Five Accomplished Writers and Thinkers Discuss Basquiat, NoHo & Identity

Didn’t make it to a recent GVSHP program? Visit our website to see photosvideos, and sometimes even presentation materials from recent programs. Photos and video from Saturday’s Basquiat and NoHo panel are now online!

This past Saturday, just two doors down from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s last home and studio, GVSHP and Ayanna Jessica Legros presented a panel exploring the artist, his identity, and his relationship with the NoHo neighborhood. The panel was meant to commemorate one year since GVSHP, in July of 2016, installed a plaque at Basquiat’s last studio at 57 Great Jones. Ayanna Legros – interdisciplinary scholar, educator, and cultural symposium producer and co-founder of the BASQUIAT: STILL FLY @ 55 Project – moderated a spectacular panel featuring four artists, writers, Basquiat peers, and cultural critics who explored Basquiat’s identity as an artist of color, a innovator in New York’s downtown art scene, and a member of a NoHo generation that defined and forever changed the neighborhood.

Moderator and co-producer Ayanna Jessica Legros introduces the panel.

Patti Astor was the first to present, and spoke largely about her relationship with Basquiat as his career emerged, took shape, and then took off. Patti was a key actress in New York City underground films of the 1970s and the East Village art scene of the 1980s. In 1981, Astor co-founded the FUN Gallery, an innovative art space that was the first to give graffiti artists solo shows. The tenement storefront gallery specialized in showing graffiti artists including Fab 5 Freddy, LEE (Quinones), Zephyr, Dondi and Futura 2000. It also mounted important shows of Kenny Scharf (in 1981), Basquiat (November 1982), and Keith Haring (February, 1983). Basquiat and his peers were turning the art world on their head, creating works of staggering buzz and popularity that had no affiliation with the more formal art world of the time. Basquiat’s outsider status, combined with his race and socio-economic position, created a dissonant situation where his work was extremely coveted but not as respected as a more “traditional” artist. There was no roadmap for someone like Basquiat, and Patti reflected on how jarring it could be for young artists to suddenly gain fame with no help on how to handle it. Patti purposefully created the FUN Gallery as a place that would celebrate and advocate for artists like Basquiat. She created an atmosphere where kids from downtown neighborhoods could hang out in the gallery and see faces like theirs creating art, creating wealth, and succeeding in an array of ways. The FUN Gallery was not only an advocate and steward of downtown street art but also an incubator for young talent in the neighborhood.

Yasmin Ramirez was another panelist with a personal connection to Basquiat, as well as to the FUN Gallery. Born in Brooklyn, Yasmin was active in the downtown art scene of the early 1980s as a club kid, gallery assistant, independent curator, and art critic for the East Village Eye. During her time in this scene, she became acquainted with many emerging artists and writers that are now considered icons of the decade, including Basquiat. Today, Yasmin is an independent curator and holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Yasmin also spoke of a lack of models for kids like her in New York City – certain schools were considered out of reach for children of immigrants or people of color, and many career paths, art included, felt impossible to reach. Yasmin’s circle of downtown friends created those opportunities themselves, with help from the FUN Gallery and people like Patti Astor. Yasmin has many memories of the community that included artists like Basquiat and Keith Haring, people creating their own cultures that would allow them to thrive and create in ways they were not expected or encouraged. The neighborhood, and the entire downtown scene, nurtured artists, writers, and other creators in that way.

The Death of Michael Stewart, 1983, Basquiat, acrylic and marker on wood, 63.5×77.5cm, Collection of Nina Clemente. Image courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art.

