by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)
The Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story exhibition will be supplemented with work by other artists of Basquiat’s generation and will explore a formative chapter in the artist’s career and the role of cultural activism in New York City during the early 1980s.
The exhibition takes as its starting point the painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), created by Basquiat in 1983 to commemorate the fate of the young, Black artist Michael Stewart at the hands of New York City transit police after allegedly tagging a wall in an East Village subway station.
Originally painted on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio, Defacement was not meant to be seen widely and has rarely been exhibited in a public context. With approximately twenty paintings and works on paper by Basquiat and his contemporaries, this presentation around Defacement will examine Basquiat’s exploration of Black identity, his protest against police brutality, and his attempts to craft a singular aesthetic language of empowerment.
The works on view by Basquiat will further illustrate his engagement with state authority as well as demonstrate his adaptation of crowns as symbols for the canonization of historical Black figures. Also featured will be archival material related to Stewart’s death, including diaries and protest posters, along with samples of artwork from Stewart’s estate.
Paintings and prints made by other artists in response to Stewart’s death and the subsequent criminal trial of the police officers charged in his killing to be presented include Haring’s Michael Stewart—U.S.A. for Africa (1985); Andy Warhol’s screenprinted “headline” paintings from 1983 incorporating a New York Daily News article on Stewart’s death; David Hammons’s stenciled print titled The Man Nobody Killed (1986), and Lyle Ashton Harris’s photographic portrait Saint Michael Stewart (1994), all of which are testaments to the solidarity among artists at the time and the years following.