by Chaédria LaBouvier. Guggenheim Museum, 2019. 153 p. ill. ISBN 9780892075485 (pbk.), $40.00.
Reviewed July 2020
Lori Salmon, Head, Institute of Fine Arts Library, Division of Libraries/New York University, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Death of Michael Stewart (informally known as Defacement), a painting created in 1983 by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), became the foundation of a four-year research project by Chaédria LaBouvier. Guest curator at the Guggenheim Museum, LaBouvier organized the exhibition, Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story (June 21- November 6, 2019) to tell the story of Stewart, an aspiring artist who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and whose life come to a tragic end at the hands of New York City’s transit police. The exhibition and its accompanying publication reflect the police brutality and systemic inequalities that have been stuck on repeat for years and that echoed through the May 25, 2020, murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. The exhibition, publication, and murder illustrate the same implicit bias, institutional racism, and fear of the black body.
The perfect-bound volume Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story consists of four essays with 60 illustrations. In the first essay, LaBouvier discusses the painting itself, and the essays that follow, by Nancy Spector and J. Faith Almiron, give the work cultural context. In the fourth essay, “Black like B,” Greg Tate offers a reflection on Basquiat. Tate’s formative essay was slightly revised for this publication after originally appearing in Richard Marshall’s Jean-Michel Basquiat catalog for the 1992 survey held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
In addition, in an effort to preserve the memory of Stewart’s life from the perspectives of individuals who either knew him or were directly involved in the response to his death, LaBouvier conducted interviews with various people, including gallerists Jeffrey Deitch, Annina Nosei, and Tony Shafrazi; artists Fred Brathwaite—also known as Fab 5 Freddy—Kenny Sharf, and Lyle Ashton Harris; fashion designer Dianne Brill; activist Reverend Herbert Daughtry; publisher Leonard Abrams; and Stewart’s mother, Carrie Stewart. These accounts are illustrated with reproductions of Michael Stewart’s artwork and photoshoots, stills from video footage, protest rally flyers, benefit cards, and other ephemera as well as artwork that pays homage to his stolen life.
Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story presents an important body of work to any person interested in art, current affairs, or criminal justice. More specifically, it also describes the art milieu that was present in the 1980s across New York City, including mentions of legendary establishments such as the Pyramid Club, Mudd Club, and CBGB and galleries such as Fashion Moda and Fun Gallery. The book is valuable not only for its art historical perspective and view into Basquiat’s work, but also as a historical record that gives a face and context to a person who was tragically murdered by law enforcement.