Notes on Defacing History
by Lester Strong
Sometimes two different crises meet up in odd ways at the same unfortunate moment in time. I was reminded of just such an event recently after visiting, then researching, a current stunning exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City titled “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story.”
I’ll get to “the untold story” a bit later. But one may well ask: Just what did Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) deface? As the catalogue for the show notes, he “first came to prominence tagging New York City streets with the epigram SAMO© in the late 1970s, and entered the art world at its early 1980s intersection with street art, hip-hop, and punk. His graffiti-inflected Neo-Expressionist paintings swiftly brought him art world acclaim, which the artist both courted and found oppressive. . . .”
However, this exhibition is not about Basquiat’s graffiti or his fame as an artist. It centers on his 1983 painting The Death of Michael Stewart, informally known as Defacement, which commemorates the death in the same year of a young black artist in Manhattan at the hands of New York’s Transit Police and the subsequent charges of a cover-up by police and city officials. The city was roiled by this incident for years, as it was more recently by the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island at the hands of police. In both instances, none of the officers involved when brought to trial was found guilty, although the city paid the families of both men millions of dollars in compensation ($1.7 million for the Stewart family; $5.9 million for the Garner family).
Michael Stewart was black and an aspiring artist; Basquiat was black, and already a world-famous artist. The police said they arrested Stewart for writing graffiti on a New York subway wall. People who knew him disputed the charge because Stewart was not known for doing any graffiti. However, it should be noted, Basquiat gained his first notice in the art world specifically for his graffiti art. According to the exhibition’s guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier’s introductory catalogue essay, “Defacement: Moment, History, and Memory”: “Numerous friends recall how, for the rest of the artist’s life, when discussion of Stewart’s death arose, Basquiat would repeat the refrain, ‘It could have been me.’” He closely identified with Stewart, and it’s easy to see why.
The Death of Michael Stewart shows in graphic visual form just what it was about Stewart with which Basquiat identified: a black figure on either side of which stand two police officers with clubs in hand ready to strike the central black figure. One policeman has his teeth bared, and the faces of both suggest rage. The black figure stands helpless, either without arms raised to protect himself, or perhaps without any arms at all. Nor does he have feet with which to try running away.
What is depicted could not be more stark: a moment of terror for the black figure, who has no way to defend himself from the brutal beating that is about to take place. And at least one message Basquiat means to convey could not be more clear: It is a terror that haunted Basquiat himself, and perhaps haunts every black man in this country: helplessness in the face of police brutality, where you can’t defend yourself, no one else can come to your aid, and no one will be held accountable in the courts of law. What is less obvious about the painting is the anger out of which it was incubated—and not the anger so clearly written on the faces of the police officers in the picture. LaBouvier in her essay notes that Basquiat in 1985 confirmed anger “as an ongoing and primary source of his work.” The Death of Michael Stewart is an eloquent example of that anger made manifest.
Aside from LaBouvier’s essay, the show’s catalogue contains several others: “The Man Nobody Killed” by the Guggenheim’s Artistic Director Nancy Spector; “The Art of Basquiat Belongs to the People” by cultural historian J. Faith Almiron, and “Black Like B.” by writer, musician, producer, and cultural critic Greg Tate. Also included is a section titled “Recollections,” which contains reminiscences by people who knew Basquiat and/or Stewart and their milieu compiled by LaBouvier. Each of the essays and recollections explore the cultural context of the Basquiat years, delving deeply into Manhattan’s Lower East Side art scene in the early 1980s, but also into the issues of racism and police brutality— in essence telling “the untold story” behind The Death of Michael Stewart.
However, on viewing the exhibition, another untold story became apparent to me, marginal to the central issues that gave rise to Michael Stewart’s murder, to be sure, but still worth some notice.
