed, lived off girlfriends and formed a post-punk band called Gray after “Gray’s Anatomy.” He sprayed poetic, enigmatic graffiti on walls in downtown Manhattan before moving to canvas and starred in an independent film, “Downtown 81.” He dated Madonna before she was famous and made paintings with his hero-turned-friend, Andy Warhol.

Basquiat was also part of a group of Neo-Expressionists that were largely rejected by critics interested in photography, video and conceptual art — but embraced by a popular audience and a surging art market, where he often felt treated like a faux-primitive genius, which he found racist and demeaning. And yet, this seemed to fuel his work — and the anger in it — toward greater heights, forging a brand of African-American history painting that addressed everything from cultural figures to black policemen. His reputation has grown posthumously and in 2017 one of his paintings sold at auction for a record $110.5 million to a Japanese billionaire.

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