Brooklyn Museum Shows Crass Pile of Money in the Form of a Basquiat Painting

A billionaire paying exorbitantly for a Basquiat is a bad reason to dedicate an exhibition to it.

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Brooklyn Museum visitors ponder farcically huge piles of money in front of the very, very, very expensive painting "Untitled," 1981, by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Photos: Beck Feibelman, unless otherwise noted.

I love the Brooklyn Museum. They have mounted some fantastically good shows, from “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” at the end of the last century to Kehinde Wiley, Marilyn Minter and “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85” more recently. That is why their current show, “One Basquiat,” is such a profound disappointment. Whereas the Brooklyn Museum’s best shows have been thoughtfully conceived, scholarly, exciting, politically engaged and, in addition to so much more, beautiful, “One Basquiat” makes a valiant effort, but ultimately is really just about money — well, about reporting about money — in the most boring and counterproductive way possible. It’s more of a mortification ritual performed by the museum than an exhibition.

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Maezawa contemplates his new acquisition.
via Maezawa’s Instagram

This is a show of a single painting, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 Untitled, a complex, expressionistic head against a mostly-blue background executed in the artist’s characteristic graffiti-derived style and incorporating passages of text and other graphical elements. There are four extensive, excellent wall texts situating the painting and the artist in their cultural and artistic milieu — the valiant effort — but there is no way around the implication that this painting is being shown at this moment for the exclusive reason that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought it at auction last May for an astounding $110.5 million. That is an embarrassingly terrible reason for a museum exhibition. That the untitled Basquiat painting is such a strong image, so smart and timely — originally in 1981 as it still is now — just compounds the disappointment over a squandered opportunity and what certainly feels like an ethical lapse.

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A mortification ritual performed by the museum, more than an exhibition.

I’ve written before about the collapse of humanism and human interest when it comes to reportage about stratospheric art prices, and this Basquiat show takes those problems even further. My point then, as now, is that news reports about very, very expensive art are deeply alienating to potential viewers — with no up-side as a counterbalance — and the fact that high-flying art auctions get reported beyond the niche art press into the mainstream has the effect of confirming for people not already interested in art that art definitely isn’t for them, it’s for oligarchs. That’s where we were with Basquiat’s Untitled — bad enough — before the Brooklyn Museum show. Now that it’s hanging in its own gallery at the museum for no reason I can see other than the news reports of its $110.5 million auction price, the museum is undermining its reputation. Worse still, the billionaire owner of the painting is paying for the one-painting exhibition, which is exactly as ethically questionable as it sounds.

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The whole affair looks a lot like a conflict of interest, but the situation is more complicated than relationships among museums, donors and lenders tend to be. Since Maezawa paid such a preposterous, inflated amount of money to acquire the Basquiat — seemingly capriciously — it’s hard to imagine the museum pedigree he’s also buying for the painting will literally increase its value. Still, the Basquiat market is no doubt going through some convulsions that presumably will benefit someone financially, and I wonder how firm Maezawa’s commitment to his personal museum is, or whether he might ever sell his other Basquiat for a profit. Untitled is now the most expensive American artwork ever sold. No one (no one with a soul) would argue that this makes Basquiat the most important American painter ever — Jonathan Jones in The Guardian does argue for Basquiat’s genius around this painting, although not because of the sale price — so if the extravagance of the price clearly has no direct correlation to some vague concept of “quality,” that starts to explain why the museum takes such pains to rationalize the exhibition.
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(Click to enlarge.)
Young Jean-Michel’s Brooklyn Museum Junior Membership cards.

The show consists of the painting, but also a handful of archival materials. There are two (wonderful) photographs of the artist blown up to wall size, a few short film clips shot by Edo Bertoglio of 20-year-old Basquiat spray painting graffiti in 1980-81 and two of young Jean-Michel’s Junior Membership cards to the Brooklyn Museum from the late 1960s. Those Junior Membership cards, especially, both are fascinatingly fetishistic and expose too much effort. It’s certainly charming, given the success of his adult career, to see this kind of artifact of a growing artistic affinity from early childhood. At the same time, the charm is mitigated by the undisguised, over-eager work the cards are doing to help justify the “One Basquiat” show. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, went to school in Brooklyn, frequented the Brooklyn Museum. In the context of a more legitimate show of Basquiat’s work in this institution, as there were in 2005 and 2015, the curatorial motivations are self-evident and appropriate. Not so much here.

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Still from “Basquiat” showing the future artist and his mother approaching Picasso’s “Guernica” at MoMA in Schnabel’s movie.

I can’t resist comparing “One Basquiat” to another high-profile single-painting exhibition: Picasso’s Guernica at The Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1939 until 1981. The real Basquiat saw and spoke about being affected by Guernica, and a fictionalized version of the artist as a young child visits the monumental painting with his mother in the first scene of Julian Schnabel’s 1996 carnivalesque biopic Basquiat. In the movie, his mother begins to weep in front of the viscerally powerful 25-foot-wide anti-war monument until she looks at Jean-Michel and sees the artistic inspiration he absorbs from Picasso manifest as a luminous golden crown on his head. That a generation or two of artists in New York City had the opportunity to study Guernica has certainly been influential on the history of contemporary art and the ethical gesture of Picasso’s loan of the painting — a visual protest against fascist atrocities during the Spanish Civil War and WWII — to MoMA until democracy was restored to Spain made it a hugely important event for artists and the artworld.

Whom is “One Basquiat” supposed to inspire? What is it supposed to inspire? Are budding child artists conjuring metaphorical crowns or falling asleep at night dreaming that one day, after they’re dead, someone controlling grotesque amounts of capital will anoint them a special, expensive artist for no discernible reason? Actually, they might be, which would certainly prove my case about the pernicious effects of too much attention paid to absurd auction prices.