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To talk about such an artist as Jean-Michel Basquiat you just can't focus on his work with no thinking about his equally fascinating life. The promising young genius gone too soon at 27, the addictions that caused his death, and his African-American and Latin ethnicity comprised the mythical aura behind him. However, Basquiat was that once in a lifetime icon that transcended beyond his own life and works to represent an entire generation of artists in a certain time and place. That's why the exhibition "Defacement": The Untold Story presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from June 21 to November 6, 2019 and centered on the homonymous painting remarks the way Basquiat influenced his peers and brought cultural activism with a necessary examination on racial tension in New York during 1980s. A vision new and fresh in 1983 as relevant and urgent right now.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Death of Michael Stewart, 1983. Copyright Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Copright Solomon R. Guggenheim

History behind Basquiat's painting Defacement: The Death of Michael Stewart (1983) is riveting and tragic. Inspired by the death of an African-American graffiti artist by police brutality in New York, Basquiat felt that Stewart's unfair fate could have happened to him when he was just another unknown street artist. The original painting (which represents a man with his back turned surrounded by police officers carrying sticks), was barely exhibited at the time and hanged originally in Keith Haring's studio where it was created. Later accredited as one of Basquiat's essential art pieces and one of his most influential, other artist followed Basquiat's steps reflecting about Stewart in their own work. Due to the impact of the painting and the event that inspired it, Defacement is the driving force that propels an entire exhibition. This a valuable opportunity for the Guggenheim Museum to highlight the political and cultural importance of a painting that remains powerful nowadays because the problems that disturb Basquiat decades ago are still happening on the streets since then.

David Hammons. The Man Nobody Killed, 1986. Copyright The Museum of Modern Art

You won't only find the aforementioned painting or just other similars by Basquiat. The thematic focus makes room for proposals from other artists who also felt inspired by what Michael Stewart death meant to New York artists of their era. It was a wake-up call for many that still resonates deeply today. Some of the paintings, prints, and photographies included in "Defacement": The Untold Story are: Portrait of Michael Stewart (George Condo, 1983), Michael Stewart—U.S.A. for Africa (Keith Haring, 1985), The Man Nobody Killed (David Hammon, 1986), Saint Michael Stewart (Lyle Ashton Harris, 1993) and even the Andy Warhol’s screenprinted “headline” from 1983 incorporating a New York Daily News article on Stewart’s death.

Keith Haring. Michael Stewart USA for Africa. Copyright The Keith Haring Foundation

Each one of the pieces exhibited demonstrate how a common cause can unite different artistic visions and voices to reflect the iniquities of their current era. Also is a moving proof of art as a tool to awaken our consciences when it is required. To attend this exhibition is to get a necessary reminder of why tragedies from the past are far from over.

Jean Michel-Basquiat. Untitled (Sheriff), 1981. Copyright Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

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