Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) has the potential to be regarded as Jean-Michel Basquiat's most important painting. In 10 years, I believe that we'll be looking at this painting as a late 20th-century Guernica.
Yep. It's that serious.
The Project is uncovering so many unknowns about this painting – and the history that surrounds it – that further cement this theory, but it also tell us so much about Basquiat's other works. From an art historical perspective, it's very easy to look at this painting as a Rosetta Stone of sorts, and the time stamp -- 1983, his early period -- situates this painting in a particular time when Basquiat's work was very, explicitly political.
And then there is the history of Michael Stewart, which had tremendous effect on the art-scene of the 1980s in New York's East Village. As one artist put it, "it was the first time that we all came together politically for something." And while Stewart's death -- art historically - is most aligned with Basquiat's Defacement, he wasn't the only artist to create commentary about the incident. The research has uncovered commentary by Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and others. And the importance of this has been forgotten for 34 years.
Defacement has so much to tell us about how Basquiat saw himself, as 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. Because Defacement was not meant to be seen in public, there is an unfiltered look at Basquiat's Blackness that I would argue is rare to find in his works. Defacement isn't just political, it's deeply personal.
I see Defacement squarely in the conversation with Picasso's Guernica, Goya's Disasters of War and other defining depictions of state violence by artists. The Project and the research aims to make those connections more visible and accessible to the wider public.