Essays

No One Owns Basquiat, Not Even Peter Brant

Brant has cogently influenced the legacy of Basquiat on several fronts, but the artist and his work remain gloriously defiant.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

When Jean-Michel Basquiat unseated his predecessor Andy Warhol as the number one American artist to command the highest auction price, Basquiat’s confidante Suzanne Mallouk commented in a New York Times op-ed, “My first thought was that Jean would not have liked this. I think he would have hated to see his paintings, which are about subjugation, racism, greed and the underbelly of America, being exploited and acquired as the trophies and commodities of a billionaire. But on the other side of this is that he would have been exhilarated to see the world acknowledge the suffering that his paintings express and for the world to value this voice.” Although the general public may overlook the invisible hands of private collectors, the Basquiat exhibition at the Brant Foundation on the Lower East Side offers a revelation.

A childhood buddy of Donald J. Trump, billionaire Peter M. Brant of the Brant Foundation evokes tycoon prowess without the gilded thrones or ombré combover. While their levels of refinement may diverge, the duo shares a lot in common, beginning with their charmed upbringing in Jamaica Estates to embattled business woes including bankruptcy and tax fraud.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view (all photos by Tom Powel Imaging, copyright Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, licensed by Artestar, New York, and courtesy The Brant Foundation)
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view (all photos by Tom Powel Imaging, copyright Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, licensed by Artestar, New York, and courtesy The Brant Foundation)

In response to his 80-day dalliance in prison, Brant proclaimed, “There are people who say, ‘Oh, he’s a crook.’ But I’m not a crook. And I’ve basically proven that in my life going forward.” This statement was made in 2010. A tastemaker in the most real sense, Peter Brant’s companies Brant Publications Inc. and BMP Media Holdings once boasted a robust roster of art magazines, namely Art in America, ArtNews, The Magazine Antiques, Modern Magazine, and with controversy and questionable ethics, Andy Warhol’s Interview. All but Interview were moved to a new holding company Art Media Holdings, LLC. with Brant as CEO, and eventually were acquired by Penske Media Corp. in November 2018.

According to ArtNews in 2018, Brant declared Interview bankrupt and thus sidestepped paying $3.3 million in debt to former employees, freelancers, and agencies. As the sole secured creditor of Interview, Brant presided over Interview’s sale to himself as a new holding company, Crystal Ball Media, debt-free. For a self-proclaimed champion of the field, Brant did not compensate a multitude of artists and writers for their creative labor. Some would call that theft. However, Brant’s influence constitutes that gangster marriage between soft and hard power, wielding influence in media, publishing, and the arts.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

Brant has cogently influenced the legacy of Basquiat on several fronts, including collecting, exhibiting, and curating the artwork itself (the current exhibition at the Brant Foundation is curated by Brant). He also contributed to the arts media coverage of Basquiat news through art and cultural criticism and co-producing the film Basquiat (1996). Brant once waxed poetic, “Great artists are like loaded guns. They are dangerous in anybody’s hands.” 20-plus years later, the film directed and written by Julian Schnabel may seem innocuous. However, it forcefully established Basquiat’s rags to riches trajectory (or as BBC’s recent 2018 documentary title updates with “Rage to Riches”), from enfant terrible to the cataclysmic martyr.

Two years later in 1998, Phoebe Hoban’s salacious storytelling in her unauthorized biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, solidified this ubiquitous narrative of his meteoric rise to fame — one that begins with Warhol’s discovery and concludes with death by drug overdose and induction into Club 27. Both Schnabel’s and Hoban’s fiction about Basquiat’s persona articulates an inability and refusal to interpret Black genius outside of its market value — a template that persists in arts media, including Brant’s media outlets.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

Jeffrey Wright, who played Basquiat in the eponymous film, felt Schnabel appropriated his performance in that he co-opted Basquiat’s story during his life and after. As detailed in Hoban’s book, the actor stated, “Julian made him out to be too docile and too much of a victim and too passive and not as dangerous as he really was. It’s about containing Basquiat. It’s about aggrandizing himself through Basquiat’s memory. It’s really fucking barbaric. But maybe our culture can’t take the real danger of Basquiat right now.” Not only was Basquiat’s story appropriated, but none of the art in the film Basquiat was created by Basquiat — just Schnabel and his assistant making their versions of Basquiat’s work, a phenomenon that persists today.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

Although the bulk of the credit must go to Schnabel’s writing and directing, Brant was the primary producer of the film and helped to conceive perilous misperceptions about Basquiat: the street urchin, little terror, primitive artist, and junkie tragic hero. One can draw the historiography of these dramatic clichés and social stereotypes from colonial rhetoric justifying enslavement to the drumbeats of the culture wars and New Jim Crow: Assimilate the Native. Infantilize the Other. Pathologize addiction.

