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With East Village exhibition, the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat comes home


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: Finally tonight: More than 30 years after his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat remains one of America's most influential contemporary artists. He carved a unique style that challenged our views of race, poverty and politics in the U.S.

Jeffrey Brown explores a new exhibition showing some of Basquiat's most important work.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: New York City's East Village, in the 1970s and '80s, it was known for drugs, crime, homelessness and a vibrant experimental music and art scene.

The heartbeat of it all, Tompkins Square Park.

Michael Holman: It was like a real central coming together place. You know, it was a bit of nature in the middle of this teeming city, a place where you could crash if you had nowhere to sleep.

Jeffrey Brown: Michael Holman is a New York-based artist, writer, filmmaker and musician, and part of a unique generation of artists who called the East Village home, including Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, and, perhaps most famous of all, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Michael Holman: Jean-Michel Basquiat was -- I would call him a realized being.

Jeffrey Brown: It was at a party in 1979 that Holman first met Basquiat, whose graffiti tag SAMO was already well-known on the streets of New York.

Did you feel even then a kind of ambition to grow beyond that?

Michael Holman: Oh, absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Michael Holman: Absolutely. Unlike a lot of us, who were just here experimenting with art and our voice as artists, Basquiat knew early on, early on before any of us, that he was going to be famous.

Jeffrey Brown: And famous, he became.

Since his death in 1988 at age 27 from a heroin overdose, Basquiat's reputation and the demand for his work have skyrocketed. His now iconic lines, figures, and handwritten texts are regularly displayed in the world's most renowned museums and galleries.

Two years ago, his untitled 1982 painting of a skull fetched more than $110 million at auction, the most ever for any American artist. That work and many others were part of a new exhibition that began in Paris, curated by Dieter Buchhart.

Dieter Buchhart: His energy is amazing. His line is inimitable. His combination with words, collage and assemblage, nobody else did. It's all under his own aesthetic. But the way he combined knowledge is so contemporary.

Jeffrey Brown: Now, the exhibition has come home, in a sense, to Basquiat's old stomping grounds in the East Village of New York in a brand-new private museum owned by the Brant Foundation.

It's housed in a former electrical substation. Tickets here are free. The first batch of 50,000 was gone before the exhibition opened. The works themselves come from museums around the world and private collections, including that of the foundation's founder, Peter Brant, CEO of one of the largest newsprint manufacturers in North America.

He's been buying Basquiat's work since the 1980s.

What did you see in the art at that time?

Peter Brant: I mean, I thought he was, you know, a great colorist. I love the way he used the language in his work. And he'd been billed as a graffiti artist, but I -- if you look at his work, it goes far beyond painting on subway cars.

Jeffrey Brown: Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat was the son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. He left home as a teenager and began selling hand-painted postcards and T-shirts.

In 1979, he and Holman helped form the rock band Gray, as Basquiat entered a prolific period of creating his own art. Years later, Holman would help capture those times as a screenwriter for the feature film "Basquiat," directed by another well-known contemporary artist, Julian Julian Schnabel.

Some called Basquiat's paintings primitive, raw, even childlike. But he was unfazed.

Michael Holman: He also recognized that combining that child's hand and that child's innocence with some of the highly charged issues of race and economic disparity and the particular politics of America, if he would combine those things in a special way, which he did, that he would touch on that third rail.

Jeffrey Brown: The Brant exhibition reflects those issues, in paintings like The Irony of a Negro Policeman and Per Capita, but there are also lighter pieces, like those of famous boxers he admired.

Just as Basquiat's prices have gone up, so have rents in the East Village. It and this city have changed dramatically since his time. Further evidence, The Brant Foundation Museum itself.

He had an aesthetic of the streets. Is there not a disconnect with seeing him in a -- sold for $110 million, owned by people of wealth, and, you know, in a private museum?

Peter Brant: I don't see any disconnect, other than it's an example of the American dream. He's not an artist that's just appreciated by the people that live in this neighborhood.

We're just giving the people in this neighborhood an opportunity to see the work of somebody that came out of this neighborhood.

Jeffrey Brown: Today, Basquiat continues to be a hero for many-including young people like these who stopped to hear our conversation.

Michael Holman: Being friends with him, hanging out with him was like going to Basquiat university, where you gleaned the power of combining disparate ideas that shouldn't work together, but that do.

Jeffrey Brown: Jean-Michel Basquiat, the inaugural exhibition at the Brant Foundation, runs through May 15.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

William Brangham: Another exhibition showcasing Basquiat's work is set to open at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York next month.

Credits: Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

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