Jean-Michel Basquiat’s youngest sister still vividly remembers the day her brother appeared outside her family’s Brooklyn home in a limousine. The artist had been telling his family for years that he was going to make it as a painter, but his father, Gérard, a Haitian immigrant, was worried about his son’s future and wanted him to have a more practical job like a doctor or a lawyer. Nevertheless, Jean-Michel was determined.
“It was about 7 o’clock in the morning, and I was getting dressed to go to school,” Jeanine Heriveaux remembers. “The doorbell rang, and my dad and I ran to see who it could possibly be. And Jean-Michel is standing there with this beautiful mane of dreadlocks, and he was wearing a suit. He had just had a show that was very successful. When we opened the door, he said, ‘I made it.’ It was an emotional moment. And it was quick. He turned back around and said, ‘I love you guys.’ He got back in the limousine and he pulled off. But it was exactly how he said he was going to come back.”
A new exhibition, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure©,” which opened in New York City over the weekend, presents a different perspective on the late artist’s life, career, and success: his family’s. Basquiat’s sisters — Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat — and his stepmother, Nora Fitzpatrick, organized the exhibit, located at RXR’s Starrett-Lehigh Building, collecting more than 200 never-before-seen or rarely shown paintings, drawings, and objects from the family’s archives.
“We think it’s really important that we tell the story of Jean-Michel from the perspective of his family, because we’re the only ones that can really provide insight into [his] journey and the context within which [he] was raised and the way that he entered into his adulthood,” Lisane says. “[This exhibition] really does give people an insight into who he was as a child, the family that he was brought up into — the fact that he is the son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, and the fact that we grew up in Brooklyn and some of the things that he got exposed to as a child.”
The exhibit replicates his family’s kitchen and living room right down to the paintings their parents hung on the walls and the books they had on display, as well as Jean-Michel’s art studio, including his piles of VHS tapes, the Comme des Garçons clothing he’d wear while painting, and his records and record player.
When visitors walk through Jean-Michel’s studio, they will hear a selection of music his sisters hand-picked based on their memories of his taste. Before the exhibition opened, Heriveaux and Lisane recalled their brother’s favorite records in an interview with Rolling Stone while seated in a part of the exhibition that replicated the Palladium’s VIP Room, which housed two of their brother’s biggest paintings. Lisane immediately remembers Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the Who’s Tommy.
“When he was a teenager, I believe Tommy came out when we were living in Puerto Rico,” Heriveaux says. “And I just remember him playing that over and over.”
“Queen,” Lisane mentions.
“He loved Run-DMC,” Heriveaux says. “I believe the night that he passed [in 1988], he was supposed to be going to a Run-DMC concert. He just loved music.”
The sisters say one of the reasons they waited until now to do a full-scale exhibition was because their father, who had looked after Jean-Michel’s estate following the artist’s death, encouraged them to live their own lives and find themselves outside of their brother’s shadow. After Gérard’s death, they assumed control of Jean-Michel’s legacy. “In 2020, we decided it would be a great time with all of the political things that were going on — George Floyd’s killing and the pandemic — that that would be a great time to create this show and get moving,” Heriveaux says. “It’s been 19 months and we haven’t looked back.”
“Our parents lost a son, and we lost a brother 33 years ago,” Lisane says. “And there is a hole in the family because of that, so I feel very grateful that we have the ability to continue to exist with Jean-Michel in this way. I really wish he was here, and that we could experience his life with him, but also I’m very grateful that we have the ability to do this.”