In the film, Schnabel finely tunes this wild child trope onto Basquiat. Up the block from the Brant in Tompkins Square Park, Schnabel opens the film by having Basquiat emerge from a cardboard box as a chrysalis. However, the most egregious example of Schnabel’s characterization is the moment he stages Basquiat urinating on the wall of “Albert Milo,” the thinly veiled character representative of Schnabel as the heart-of-gold contemporary with his actual daughter bewildered at the alien presence in front of her.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

It may be true that Basquiat peed on Schnabel’s wall, but unbeknownst to many, they had a fierce real-life rivalry during their heyday. Given their mutual acrimony, it makes more sense that Basquiat peed on Schnabel’s wall to insult, to mark territory, to declare an undisputed victory. This kind of mischief marks the signature style and genius of his origins with Al Diaz’s un-graffiti phenomenon, SAMO©. Schnabel confessed in a Charlie Rose interview, “I think he deserved a lot of respect. Maybe he was demanding in a way; maybe I couldn’t give him that until he was dead in some way.” Decades later, even in death, Basquiat upstages Schnabel with his authenticity and unbreakable spirit.

Beyond addressing racial identity as merely thematic, Basquiat forcefully confronted the spoils of white supremacy and what late great scholar Cedric Robinson called racial capitalism — commodifying Blackness. In addition to the boxers featured in the exhibition (Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, and two of Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali), Basquiat has depicted other fighters, including Roosevelt Sykes, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Jack Johnson. Echoing Basquiat’s series on jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, each of these athletes possessed formidable command over his craft yet limited control over the construction of their celebrity or the profits and wealth generated and extracted from their voice and virtuosity.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

With code-switching savvy and depth, Basquiat names the blue-eyed devil, “DEVIL.” In paintings and large sculptural pieces such as the stunning “Gold Griot” (1985), like a turntablist of time, he summons Afro-Atlantic cultural memory against American historical amnesia. And the frenzied feedback of white noise reveals the lie. As James Baldwin once declared, “I want American history taught. Unless I’m in that book, you’re not in it either.” Basquiat’s artwork does not impart its lessons with a heavy hand or polemics, but he does challenge his viewers to do their (damn) homework. While the work may overwhelm as obtuse or dense, an underlying generosity of spirit invites the viewer to dwell.

The majority of the pieces featured in the exhibition are privately owned, including mogul Yusaku Maezaw’s prized possession, the record-breaking painting of a giant grimacing skull as well as the Carters’ paintings “Mecca” (1982) and “Charles the First” (1982). Moreover, Brant owns many of Basquiat’s most iconic masterworks. While it’s tempting to solely blame the 1%, public museums rejected Basquiat and did not recognize his historical contribution until it was too late, and they were out-priced of the market.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

Without the incentivized altruism, many of these pieces (and many more still) remain concealed away from public view. Regarding the Brant, for everyday people to view these powerful pieces, one must reserve a ticket or be on the list. Reminiscent of the cool downtown clubs when L.E.S. had more grit and less coffee, a person with a clipboard and diva discernment lets you through a heavy door — that is, if you can locate it, because there is no clear signage to indicate the foundation.

Unlike the recent Paris exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation which the Brant derived 70% of its Paris show, co-curators Dieter Buchhart and Peter M. Brant opted not to present the artwork with any interpretive text on the walls. Barbican’s retrospective in London went to great lengths to translate and to decode Basquiat’s semiotic discourse. The Brant designed its formations in terms of conceptual or subject relationships.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

Without guiding text or a road map, laypeople may feel disoriented or find the space aloof. On the top floor, there is a skylight that brings in natural luminosity against the artwork. If you follow it, the rooftop offers a panoramic view of the city. Although it belies any pedagogical purpose characteristic of civic institutes like public museums, the bare presentation does not detract from the ethos and impact of the artwork. For example, the second-floor stuns with a wall of paintings framed on signature canvas stretchers innovated by former assistant Stephen Torton, from floor to high-vaulted ceilings.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view
Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brant Foundation, installation view

In the past decade, Vienna-based curator Dieter Buchhart has led a string of major Basquiat retrospectives. Buchhart has premiered massive exhibitions in Paris, London, Frankfurt, Toronto, Basel, Bilbao, and now New York’s Lower East Side, and concurrently on the Upper East Side at Nahmad Contemporary. In June, the Guggenheim will disrupt Buchhart’s curatorial streak and present Basquiat through another lens emphasizing his prescient social vision. Buchhart has expanded the exhibition exposure of Basquiat to a dizzying degree while Brant’s impact looms large. Nevertheless, Brant plus Buchhart never equals or supersedes Basquiat and the life force of his artwork.

Beyond the high volume and overwhelming demand, Basquiat exhibitions diversify the demography of its attendees. Unlike any other artist before or since, Basquiat invites everybody into the museum — art nerds, hip-hop heads, immigrant kids, post-colonial ex-pats, rebels young and old, everyday Black and Brown folk, thirsty celebrities, and indeed rich white people too. Basquiat hails you to revel in his glorious defiance, then take a piss on the walls of an oppressor.

Jean-Michel Basquiat continues at the Brant Foundation (421 East 6th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through May 15. The exhibition is curated by Peter M. Brant and Dr. Dieter Buchhart.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Xerox continues at Nahmad Contemporary (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 31. The exhibition is curated by Dieter Buchhart.

Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story will go on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) from June 21 through November 6. The exhibition is being organized by guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier, in collaboration with Nancy Spector, Artistic Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator, and Joan Young, Director of Curatorial Affairs.

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