With East Village exhibition, the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat comes home

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Finally tonight: More than
30 years after his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat remains one of America’s most influential
contemporary artists. He carved a unique style that challenged our
views of race, poverty and politics in the U.S. Jeffrey Brown explores a new exhibition showing
some of Basquiat’s most important work. It’s part of our ongoing arts and culture
series, Canvas. JEFFREY BROWN: New York City’s East Village,
in the 1970s and ’80s, it was known for drugs, crime, homelessness and a vibrant experimental
music and art scene. The heartbeat of it all, Tompkins Square Park. MICHAEL HOLMAN, Filmmaker: It was like a real
central coming together place. You know, it was a bit of nature in the middle
of this teeming city, a place where you could crash if you had nowhere to sleep. JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Holman is a New York-based
artist, writer, filmmaker and musician, and part of a unique generation of artists who
called the East Village home, including Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, and, perhaps most famous
of all, Jean-Michel Basquiat. MICHAEL HOLMAN: Jean-Michel Basquiat was — I
would call him a realized being. JEFFREY BROWN: It was at a party in 1979 that
Holman first met Basquiat, whose graffiti tag SAMO was already well-known on the streets
of New York. Did you feel even then a kind of ambition
to grow beyond that? MICHAEL HOLMAN: Oh, absolutely. JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. MICHAEL HOLMAN: Absolutely. Unlike a lot of us, who were just here experimenting
with art and our voice as artists, Basquiat knew early on, early on before any of us,
that he was going to be famous. JEFFREY BROWN: And famous, he became. Since his death in 1988 at age 27 from a heroin
overdose, Basquiat’s reputation and the demand for his work have skyrocketed. His now iconic lines, figures, and handwritten
texts are regularly displayed in the world’s most renowned museums and galleries. Two years ago, his untitled 1982 painting
of a skull fetched more than $110 million at auction, the most ever for any American
artist. That work and many others were part of a new
exhibition that began in Paris, curated by Dieter Buchhart. DIETER BUCHHART, Curator: His energy is amazing. His line is inimitable. His combination with words, collage and assemblage,
nobody else did. It’s all under his own aesthetic. But the way he combined knowledge is so contemporary. JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the exhibition has come
home, in a sense, to Basquiat’s old stomping grounds in the East Village of New York in
a brand-new private museum owned by the Brant Foundation. It’s housed in a former electrical substation. Tickets here are free. The first batch of 50,000 was gone before
the exhibition opened. The works themselves come from museums around
the world and private collections, including that of the foundation’s founder, Peter Brant,
CEO of one of the largest newsprint manufacturers in North America. He’s been buying Basquiat’s work since the
1980s. What did you see in the art at that time? PETER BRANT, The Brant Foundation: I mean,
I thought he was, you know, a great colorist. I love the way he used the language in his
work. And he’d been billed as a graffiti artist,
but I — if you look at his work, it goes far beyond painting on subway cars. JEFFREY BROWN: Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat
was the son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. He left home as a teenager and began selling
hand-painted postcards and T-shirts. In 1979, he and Holman helped form the rock
band Gray, as Basquiat entered a prolific period of creating his own art. Years later, Holman would help capture those
times as a screenwriter for the feature film “Basquiat,” directed by another well-known
contemporary artist, Julian Julian Schnabel. Some called Basquiat’s paintings primitive,
raw, even childlike. But he was unfazed. MICHAEL HOLMAN: He also recognized that combining
that child’s hand and that child’s innocence with some of the highly charged issues of
race and economic disparity and the particular politics of America, if he would combine those
things in a special way, which he did, that he would touch on that third rail. JEFFREY BROWN: The Brant exhibition reflects
those issues, in paintings like The Irony of a Negro Policeman and Per Capita, but there
are also lighter pieces, like those of famous boxers he admired. Just as Basquiat’s prices have gone up, so
have rents in the East Village. It and this city have changed dramatically
since his time. Further evidence, The Brant Foundation Museum
itself. He had an aesthetic of the streets. Is there not a disconnect with seeing him
in a — sold for $110 million, owned by people of wealth, and, you know, in a private museum? PETER BRANT: I don’t see any disconnect, other
than it’s an example of the American dream. He’s not an artist that’s just appreciated
by the people that live in this neighborhood. We’re just giving the people in this neighborhood
an opportunity to see the work of somebody that came out of this neighborhood. JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Basquiat continues to
be a hero for many-including young people like these who stopped to hear our conversation. MICHAEL HOLMAN: Being friends with him, hanging
out with him was like going to Basquiat university, where you gleaned the power of combining disparate
ideas that shouldn’t work together, but that do. JEFFREY BROWN: Jean-Michel Basquiat, the inaugural
exhibition at the Brant Foundation, runs through May 15. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown
in New York. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Another exhibition showcasing
Basquiat’s work is set to open at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York next month.

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