The panel then shifted to examine Basquiat’s art itself, and in particular his 1983 painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart). Writer, activist, and Basquiat scholar Chaédria LaBouvier has poured 13 years of research into Basquiat’s Defacement: The Project – an online destination that promotes scholarship of this painting through exhibition, online resources, and discourse. LaBouvier believes that Defacement is Basquiat’s most significant work, and at some point will be regarded as one of the most critical pieces of American work ever created. Basquiat created this painting in response to the death, in policy custody, of artist Michael Stewart. Stewart was arrested for spray-painting a subway wall at the 1st Avenue L Station and beaten unconscious after police reported that he resisted arrest. Stewart never regained consciousness. The case sparked massive debate in New York about race and the use of force by law enforcement – eleven white officers were involved in the incident, three were indicted for their actions and three others were indicted for perjury, but all six were acquited. Defacement, LaBouvier posited, can be read as a window into how Basquiat saw himself. He was a young Black man on the cusp of immense fame, who paradoxically was shifting the art world but couldn’t catch a cab –both because of his Blackness. Defacement was created at Keith Haring’s studio, probably painted on a bit of a whim, and not necessarily meant to be seen in public. Because of that, the painted gives us an unfiltered look at Basquiat’s Blackness. It was a way for Basquiat to process some of those dissonant emotions and identities he was juggling, and for him to process the despairing feeling that Stewart’s fate could have been his. LaBouvier believes that Defacement isn’t just political, it’s deeply personal.

Naiomy Guerrero presents on Basquiat’s Latinx identity.

Our last panelist was Naiomy Guerrero, a Dominican-American writer and arts advocate. She is the founding editor of Gallery Girl NYC, a spanglish exploration of the New York City art world via social media. Her research focuses primarily on U.S.-based Latinx artists, their contributions to the canon of American art history, and the development of the Latinx art market. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term often used in lieu of Latino or Latina that refers to individuals with cultural ties to Latin America and individuals with Latin American descent.) Naiomy spoke specifically about Basquiat as a mixed-race artist; his identity as an African-American artist is very visible, but the full picture is that his father was Haitian and his mother was Puerto Rican. So often, this Puerto Rican identity is missing from discourse. Naiomy stressed her understanding that Basquiat’s everyday experience would have been that of a black man, but that his true identity is more nuanced and layered than that. She shared her own experiences of growing up in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood and, like the other panelists stressed before her, not having many obvious models for success in the art world. Latinx artists are still largely invisible in the greater art world, and, in Basquiat’s case, that identity is even erased from the conversation. When she discovered that Basquiat was Latinx and spoke Spanish, she suddenly felt closer to him and his experiences. Naiomy stresses that celebrating Latinx identities of artists like Basquiat can allow Latinx children, artists, and adults to see themselves in bold new ways and create new roadmaps for possibilities. By claiming Basquiat’s Latinx identity, the art community can begin telling the full story and allowing a more full range of artists and experiences to infuse the market.

Patti Astor, Yasmin Ramirez, Chaédria LaBouvier, Naiomy Guerrero, Ayanna Jessica Legros

After the panel, the audience asked questions regarding the consumerism side of Basquiat’s popularity and how the estates of artists like Basquiat and Haring can further this type of productive discourse and continue to nurture young artists today. Sitting so close to the space where Basquiat lived and worked at the end of his life, it was illuminating to so dive deeply into Basquiat and his identity as a black man, a Latinx artist, and a downtown resident. He was very much influenced by NoHo and downtown neighborhoods, but he forever changed them too. As Patti Astor described, Basquiat and artists like him were so important to the neighborhood, their talent and success meant so much to other people living there. Continuing to discuss his identity as black and Latinx will only further expand the art world and begin to solve issues like who art is for, and who ultimately benefits from a success like Basquiat’s.

Standing room only on Saturday night at La MaMa La Galleria.

Our very special thanks to everyone who join us Saturday evening! GVSHP is also so grateful to La MaMa La Galleria for hosting us, and to Ayanna Jessica Legros for her amazing work in assembling this panel and promoting the event so successfully. The entire video of this panel is online now, so head over to GVSHP’s Youtube page to watch all the wonderful presentations. You can also browse more great photos from the evening.

We hope you’ll join us on another program sometime soon! Check out our full programs calendar and sign up today.

 

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Chelsea Dowell