Not all the art in the show was by Basquiat; not everything was, strictly speaking, even art. or at least was not originally conceived as art. The latter includes posters, flyers, and cards created to announce protest rallies, benefits to raise money for the Michael Stewart legal defense fund, and reproductions of newspaper articles about Stewart’s death. Two such items especially caught my eye: Keith Haring’s large 1985 painting Michael Stewart—USA for Africa, and a protest flyer designed by David Wojnarowicz. They caught my eye for one reason: Both Wojnarowicz and Haring were gay and already living with AIDS. Haring died of complications related to the disease in 1990, and Wojnarowicz in 1992.
Keith Haring and Basquiat were friends—friendly enough, in fact, that Basquiat painted The Death of Michael Stewart on a plasterboard wall of Haring’s New York City studio. When Haring later moved out of that studio, he cut the painting out of the wall, had it framed (it still resides in the same frame), and hung it over the bed in his apartment. Haring’s own tribute to Stewart was painted in his famous free-wheeling cartoonish style, showing a naked Stewart, colored dark brown, with hands in cuffs and being strangled by pink-colored hands descending from above. (Note: This is only a partial description of the painting, as can be seen by glancing at the reproduction accompanying this blog entry.)
Clearly Stewart’s death shocked Haring. According to New Yorker art critic Peter Shjeldahl, in an article about the Guggenheim show published in the magazine back in July 2019: “Stewart’s death illuminated for many of them [members of the 1980s’ New York Lower East Side art scene], as if by a flash of lightning, the persistent violence of racism in the wider society. Haring took to telling friends, with bitter wonderment, that he’d been arrested four times for marking [i.e., for graffiti], yet, as a sassy but nice white lad, he was always let go with, at worst, offhand insults to his unconcealed gayness.”
It’s not clear that Wojnarowicz knew Basquiat, but he was shocked enough by Michael Stewart’s death that he designed a poster put up around town announcing a Union Square rally to protest what the poster described as Stewart’s “near-murder” by the Transit Police. LaBouvier in her essay speculates that Basquiat must have seen the Wojnarowicz poster “as the composition of Defacement, executed afterward, is nearly identical to the yellow poster.”
Be that as it may, in 1983, in New York City, men and women of all colors and sexual persuasions came together to protest and denounce a terrible injustice. The Guggenheim’s show “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story” and its curator Chaédria LaBouvier have brought to light details of an important event that should not be forgotten, especially today in our current political and social climate where it’s clear that racism and police brutality are still malignant forces in this country that must be confronted and hopefully defanged.
To end this blog entry, a few further observations: Here, indeed, two worlds brush shoulders: the activism centered around the issue of police brutality involving minority communities, and that centered around AIDS. Or perhaps I should say the world of incipient AIDS activism since in 1983 the really big AIDS protests and demonstrations were still to come. Nothing makes their meeting quite as clear as two large headlines that appeared on the same page of the December 1985/January 1986 issue of the East Village Eye newspaper and are reproduced in the show’s catalogue:
EAST VILLAGE GROANS UNDER AIDS SCOURGE
THE MAN NOBODY KILLED: MICHAEL STEWART, 1958-1984 [sic]
But I wonder. AIDS and the protests over Michael Stewart’s death were contemporaneous. Were they linked in any other way? I can think of one similarity, and the word to describe it is “defacement.”
The defacement of the truth about the death of Stewart through cover-ups by police and city officials has already been described. But in its early years the AIDS crisis was also defaced in its own way by federal officials during the Reagan administration who refused to take it seriously, responded with indifference when health-care professionals across the country asked for funding to deal with the disease, and watched with indifference as the homophobic religious right targeted gay men with their politics of hatred, fear-mongering, and discrimination.
The face of the AIDS epidemic is very different these days. The disease has not been eradicated, but giant strides have been made in bringing it under control. Can the same be said for racism and police brutality in this country? Hardly. But I’d like to ask: Are there lessons to be learned from the the history of AIDS and gay rights struggles that could be applied to the problems addressed by “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story”? Maybe, maybe not. But I throw the thought out for consideration.
“Basquiat’s Defacement: The Unold Story” can be seen through November 6 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128. Highly recommended.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.