Aug 8th 2019

Art and Defacement: Basquiat at the Guggenheim

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.


Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. According to mappingpoliceviolence.org in 2014, fewer than one in three black people killed by police in the U.S. were suspected of a violent crime and allegedly armed. As American pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock once observed, “Most middle-class whites have no idea what it feels like to be subjected to police who are routinely suspicious, rude, belligerent, and brutal.”

Such brutality is the focal point for Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story, an exhibition that commences from a painting created by Jean-Michel Basquiat in honor of a young, black artist – Michael Stewart – who met his tragic end when he was supposedly caught by the New York City Transit Police tagging a wall in an East Village subway station during the early morning hours of September 15, 1983. What precisely transpired that night remains unsettled to this day, but what is sufficiently known is that the twenty-five year old Stewart was handcuffed, beaten and strangulated by a chokehold with a nightstick – likely causing a massive brain hemorrhage, whereby he fell into a coma and never regained consciousness, dying two weeks later.

Other artists, among them Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, responded to Stewart’s death with commemorative works of their own, which are featured in the exhibition. Also included is a yellow flyer created by David Wojnarowicz – portraying the officers with vicious, skeletal faces –  to announce a September 26, 1983, rally in Union Square in protest of Stewart’s “near-murder”, when the young man was still languishing in a coma, “suspended between life and death”. In fact, Basquiat must have seen Wojnarowicz’s poster (which was taped “all over” downtown, as another artist recalls), and apparently it served as a direct source for the composition of Basquiat’s painting.  The Death of Michael Stewart (informally known as Defacement) was originally painted directly onto the drywall of Haring’s Cable Building studio; later cut out of the wall and placed within an ornate gilded frame which Haring hung immediately above his bed. There the painting remained until Haring’s death from AIDS-related illness in February 1990.

Two positively ravenous officers – with pink flesh and blue uniforms – wield their nightsticks above a solitary, black and haloed figure fixed motionlessly between them. In the upper register of the painting, above the trio of figures is the word ¿DEFACEMENTO? – a word that during the 1980s was often used as a term for graffiti. In the context of the painting, the artist draws our attention to the reality that what was truly being defaced was not a piece of property but a life: it is the police officers, teeth bared and thirsty for blood, who are committing the act of defacement, of disfigurement. Basquiat’s art was constantly in dialogue with the history of Western painting; and in this case, his work may in fact be seen as revisiting and restaging a classic theme – namely, the flagellation of Christ.

The exhibition includes several other works by Basquiat, dealing with closely related subjects that occupied him throughout his relatively short but intense and extraordinarily prolific career. Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981), La Hara (1981) and Untitled (Sheriff) (1981), all take up the themes of white power, authority and law enforcement – generally portraying the police as frightening and monstrous.  La Hara is an especially mesmerizing work, the title of which – repeated four times in the upper left-hand portion – refers to a Nuyorican/Boricua slang term for a police officer; derived from O’Hara, since at one time a large contingent of New York City law enforcement was Irish. The officer in this work is downright scary: with a ghostly white complexion, blood shot eyes and crooked, menacing teeth, set within a jaw that is open wide enough for the figure to be talking to us – all of which serves to convey a kind of seething rage, ready to explode in violence at the slightest provocation. As with many of his figures, Basquiat has painted this officer with his rib cage exposed, and in certain areas we can see right through him to the fire-engine red background. In other words, what we have is a skeletal figure, whose bleached white bones invoke a kind of living dead: not simply a monster but an abomination.

Charles the First (1982) and CPRKR (1982), both references to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, are among the paintings of Basquiat to champion and glorify the father of bebop – granting him, in fact, the stature of a king. These two works, different as they are from Defacement, nevertheless share with it certain themes. At a basic level, all three works are concerned with death, and precisely the death of the young, black, male artist. CPRKR is a kind of grave marker for Parker who was dead at thirty-five: a minimalist work consisting almost entirely of the initials in the title, references to the place (“THE STANHOPE HOTEL”) and year of Charlie Parker’s death (“NINETEEN FIFTYFIVE”), and a cross. At the bottom of the work, Basquiat has printed the name “CHARLES THE FIRST”.

Charles the First abounds with references to the life and work of the great musician; but two features are particularly notable in the present context: at the painting’s top left corner is the word “HALOES” – indicating that in Basquiat’s scheme of things Parker is also a kind of saint, one of a number characteristics he shares with the Stewart of Defacement.  At the bottom of the painting, Basquiat issues the warning “MOST YOUNG KINGS GET THEIR HEADS CUT OFF” – which at the very least reminds us that, for Basquiat, a premature death is the price that the black artist pays for genius. Basquiat himself died in 1988 at the age of twenty-seven from a heroin overdose.

The Guggenheim’s glance back to 1983 and the death of Michael Stewart accomplishes what art exhibitions should, but all too rarely do – it grants us perspective on our present moment; a way of confronting the reality that we are currently living and navigating. We all know the names of unarmed black men who recently had their lives cut short – Trayvon Martin (killed in 2012), Eric Garner (killed in 2014, by an illegal chokehold like the one that killed Stewart), twelve-year old Tamir Rice (shot dead in 2014 by white police officer Timothy Loehmann), eighteen-year old Michael Brown (also shot dead by white Ferguson police officer Daren Wilson), Philando Castile (killed in 2016) – and the list goes on. The show does not allow us to forget that this violence has a long, painful history in America. Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story does what exhibitions should do – it tells us a story we don’t want to hear but need to hear.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: " For the first time in over two decades a painting by Marc Chagall will be going up for auction in Israel. Tiroche Auction House will be hosting the Israeli & International Art auction on January 25th – featuring paintings by a number of Israeli masters, including Reuben Rubin, and Yosl Bergner. The highlight of the evening however is Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder (1970-1974), a theme to which the artist would return at least a dozen times in paintings and drawings."
Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.