Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather” floats from the record player during a meticulous recreation of the Basquiat family’s brownstone in Brooklyn. Shortly after the end of the song, John Coltrane’s saxophone crosses the space of “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Pleasure King”an extensive exhibition dedicated to the legendary late artist, now on display at the Starrett Lehigh Building in Chelsea.
More than 200 works of art and objects from Basquiat’s estate – most of which have never been on public display – are displayed in a space designed by architect David Adjaye. These are set in impressive recreations of Basquiat’s formative physical spaces, including the dining room of the Boreum Hill home where he grew up; his Great Jones Street painting studio filled with paintings, books and a TV showing clips of The breakfast club; and the VIP room at the artists’ iconic haunt, New York’s Palladium nightclub. Several rooms are accompanied by QR codes leading to one of the four playlists created for the show in partnership with Spotify.
Each represents a major milestone in Basquiat’s life – the first playlist, “Childhood,” includes classics like Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” and Diana Ross’ rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “Studio Life” oscillates between the fast jazz of Miles Davis, the curved and rising guitar pickings of Jimi Hendrix and the stadium revivals of 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 has had a strong influence on Basquiat’s artistic practice. He was an avid collector of albums and has over 3,000 in his collection. He also set out to create his own music. He was the leader of the Gray Experimental Noise Project. In 1983, Basquiat produced the single “Beat Bop” by downtown legends Rammelzee and K-Rob. The original pressings of the track are among the most coveted rap records in history due to the cover art, designed by Basquiat, from a frenzy of some of his best-known patterns, bones and crowns.
The expressive and free style of his painting reflects the innovations of his idols, many of which are directly referenced in his works. His painting horn playersfor example, features Charlie “the Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, two artists at the forefront of bebop, the post-war jazz movement marked by improvisation, compositional complexity and adventurous spirit.
As a staple of the downtown New York club scene, Basquiat was acquainted with many towering figures of the music age; it appeared in the music video for Blondie’s 1981 hit “Rapture”. The first painting she ever sold, Cadillac Moonwas to the band’s singer, Debbie Harry, who paid him $200.
Immersive exhibits have recently been popping up in cities around the world, each promising unparalleled access to the hidden lives of canonical artists, but most often offering flashy mashup animation and screenings of their greatest hits. “King Pleasure”, organized by the deceased artist’s sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, is the rare experience that most often meets expectations. It begins long before Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rise to artistic stardom, with his birth announcement.
Visitors watch him grow from there: gritty family footage of him as a baby is paired with footage of a well-dressed 8-year-old Basquiat playing in Prospect Park with his sister. There’s a newsletter of the family’s brief relocation to Puerto Rico, and endearing snippets of poetry, stray thoughts, and sketches from his tenure in the journal of his creative arts high school in New York.
The music, however, opens and closes the show: its title, “King Pleasure”, is a nod to the title of a 1987 painting by Basquiat that commemorates the influential jazz singer of the same name, best known for his hit 1952 rendition of “Moody’s Mood for Love. The recreation of the Palladium nightclub, where Basquiat often partied all night until dawn, is the final 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: