WAITING TO TAKE THE L TRAIN HOME to Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Michael Stewart was nabbed by a New York City transit officer, accused of scrawling graffiti on the wall of the First Avenue and 14th Street subway station in the East Village. The African American artist was arrested on Sept. 15, 1983, after 2 a.m.

In short order, Stewart, 25, was beaten and kicked by as many as 11 police officers. According to the Associated Press, “About 45 minutes later he arrived bruised, bleeding and comatose at Bellevue Hospital. …He died 13 days later without regaining consciousness.” Six white police officers faced charges related to Stewart’s death. All six were acquitted.

Distraught when he learned what happened to the fellow artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) made a painting expressing his sorrow. “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)” depicts the fate of Stewart. The painting is centered around a silhouetted figure with lines encircling its head in the manner of an angelic halo. Two police officers, one situated on either side of the figure, bear batons raised and ready to strike.

The 1983 painting is the focus of a Basquiat exhibition opening next June at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” (June 21-Nov. 6, 2019) “will explore a formative chapter in the artist’s career through the lens of his identity and the role of cultural activism in New York City during the early 1980s” and “examine Basquiat’s exploration of Black identity, his protest against police brutality, and his attempts to craft a singular aesthetic language of empowerment.”

Executed in his signature graffiti-style abstract figuration, Basquiat created “Defacement” directly on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio. The painting was never intended for public consumption or the art market and it has rarely been exhibited. “Defacement” and about 20 other paintings and works on paper by Basquiat and his contemporaries will be on view at the Guggenheim.

Stewart’s death sparked outrage, fear, solidarity, and protest. There was also a creative response. Other artists made works about the killing and the subsequent criminal trial that failed to hold the police accountable. Among them, the exhibition will include “The Man Nobody Killed” (1986), a stenciled print by David Hammons; Andy Warhol’s screenprinted “headline” paintings (1983) that feature a New York Daily News article about Stewart’s death; Lyle Ashton Harris’s photographic portrait “Saint Michael Stewart” (1994); and “Michael Stewart—U.S.A. for Africa” (1985) by Haring. Archival material related to Stewart’s death—such as diaries, protest posters, and artwork courtesy of his estate—will also be presented.

The exhibition presents paintings and works on paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat along with works by David Hammons, Lyle Ashton Harris, Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol.

“BASQUIAT’S ‘DEFACEMENT’: THE UNTOLD STORY” is organized by guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier, in collaboration with Guggenheim curators Nancy Spector, artistic director and chief curator, and Joan Young, director of curatorial affairs.

The exhibition grew out of LaBouvier’s scholarship. She’s dedicated 15 years to independently studying Basquiat. A writer and activist, the Texas native is an alum of Williams College who holds in MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. Her academic interest in Basquiat was borne of her childhood familiarity with the artist’s work.

Growing up, her parents displayed a trio of Basquiat drawings above the sofa in their home. When LaBouvier’s brother was shot and killed by a Dallas police officer in 2013, it altered her life and the focus of her work, for a time. She spoke out against police brutality. She also began to write about police violence and its connections with American history, racism, politics, and culture.

Meanwhile, she continued studying Basquiat and discovered his “Defacement” painting in 2015. “When I saw the painting, I knew that this was an entirely different painting from Basquiat’s oeuvre,” LaBouvier said. “It was compositionally very different and I think what struck me was the painting lacked majesty. It lacked crowns. It lacked these things that he normally includes when looking at black, or looking at traumatic, experiences. That’s really what intrigued me.”

In 2016, she collaborated with the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) and brought the painting to the campus—where it was hung above the fireplace in the museum’s Reading Room—and organized a series of public conversations around it. The first discussion featured Pérez Art Museum Miami Director Franklin Sirmans, co-curator of the traveling exhibition “Basquiat” (2005-06) and author of many catalog essays on the artist and his work, and Jordana Saggese, now a professor of American art at the University of Maryland, who is also a Basquiat scholar.

The WCMA installation and programming brought attention to the painting and eventually led to the Guggenheim’s interest in organizing a show. Early this year, LaBouvier was in residence at The Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood, Fla., where she concentrated on a plan for curating the exhibition.

In an interview with Dazed, LaBouvier described how Basquiat’s “Defacement” was originally produced and came to be in its current format. “Jean-Michel was devastated and went over to Keith Haring’s studio to paint this painting on the side of a wall. We don’t know if it was when Michael was in the hospital, or if it had been when Michael had died,” she said. “Keith had it cut out of the wall and framed—a very ornate frame that was modeled after the Ritz Carlton. It was above his bed for seven years until he died, and then from there it was left to the collector who owns it now.”

Basquiat’s life and career were short lived. He died of a drug overdose at age 27. Since his death, his work has been exhibited regularly and widely. Next summer, “Basquiat ‘Defacement'” will explore an overlooked aspect of his work, focusing specifically on how the artist addressed state violence. His observations made in 1980s add to an American narrative rife with state- and community-sanctioned aggression against male and female black bodies since the 17th century—from slavery and lynching to police brutality.

When “Defacement” was displayed at WCMA, LaBouvier said, “This is the most topical painting in Basquiat’s body of work at the moment. When you remove the myth and iconography of Jean-Michel Basquiat and engage directly with this work, you see a 22-year-old struggling with the vulnerability of the black body, the limits of assimilation, and the idea of state violence as an American heritage.” CT


The exhibition “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” will be on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, June 21-Nov. 6, 2019.


UPDATE (12/20/18): Based on a phone conversation with Chaédria LaBouvier, revisions were made to more accurately reflect when the curator became aware of Basquiat’s “Defacement” painting and why she decided to focus her attention on it.


TOP IMAGE: JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” 1983 (acrylic and marker on wood, framed 63.5 x 77.5 cm). | Collection of Nina Clemente, New York, Photo by Allison Chipak, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018


FIND MORE about artist Michael Stewart and what happened to him here and here


A illustrated catalog will be published to accompany the Guggenheim exhibition with contributions by the exhibition curators, essays by Chaédria LaBouvier and art historian J. Faith Almiron, and brief interviews with artists, lawyers, activists, critics, and journalists directly involved in the aftermath of Stewart’s death. According to the museum, the volume will also “present new scholarship on Basquiat and the burgeoning East Village art scene during the early 1980s, an era marked by the rise of the art market, the AIDS crisis and the activism it engendered, and persistent racial tensions in the city.” Other publications include “Jean-Michel Basquiat XXL,” a formidable 500-page volume released earlier this month. “Basquiat: Boom for Real” documents a 2017 survey exhibition of the same name, and “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” accompanied the first-ever survey of the rarely seen notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which featured the artist’s handwritten, doodles, notes, and poems.


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