Works by Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat Are Suddenly So L.A.

Stars of New York’s downtown heyday in the ’80s are making a second splash in DTLA

The Los Angeles art world is in a New York state of mind. One that partied at the Mudd Club, battled the AIDS crisis and Reagan’s culture wars, and watched Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring paint the East Village.

“It was the last generation that had to be in the same place physically if you wanted to learn about the avant garde,” says artist Kenny Scharf. “You couldn’t just get it on your phone.”

Angelenos have been coming together of late to reconnect with those voices. Last fall, John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres exhibited their plaster-cast portraits of South Bronx residents at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown. Scharf, born and based-again in L.A., reprised his Cosmic Cavern (grown out of the Cosmic Closet he made with Haring in the Bryant Park townhouse they once shared) at Honor Fraser last summer. This winter, gallerist Jeffrey Deitch hosted a retrospective for the “gothic futurist” graffiti writer Rammellzee at his Hollywood headquarters. And during L.A. Art Week, the Cubo-Expressionist George Condo christened Hauser & Wirth’s new West Hollywood megagallery inside the former Heritage Classics car showroom.

“I think there’s a lot about the 1980s that feels particularly relevant again today,” says Sarah Loyer, curator and exhibitions manager at the Broad, where she curated Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody, opening May 27. “A lot of the issues that Haring addresses in his work are complex issues that remain central today: environmentalism, capitalism, sexuality, and race.”

As an outwardly gay street artist, Haring rose to prominence in the New York scene by pasting cut-up collages around the city that reframed daily headlines (think “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop”) or meeting the public along its daily commute with his iconic Subway Drawings. Between 1980 and 1985, Haring made 5,000 of these chalk line illustrations on matte black advertising blanks along the train platforms, where he introduced his “radiant baby” and “dancing dog” figures.

A blockbuster 1982 solo debut at Tony Shafrazi Gallery turned Haring into a global superstar, one who had Madonna unveil her Like a Virgin album at his birthday party wearing a pink leather suit he’d painted. That suit and some Subway Drawings paintings—along with dozens of other rarely seen works—will be on view at Art Is for Everybody. As the first L.A. museum retrospective for the artist, it also focuses on Haring’s political engagement, which can get lost amid the Pop sensibility of his work. To wit: Loyer paired Haring’s Pop Shop, the SoHo curio store where he sold wares to the masses, opposite his capitalist-pig paintings. She also focused on his attention to race and sexuality. (During the run, the Broad will also show works by several Haring contemporaries.)

If Art Is for Everybody seeks to forge a deeper understanding of Haring’s deeper pursuits, then the L.A. edition of Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, which opened in March and is curated by the artist’s sisters and executors of the estate, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, is an attempt to offer a more humanistic understanding of their trailblazing brother, whose life was cut short when he died of a drug overdose in 1988 at age 27. During the ensuing decades, Basquiat’s neo-Expressionist paintings have made him one of the most influential and expensive artists in history.

Though they wanted their brother’s takes on Black history, social justice, and the era’s culture wars on full display, Basquiat’s sisters also see their maiden curatorial effort as a “love letter” to a visionary sibling. “There was a tenderness to the creation of this show, and it was really about adding Jean-Michel’s humanity to the story for the people who only knew him from the ’80s,” says Basquiat. Adds Heriveaux, “We thought it was important that Jean-Michel’s life didn’t just end at a guy who had a lot of girlfriends, who had combative relationships with his dealers.”

Set inside the Frank Gehry-designed Grand L.A., King Pleasure features nearly 200 rarely seen drawings, paintings, and bits of ephemera dating back to Basquiat’s childhood from the family’s personal collection. It debuted in New York last spring.

“But we’re also focusing more on the L.A. side of the story,” says Basquiat. Their brother lived in L.A. for brief spells beginning in 1982, when he came here with Madonna, who lived with him at the Venice home of Larry Gagosian.  In fact, L.A. is where he produced some of his most iconic works, including his fence paintings, which began with two he made from the derelict patio he deconstructed outside his former Venice studio at the corner of Market and Speedway.

“There’s a lot of warmth and another side of Jean that you don’t normally get to see,” says Scharf, one of the 210,000 people who saw King Pleasure during its triumphant nine-month New York run. “They had the Palladium bar and a replica of their childhood kitchen and his studio with all these real paintings just thrown about all over the floor. I was at that studio—they did a great job. It’s so sentimental, but in a beautiful way.”

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