Basquiat’s Memorial to a Young Artist Killed by Police


Many thanks to Peter Jordens for sharing several posts reviewing and providing the social/historical accounts behind “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” now on view at the Guggenheim Museum (located at 1071 Fifth Avenue, between 88th and 89th Streets) until November 6, 2019. In his excellent article, Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker) explains, “Distraught over the death of the graffiti artist Michael Stewart, he repeated, ‘It could have been me.’” Here are excerpts (see links to the full review and other articles below):

“Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” at the Guggenheim, is a small but timely and often surprising powerhouse of a historical show pegged to a not very good scrap of painting by a star-dusted name. The exhibition includes photographs, documents, and art works relating to the death, on September 28, 1983, of Michael Stewart, a twenty-five-year-old art student at Pratt and a frequenter of the time’s impoverished but raucous, creatively booming East Village and Lower East Side bohemia, from injuries incurred while in police custody. At some point later that year, Jean-Michel Basquiat used marker and acrylics to dash off a sketch of two fiendish cops beating an armless, legless figure, rendered in black silhouette. Lettered above the image is the legend “¿defacement©?,” with the second “e” crossed out. (The inverted Spanish question mark reflects the language of his mother’s Puerto Rican parents; his father was Haitian-born.) It was done on a graffiti-crowded plasterboard wall of the artist Keith Haring’s NoHo studio; unrelated tags of graffitists (Daze and Zephyr are legible) and random froths of spray paint share the surface. The police poses appear to have been loosely copied from a poster designed by the multitalented David Wojnarowicz, a then recent and increasingly forceful arrival on the downtown art scene, announcing a protest rally in Union Square that took place two days before the end of Stewart’s protracted death throes—he had been diagnosed as brain-dead—in Bellevue Hospital.

Before moving out of his studio, in 1985, Haring cut the image from the wall, in a rectangle about two feet high and two and a half feet wide. In 1989, a year after Basquiat’s death, at twenty-seven, from a heroin overdose, Haring had a decorator put it into a fancy gilt frame and hung it above his bed. (Haring succumbed to aids the following year.) This makes it, for me, at best a Basquiat relic turned into an art work by Haring. Certainly, it is unusual for Basquiat in almost every respect. The silhouette figure, the flaccid drawing of the cops, and the illustration of an action are all anomalous. Things are almost never shown happening within this great painter’s characteristic pictorial space. Rather, the space is cannily organized and aggressively frontal, addressing viewers with effects that range from seductive intricacy to slamming directness. Did the trauma of the moment jar his style? He was distraught, friends recall, and said repeatedly, “It could have been me.” Indeed. Like Basquiat, Michael Stewart was young, middle class, handsome, dreadlocked, and black.

At 2:50 a.m. on September 16, 1983, transit police arrested Stewart, allegedly for writing graffiti, in the First Avenue L-train station; thirty-two minutes later, they delivered him to Bellevue, in a coma. He died without having regained consciousness. (He wasn’t a frequent graffitist. In the show, small, resonantly colored abstract paintings by Stewart convey a serious aspiration.) Accounts of what happened ranged from testimony by the police, who claimed that Stewart, in handcuffs, had hurt himself in a fall while trying to flee and in an ensuing struggle, to that of a bystander who reported having seen him being methodically beaten. A preliminary autopsy by the city’s medical examiner gave the cause of death as a heart attack. The final results noted a spinal-cord injury and evidence of hemorrhaging in the eyes. The family’s physician, who had observed the autopsy, adduced strangulation, possibly from an Eric Garner-type choke hold. (Writers in the show’s catalogue refer to that and other incidents of police violence toward black men, starting, in 1991, with the amateur video of the beating of Rodney King.) The second of two grand juries (the first was dismissed when a juror was found to be conducting a personal investigation) indicted six transit-police officers on various charges of manslaughter and perjury. At trial in 1985, all were acquitted. No major protest materialized, but widely shared hurt lingered. [. . .]

