Last month the Brooklyn Museum unveiled its latest exhibition “One Basquiat.” What is unique about this show, is that it centres around the painting “Untitled (1982)”. The painting which sold in 2017, broke records by going for $110.5 million dollars at Sotheby’s. The piece was purchased by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and at the time, was the sixth most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. “One Basquiat,” which opened on January 26, is happening with the help of Maezawa who lent the work out to be publicly displayed for the first time.
“My wish to share this masterpiece with as many people as possible begins in Basquiat’s hometown of Brooklyn,” Maezawa said on a post on Instagram on January 11, 2018.
Fast forward to 2018, and the One Basquiat painting is making a homecoming of sorts. The artist who was born in Brooklyn in 1960, grew up in the East Flatbush, Cobble Hill and Crown Heights neighbourhoods of the borough– only a short distance from the museum. This also marks the third exhibition of Basquiat’s work that the Brooklyn Museum has had.
“One Basquiat” also features a few photographs of the artist, as well as few personal effects, including two junior membership cards to the museum that belonged to him. It also has snippets of the movie “Downtown 81” playing in a gallery space adjacent to the main room. Given the unique circumstances surrounding the painting, and the significance of who Basquiat was, having an exhibit that is centred around one painting does not seem so unfounded.
“Untitled (1982)” was painted when Basquiat was only 21 years old. Basquiat’s genius is encapsulated in this work. The painting features a black skull that has been scrawled in the middle of the canvas. The face has an open mouth, with teeth exposed and is set against the backdrop of deep blues, goldenrod yellows, whites, reds, and more black paint.
The use of colour, and subject matter captured on the canvas it emulates a vibrancy that combines graffiti, with abstract expressionism, and a performativity that can be seen in every stroke. This specific work marked a critical moment in the artist’s career and in many ways helped to land him on the pervertible art map. This piece was also made one year after the artist’s first solo show in 1981.
This latest exhibition of Basquiat’s work follows one that opened in September of 2017 at the Barbican in London, “Boom for Real.” It was the first large-scale exhibition of the artist’s work in Europe and as a result, drew huge crowds. It is who the artist was, the body of incredible work he produced in less than a decade, and a tragic ending to his life, that has only added to the mythical aura that surrounds Basquiat.
“One Basquiat,” is in many ways just what the title suggests. This show is interesting compared to others that have been on view at the Brooklyn Museum, and others, which typically consist of more work. Although this kind of exhibition may be a rare occurrence for museum spaces, it is not an uncommon practice within galleries.
One-piece art shows have been a somewhat regular occurrence within galleries for years. In a 2015 article by Andrew Russeth tilted “Solo Shows: The Curious Magic of One-Work Exhibitions” he seeks to examine some shows that have been made up with just one work. Some notable shows Russeth’s looked at included Richard Prince’s “Cowboy” exhibit at Gagosian, which featured a small metal sculpture of a boy dressed as a cowboy, and Benjamin Morgan-Cleveland at Eli Ping Frances Perkins which consisted of a large-scale couch that was cartoonish is in both colour and size, among others.
When it comes to cultural institutions, there are often specific pieces a show may centre around because they are crowd pleasers. From Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”, Monet’s “Water Lilies” series, to Vermeer’s “Girl With the Pearl Earring” and more, these are the kinds of works that are included in shows that survey an artist’s work because it is what they have become known for. However just to have one work on display and that be the entirety of the exhibition does not happen every day.
“Basquiat One” has been curated in a similar fashion; but given the rareness of this piece, who Basquiat was, and the circumstances surrounding its first public exhibition only adds to its appeal. This work is symptomatic to the genius of the artist and showcases his capacity to create work that would defy mediums, complex topics, and continues to confound expectations even decades after his death.
“One Basquiat” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until March 11, 2018.