An exhibition of rarely-seen work by famed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat will be on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from June 21 to November 6 this year.
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 paintingDefacement (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.
Throughout the 1960s, a decade marked by an ardent civil rights fight that swept the American nation, many artists found themselves on the side of a burgeoning protest movement. From assemblage artists to Minimalist masters to Pop Art figures, those working in a wide breadth of media turned to art as an act of political defiance. They painted, sculpted, and photographed to comment on the social turmoil that surrounded them, creating visual symbols of resistance, liberation and empowerment.
The exhibition is organized according to themes like “American Nightmare,” “Black Is Beautiful,” “Sisterhood” and “Politicizing Pop.” Staged in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the artworks on display range from Jack Whitten’s “Birmingham 1964,” an assembled homage to the violence that rocked the Alabama town, to Norman Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” a fictional portrait of two black children confronting their new white neighbors in the suburbs.
Many familiar images appear in the canvases and three-dimensional installations set to fill the halls of the Brooklyn art haven this March. Philip Guston’s pink-tinted painting of three members of the Klu Klux Klan will hang near Robert Indiana’s text-heavy indictment of the confederacy, featuring a loaded image of the American South. While these artworks conjure historical memories, other pieces — like Jeff Donaldson’s “Wives of Shango” and Emma Amos’ “Three Figures” — reference self-identity and blackness, many times using the striking image of the female form, reappropriating the reclining nude or the goddess stance as a visual for change.
Check out a preview of “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” below: