“It could have been me,” Jean-Michel Basquiat would say at the mere mention of the untimely death of Michael Stewart. Stewart, a 25-year-old artist, was allegedly drawing on the walls of the subway on 15 September 1983 when he was approached by transit cops who then placed him under arrest. Witnesses say they saw the cops throw him to the ground after exiting the train station and beat him, while the cops involved reported that he fell after attempting to escape police custody. He would later die, after 13 days in the hospital, where bruising and brain damage would indicate he was strangled. The police officers involved were subsequently acquitted of any wrongdoing.
Basquiat’s cryptic observation was not far off. While the two were not close, they shared a circle of friends. They were both artists, but Basquiat was the one who ascended through his graffiti work. It was disputed that Stewart even engaged in subway graffiti work on that particular night. At the time of his untimely death, Stewart was wearing his hair in dreadlocks, much like Basquiat did. Basquiat almost exclusively dated white women. Stewart had kissed a white woman on the cheek prior to his fatal encounter, an action which allegedly enraged the cops who would later arrest him. In fact, Stewart was dating Basquiat’s ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk. “One thing that affected Jean-Michel greatly was the Michael Stewart story … Suzanne was now going out with Michael Stewart, who was a skinny black kid. He was an artist. He looked much like Jean-Michel,” said artist and close friend of both men Keith Haring to Vanity Fair in 1988.
Basquiat’s connection to the slain artist would spawn perhaps his most personal piece, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart). The 1983 piece is the focus of a new Guggenheim exhibition, Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story, which explores the artist’s blackness as a political lens and other artistic tributes and reactions to the death of Michael Stewart. In a speech to the press, curator and art historian Chaedria LaBouvier said: “This painting has changed my life and I think all that have worked with it.”
LaBouvier, the first black woman as well as the first solo black curator in the history of the Guggenheim, says the painting changed her life. She began research into Basquiat at age 18, a journey which, 15 years later, led her to the museum. It was a former girlfriend of Basquiat, Kelle Inman, who mentioned his pride behind the painting. “We were just talking about works and she said, ‘One painting that really meant a lot to Jean-Michel was Defacement. He talked about it a lot.’ When they dated, that was 1987. So that was a while after he painted this,” the curator explained to the Guardian. “I heard more about it and then I saw it in person in 2015 and then, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really different. This is visually very different.’”
The painting is particularly salient due to its lack of Basquiat’s characteristic gossamer, adding to the introspectiveness of the piece, says LaBouvier. “Defacement lacks majesty,” LaBouvier told the press. “It is devoid of the usual motifs of the sharply pointed crowns, copyright symbols and other signifiers of black achievement that Basquiat employs to address the traumas of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, failed and successful revolutions and colonialism.” The crowns are present elsewhere in the exhibition, like his 1982 painting Charles the First which sits next to Defacement, yet its words “Most young kings get their heads cut off” seemingly portends a grim end.
The painting depicts a scene of police brutality, a power imbalance felt by many black men and women in the presence of the police in the United States. The painting, likely inspired by a protest poster created by David Wojnarowicz which is also featured in the exhibition, renders the police as crudely drawn pigs wielding batons with a shadowy black figure in the center. “Defacement is really interesting because it’s unfiltered. It’s not qualifying, it’s not showing this noble aspect of someone’s humanity. It’s just what he felt. It’s just the rawness of what happened. I think that’s rare for his work. This is the only work of his that I know that depicts a current event in his lifetime,” LaBouvier said. It is simply a black man standing in the reality of a black man, in the face of state-sanctioned violent offenders who can, in one single moment, kill those who they are sworn to protect, and as such, it stands as perhaps his most intimate work LaBouvier posits.
It appears alongside several more Basquiat paintings where the police are the subjects, with LaBouvier spotlighting that of La Hara and the Irony of a Negro Policeman. “The police constitute a big part of his work. I think of it as a mini-oeuvre within his larger oeuvre. I think these three works were selected because I think of them as a trilogy. There are the only three paintings that we know of that have a racialized narrative at their center … I think of them as Russian dolls of his larger work, his police work, and this trilogy.”
Outside of Basquiat’s painting, the exhibition serves almost as a memorial or a time capsule of the tense weeks following the brutalization of Stewart. It immerses the visitor in the world of the early 80s New York City art scene as the artists struggle to come to terms with the death of their dear friend and colleague whose own works are included in the exhibition. Portraits and works bearing Stewart’s name by Keith Haring and George Condo, and Lyle Ashton Harris, also appear in the exhibition. “This was a time before social media and this was a kind of evidence. I think they wanted to make sure it wasn’t forgotten,” LaBouvier said.