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

Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."