Image by Ivane Katamashvili
A new exhibition in New York City is paying tribute to the work of trailblazing artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as the vibrant nightlife scene that inspired him.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” which will be open through September, features more than 200 works from the celebrated neo-expressionist, most of which have never been viewed publicly. The massive 15,000-square-foot show gives visitors an immersive, sharp peek inside Basquiat’s life and work. The exhibit includes four paintaking recreations of spaces that played a pivotal role in his maturation as an artist: from Basquiat’s childhood home to his studio at 57 Great Jones Street.
Among the replicas crafted by Sir David Adjaye, designer of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC, one of the most breathtaking is a creation of the Michael Todd Room. The installation takes guests inside the famous VIP section at The Palladium, one of the most popular New York nightclubs during the 1980s and 90s. Although The Palladium was open to all, it held a special importance for LGBTQ+ patrons during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The Palladium, which also put on display the work of other influential artists like Keith Haring, eventually closed in 1997. The building was demolished the following year after it was purchased by New York University, and today, the location is home to on-campus student housing.
“King Pleasure” marks the first time in the decades that the public has been able to access the Michael Todd Room, which was in many ways the centerpiece of The Palladium. Originally built as a movie theater in 1927, The Palladium served as a launching pad for punk acts like The Clash before former Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager repurposed the popular concert hall as a nightclub to capture the glittering, anything-goes energy of 80s new wave. The Michael Todd Room was a testament to that ethos: In a 1985 profile, The Washington Post described its bacchanalian energy as a place where “every fantasy and get-up fit in.”
But amid the “framed broken mirrors,” “Day-Glo art” and “neon fake fur” lovingly documented by the Post was Basquiat’s own artwork. While the rest of the Michael Todd Room is a facsimile, the vibrant red and black murals on display at “King Pleasure” are the originals, now returned to their home.
Lisane Basquiat, the artist’s younger sister, told VICE that viewing the installation for the very first time brought back “fun memories” of The Palladium, including “feelings of nostalgia and warmth.” She described the replicated Michael Todd Room as “celebratory, fun, and energizing,” which is what her family hoped to express in mounting the landmark show.
“We also wanted to make sure to capture the party side of Jean-Michel, which was a big part of his life,” added her sister, Jeanine Heriveaux, in an email.
The exhibition, which opened in April, was curated by the Basquiat sisters and their stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick. In 2017, they began planning a public exhibition in 2017, but after delays, the nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 updated their interest in the project. Police brutality and the plight of racial minorities in American life were key themes in their brother’s work, and they felt the time was right to revisit his massive contributions to the cultural conversation.
It’s difficult to understate the impact and resonance of Basquiat, the son of Puerto Rican and Haitian parents who found his voice in artistic forms like graffiti that had long been shunned by the art establishment. He sold his first work to Blondie singer Debbie Harry in 1981 for $200 before becoming one of the youngest artists to ever participate in the Whitney Biennial, then just 22 years old. He found the embrace of pop art titan Andy Warhol and musician David Bowie, the latter of whom collected many of his passed works, before Basquiat away from a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27.
Basquiat has only grown more following his death: One of his works, a black and red skull painted against a kaleidoscopic blue backdrop, sold at a 2017 auction for $110.5 million. That sale was the highest ever for the work of an American artist.
With “King Pleasure,” the Basquiat sisters hope that the public gets to see the man behind the storied legacy. They have described the exhibit as a tribute to their family history, and what they appreciated about the replica of the Michael Todd Room was that the installation acted as a time capsule of the memories they shared together. Lisane described the New York City club scene—whether it was The Palladium or other venues like Bentley’s and Visage—as allowing them “a few hours each week to escape the world and to dive into a scene of loud music in a dark room, dancing , and having a blast.”
“It’s important that this space be remembered both because of how iconic it was and for what it represents regarding the importance of enjoying life,” she said. “The world can be so serious.”
Follow Nico Lang on Twitter.