Sydney Morning Herald Column

Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story

Published August 28, 2019
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'The Death of Michael Stewart' (1983).. The original 'defacement' painting

It’s a sign of the times when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, one of the standard bearers for modern art, hosts an exhibition exposing the brutality of the city’s police force. In the age of Trump the United States has become a radically divided nation where issues such as refugees, racism and gun laws are never out of the headines. It seems we’ve finally reached the stage when even the great art museums are laying down the battlelines.

Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story looks at the death of 23-year-old Michael Stewart – an historic case of injustice that has new relevance in the current political climate. The title comes from a small painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who since his death in 1988 at the age of only 27, has become has become one of the iconic painters of the late 20thcentury.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Irony of a Negro Policeman’ (1981)

Guest curator, Chaédrie Labouvier, is the first ever African-American woman to be invited to organise a show for the Guggenheim. Journalist, activist and self-described “revolutionist”, Labouvier has taken a partisan approach, tracking back over the events of 15 September 1983, when Stewart, an aspiring African-American artist and model, was arrested at 2.50 am for allegedly writing graffiti on the wall of a subway station. Shortly afterwards he was delivered to the hospital unconscious, hog-tied and bearing all the signs of a savage beating.

Thirteen days later Stewart died, and the coroner, Dr. Elliot M. Gross came down with three successive findings exonerating the police of any blame. Gross’s most controversial act was to remove Stewart’s eyes, post-mortem, and put them in a bleaching solution that erased any traces of haemorraghing, an indicator of strangulation.

Six officers would stand trial and be acquitted, a verdict that suggests Stewart somehow beat himself up, applied blunt force to the back of his own neck and strangled himself. To Stewart’s family, friends and supporters it was the most transparent of cover-ups. Today it looks even more brazen. A civil law suit would be settled in 1987 for a $1.7 million, but the police have continued to deny any responsibility.

For the Bohemians of the East Village Stewart’s death was a terrifying wake-up call. Aspiring artists and musicians had viewed the 80s as one long succession of all-night parties held in fashionable clubs, fuelled by huge quantities of booze and drugs. Graffiti art had begun to migrate from the subways to the art galleries, with figures such as Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf becoming the vanguard of a highly collectable new wave.

It was a bubble that bore no relation to the rest of Ronald Regan’s America. Many saw the police as indifferent to the East Village drug culture, in which deals were enacted in broad daylight. Stewart was a new entrant in the scene – a quietly-spoken young man from a middle-class family who still lived with his parents in Brooklyn and had no connection with the graffiti artists. He was the least likely person to get involved in a violent altercation with police.

The graffiti artists were always running from the cops but until the Stewart incident they hadn’t viewed an arrest as potentially life-threatening. Neither had they been aware of the very different way a black man might be treated, as opposed to a white artist such as Keith Haring who had been detained and released on repeated occasions.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘La Hara’ (1981)

For Basquiat and his peers it was no news that the police were racists, but they never suspected such attitudes might lead to murderous violence. When he was told about the assault on Stewart, Basquiat kept repeating: “It could have been me.”

His artistic response was a small sketch painted on a wall in Keith Haring’s studio showing two pink-faced, fang-toothed policemen beating a featurless black figure that seems to be wearing a halo. Across the top he has written  ¿defacimento?In graffiti slang this means to write over another artist’s work, but in this context the ‘defacement’ is the obliteration of a life.

It’s a crude little daub, most probably based on a more considered drawing by David Wojnarowicz that appeared on a flyer for a protest meeting in which two skull-faced policemen beat a handcuffed black figure. Nevertheless, Basquiat’s image has had a fascinating after-life. Keith Haring cut the picture from the wall and put it in an elaborate gold frame. It would be hanging over Haring’s bed when he died in 1990.

In the context of the Stewart incident, and Basquiat’s preoccupation with issues of race and black identity, Defacement has become a talisman. It signifies a moment of awareness and resistance to a problem the vast majority of Americans had never recognised: namely the disproportionate level of police violence directed against blacks and Latinos, and the lack of accountability for such actions.

In Jennifer Clement’s memoir, Widow Basquiat (2000), the artist’s long-term girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, says that everything the artist did “was an attack on racism”. She might have added that Basquiat was permanently conflicted by his status as honorary ‘noble savage’ in a scene in which the dealers, collectors and curators were almost exclusively white.

David Wojnarowicz’s protest poster (1983)

The incestuous nature of that art scene is revealed by the fact that Mallouk was also involved with Stewart at the time of his death, and would lead the campaign for justi

The exhibition includes Basquiat’s paintings Irony of a Negro Policeman and La Hara (both 1981), the first being a death’s-head figure in a blue uniform enclosed by a meandering white line. The second features an image of an aggressive, red-eyed cop, with a title that conflates la jara, which is Puerto Rican slang for “police”, with O’Hara, a typically Irish name. These grotesque paintings show Basquiat already thinking of the police as the enemy, with the black policeman portrayed as a grim reaper to his own community.

In a display dominated by documentation of the Stewart story, the largest and most confronting work is not by Basquiat, but Haring, whose Michael Stewart – USA for Africa (1985) shows the victim having his neck stretched to giraffe-like proportions by a pair of pink fists. The action takes place in front of a globe of the world that splits and issues a river of blood from which tiny hands wave helplessly.


Keith Haring, ‘Michael Stewart – USA for Africa’ (1985)

It all adds up to a fractured, angry collage of an exhibition that taps into a public consciousness sensitised to police violence by the beating of Rodney King in 1991, and other well-documented cases. With the involuntary assistance of a President whose inflammatory rhetoric is widely believed to be encouraging violence and racism, Basquiat’s Defacement is attracting large audiences.

The lure is not simply political anger but the Basquiat factor, which has seen the artist’s reputation assume outlandish dimensions on recent years, aided by booming auction prices and a string of museum surveys. The next Basquiat blockbuster, in tandem with the work of Keith Haring, will be held at the National Gallery of Victoria starting on 1 December. It will allow Australian audiences to see whether those tremors that shook a provincial corner of New York in the 1980s still have the capacity to move the world.



Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

21 June – 6 November, 2019


 Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August, 2019