Burrowing Into the Battle Over a Billyburg Bodega’s Basquiat

09/22/2011 12:17 PM |

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, the 80s East Village art-world sensation who died of a heroin overdose at age 27, may have made his last painting on a door in a South 4th Street Williamsburg bodega in 1988. Unknown to the then 18-year-old dope dealer who used the bodega as a front, the artist who Madonna once described as “too fragile for this world” would have created the horned-devil image during the bleak, final stage of his life.

The authentication of the painting is precarious if not impossible, especially since the artist’s estate ruled that the work is definitely not his—a decision denying the work a potentially multimillion dollar price tag. This pronouncement is not up for appeal; the estate is the sole entity charged with authenticating the artist’s works.

This turn of events has raised some eyebrows. In New York magazine, longtime friend New York street artist Kenny Scharf says, “It looks like his work to me. It resonates this kind of energy that his line did, so that’s how I can tell. He was going through obviously a lot, and it’s just sadness and being alone. I see that. It goes perfectly in sync with everything he did. I wouldn’t say that it’s his greatest painting, but it’s not a bad one.” The painting lacks a signature or his characteristic copyright symbol, but so do many of Basquiat’s known works.

Basquiat was born in Brooklyn but ran way from home at age 15 to live nomadically in downtown Manhattan. His relationship with his father, Gerard, was a tumultuous one that resulted in little contact at the end of the artist’s life. However, Gerard plays a major role in the management of his son’s estate—a role that Scharf criticizes. “There seems to be a whitewashing of how he really lived,” he said. “Knowing Gerard controls everything and profits, I can’t help thinking about the irony. He gets to approve everything now, but he wasn’t even there when all this was happening. He doesn’t know what went on.”

The ruling raises further questions about the provenance of works by a revered yet elusive artist. A lot is on the line with each of the estate’s decisions, and one wishes that their decision process would be more transparent. But even if the devil painting were ruled to be Basquiat’s, who is its rightful owner? Alex, the former drug dealer who is now in his forties, living an ordinary life with kids, has the painting kept in storage. Should someone arguably complicit in the artist’s death reap the profits from his work? Or does the artist’s estate or the local community have a more rightful claim? The work’s placement on a door dissociates it from the more traditional notions of ownership that apply to more conventional paintings.

Over two decades after his death, Basquiat remains firmly in the public imagination, with a documentary out last year and shout outs from rappers including Jay-Z and Rick Ross. Basquiat spent his childhood and some of his most desperate final days in Brooklyn, so the discovery of a long-hidden work by the artist here would certainly be fitting.


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