The art being made was apolitical, for the most part: ebulliently neo-expressionist and facetiously faux-naïve. While rebellious as a point of pride, the young people on the scene had coolly shrugged off the political passions of their elders in the generation that had come of age in the nineteen-sixties. Stewart’s death illuminated for many of them, as if by a flash of lightning, the persistent virulence of racism in the wider society. Haring took to telling friends, with bitter wonderment, that he’d been arrested four times for marking, yet, as a sassy but nice white lad, he was always let go with, at worst, offhand insults to his unconcealed gayness. But the artists were little prepared for militancy on that or any other score, and time to change their attitudes proved short. The scene soon disintegrated as a result of the erupting aids disaster and the end of a recessionary era, which brought the pressures of competition from a suddenly ravenous art market and the neighborhood’s surging gentrification.

“It could have been me.” Of course, Basquiat had been a graffitist himself, after running away from his home in Brooklyn at fifteen, in 1975. He and a friend peppered downtown with gnomic words and sketched images signed “samo” (short for “same old shit”) and adorned with the copyright symbol. Basquiat’s blazing talent and quicksilver intelligence swiftly brought him into art-world fashion, confirmed by his stardom in a 1981 group show, “New York/New Wave,” at P.S. 1. Andy Warhol refreshed his own career by enlisting Basquiat as an artistic collaborator. There was resistance—with sneering éclat from Robert Hughes, who put the “featherweight” Basquiat’s fame down to the art world’s yen for “a wild child, a curiosity, an urban noble savage.” (Hughes had a knack for skewering fatuous taste with a vulgarity all his own.) There were consequences, too, as the artist, having tumbled into cosseted dissipation, lost the crackling spontaneity that he’d had starting out. He was painfully aware of the decline—he told me so—and determined somehow to regain his edge. Meanwhile, art-world fancies turned against his style—temporarily. (His best art looks ever better, while becoming ever more fantastically expensive, as the years go by.) In that state, which was worsened by the death, in 1987, of his avuncular patron Warhol, he left us.

Three other Basquiat paintings of police figures—all from 1981—along with strong works by him on unrelated themes, appear in the Guggenheim show. The curator Chaédria LaBouvier asserts their kinship, as protest art, with “Defacement.” (The painting’s official title is “The Death of Michael Stewart.”) It’s a stretch. Political significance saturates Basquiat’s very existence, and he dramatized it with tributes to black cultural heroes and busy excavations, in lettered lore, of African civilizations, but these were always couched in nonchalant, teasing ambiguities. Independence mattered to him. Policemen were a subset of his preoccupation with embodiments of masculine power. Only “Untitled (Sheriff),” in which a white officer holds a pistol and glares at nothing distinct, might somewhat fill LaBouvier’s bill. Menace certainly emanates from the ghostly-faced bluecoat in “La Hara,” of that same year—its title an old Latino twist on O’Hara, from a time when New York cops were stereotypically Irish—but so does a peculiar majesty, evoking a child’s awe at magical monsters in folktales. “The Irony of the Negro Policeman,” a crazy-quilt jumble of passages in varied techniques, is clownish. Whatever sentiments of disaffection and affront may seem to apply, the artist’s exhilaration takes center stage. The picture is fun. It is like Basquiat, from his samo days onward, to hint at some forthright argument and then, as you contemplate the work, to dance away from it.

For full article, see

Also see:

“Review: A Better Basquiat Show”
Deborah Solomon, WNYC, June 28, 2019

“Defacement: the tragic story of Basquiat’s most personal painting”
The death of artist Michael Stewart, allegedly the result of police brutality, inspired Basquiat to create one of his most impactful works,
Dream McClinton, The Guardian, June 28, 2019

“Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story”
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 57th Avenue, New York, NY 10128

One thought on “Basquiat’s Memorial to a Young Artist Killed by Police

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s