On the enduring appeal of Jean Michel Basquiat



This past fall, I joined a walking tour of Jean Michel Basquiat’s Manhattan. The tour encompassed where the famed artist lived, created his art, and ultimately died during the prime of his career (he was only 27 at the time). The tour left me with a feel for the enormity of his presence in a city that has been home to so many culture makers – his Rockstar persona still permeating the once gritty Bowery, even through a small plaque honouring his onetime studio on Great Jones nearby. Tales of his largess – painting in Armani suits, dating Madonna, walking the COMME des GARÇONS Spring 1987 fashion show to name a few – are just part of his mythology. His meteoric rise from street artist to heir apparent of Andy Warhol and poster boy for 1980s neo-expressionism is another.

Basquiat’s impact is stronger than ever decades after his passing. And in the times of Black Lives Matter, his work holds up as a mirror for the Black experience. Through his penchant for weaving social commentary through his intentionally childlike works, Basquiat inspired a legacy that has inspired artists from all corners. What’s more, his work is constantly finding new life through the many collaborations managed by his estate, a family run entity focused on showcasing Basquiat through different lenses. One such collaboration is in the curation of Jean Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, a touring show that showcases over 200 never seen and rarely shown artworks as well as ephemera and artifacts. Curated by his sisters, Lisane and Jeanine Basquiat, the exhibit tells Basquiat’s story from an intimate perspective. Part exhibit, part time capsule, King Pleasure includes recreations of Basquiat’s treasured spaces, like the Brooklyn living room he and his sisters grew up in, to his Soho studio, complete with original canvasses and VHSs he’d play while working.

To celebrate the exhibit, Bombay Sapphire gin has teamed up with the estate to debut a special edition bottle covered in one of Basquiat’s earliest works, “Untitled (L.A. Painting),” which was inspired by once remote Venice Beach, L.A where Basquiat found security and solitude away from the hustle and bustle of New York in 1982. Exhibited in Basquiat’s second ever show, the piece features many of the key motifs that are associated with his work: the crown, the bird, the coin and the skull which are all beautifully collaged over soft hues of blue. In 2017, his 1982 painting, “Untitled” sold for $110.5 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for artwork by an American artist in a public sale. The collectible bottle, now available in Canada, is one worth keeping if you’re a bit short at Sotheby’s.


Bombay Sapphire's special edition Basquiat bottle.
Jean Michel Basquiat by Andy Warhol, 1982.