Paris’s Blockbuster Basquiat Show Will Be Nearly Impossible to Stage Again
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo © Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles.
Dieter Buchhart has been called the world’s leading Jean-Michel Basquiat expert. He’s curated or co-curated nearly all of the late New York artist’s major institutional shows this decade, including retrospectives at the Fondation Beyeler in 2010, the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2015, and the Barbican in London in 2017.
So I was bit taken aback when, in a recent phone conversation, the planet’s top Basquiat authority informed me that the rapturously received 120-work Basquiat retrospective he curated at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (up at the Paris museum until January 21st) is not only more extensively sourced and thorough than any show of the artist staged before, but also probably the last time a show of its scale will ever be staged.
“This is the most comprehensive Basquiat show, and perhaps one day, one of the other great museums will try it again, but it will be very, very, very hard. It will kind of be a ‘Mission: Impossible,’” Buchhart said during a phone call from Paris. “It was already now a sort of ‘Mission: Impossible,’ and of course, in a couple of years, it will be even more of a ‘Mission: Impossible.’”
I initially took this as hyperbole—star curators are nothing if not enthusiastic in their proclamations. But having seen the show, which is spread generously through the 126,000-square-foot Frank Gehry–designed space that opened in a woodsy part of the 16th Arrondissement in 2014, it occured to me that perhaps it’s true that such a gobsmacking array of Basquiat’s best paintings could never be assembled again.
Installation view of the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition, gallery 10, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, 2019. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo © Fondation Louis Vuitton / Marc Domage.
Buchhart insisted this was the case, and ticked off the reasons why. Basquiat’s market has shot up in the last few years, he said, and a show of 120 works needs a massively well-endowed museum to cover the insurance costs of shipping and hosting dozens of paintings that could be worth more than $10 million, and at least one that is worth much more than that: the untitled 1982 skull painting Yusaku Maezawa bought at Sotheby’s New York in May 2017 for $110.5 million. The lack of institutional interest in Basquiat during his lifetime and in the decades when the late’s artist’s work was relatively affordable means that the bulk of his work is still in the hands of private collectors, many of whom are reticent to let the public see their holdings, or even send them away on loans.
Unlike the institutions that passed on Basquiat for years, the Fondation Louis Vuitton has amassed an impressive trove of the artist’s work, including Grillo (1984), a showstopper that depicts two figures across four linked canvases stretching more than 17 feet, and Negro Period (1986), a tryptic that features tangled drawings of black cultural figures on two of its three panels, and then a striking portrait on its rightmost panel.
The exhibition’s curators also had access to even more rare works through the largess of the Fondation’s president, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, who has collected Basquiat for decades and showed immense enthusiasm for his works years before they became must-haves for any world-class contemporary collection.
“Basquiat! I have a deep and personal passion for the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose works I first discovered in New York in the late 1980s,” Arnault wrote in the exhibition catalogue.
Arnault began planning the world’s grandest Basquiat exhibition nearly a decade ago, when Gehry’s spasmodic sketches of undulating waves had yet to be turned into a real building. The first order of business was asking Buchhart to put the show together, alongside the museum’s artistic director, Suzanne Pagé. Even at that early stage, he knew his exceptional Basquiat holdings gave him a leg-up in staging a once-in-a-lifetime show.
Some of Arnault’s Basquiats remain in his name, as opposed to the Fondation’s collection, and the luxury goods billionaire loaned work from his personal trove—which adorns walls of such properties as his Saint-Tropez home, his apartment in Paris, his penthouse at 50 Central Park West, his multiple houses in Beverly Hills, and perhaps even his yacht—even if he insisted on incognito wall text attributing them to “a private collection.”
When Arnault tapped Buchhart to organize the exhibition, the curator immediately set out to do something more ambitious than past shows, which typically tracked the artist’s meteoric rise and tragic death over a too-short career. Instead of being organized chronologically, the show’s 120 works are presented in thematic clusters: large head paintings; smaller head drawings; depictions of Basquiat’s “heroes and warriors,” which include bebop titans and boxing champions; paintings that rely heavily on text; history paintings; paintings that take stock of the African diaspora and slave trade routes; collaborations with Andy Warhol; and his final works—including the late masterpiece Riding with Death (1988), which rarely leaves its very private collection, and is on display in Paris for the first time.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pez Dispenser, 1984. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. P © Tutti-image. Bertrand Huet.
The unorthodox sequencing pays off in a big way. Right out the gate, there are three massive skull works hung in a small cupola that will wow Basquiat fans and win over any skeptic: Maezawa’s record-breaking, black-on-cerulean face with teeth gnashing; the somber yellow-lined skull from 1981 that’s been a highlight of The Broad in Los Angeles since it opened in 2015; and In This Case (1983), a red-washed noggin with a rain cloud for an eyeball that’s owned by Giancarlo Giammetti, the business partner of fashion designer Valentino Garavani.
“It was very important for me to break with the usual retrospective, where you start with the early works, and then you go on, so I started with one of the strongest expressions of humanism, the strongest expression of existential fear—the three heads,” Buchhart said. “It was to mark the genius of Basquiat, and also give [visitors], at the entrance, an idea of the masterpieces he created.”
As you continue through the show, the sequencing of works strengthens the main argument Buchhart set out to make: that Basquiat was not really a Neo-Expressionist revitalizing a bombastic aesthetic, but a conceptual artist threading the context of where he came from into the narrative of his life’s work.
While discussing this conceptual framing, I floated a theory by Buchhart: that Basquiat was a canny observer of the way the market responded to his work, and would have marveled at the Fondation’s staffers crisscrossing the globe to track down his works in the vacation homes of collectors. Basquiat would have seen the international dissemination of his now-pricey paintings as a parallel to the global tradewinds he mapped in his works—particularly the paintings dealing with the slave trade, a market he compared to the art market on many occasions, portraying men in hats selling both people and pictures.
Buchhart agreed with the idea, noting that in addition to the collectors who did advertise their loans in the wall text—including prominent players such as Eli and Edythe Broad in Los Angeles, Peter M. Brant from Greenwich, Connecticut, and others as far-flung as Heidi Horten in Vienna, Yoav Harlap in Israel, and the Mugrabi family—there were dozens of others who stayed anonymous.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Tenant), 1982. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo © Patrick Goetelen.
“He’s really global—Hong Kong, Australia, of course you have South America, Japan, other parts of Asia, Indonesia, many private collections in Europe, even smaller holdings in Africa,” Buchhart said.
While many collectors are willing to loan work for large portions of the year—Maezawa’s masterpiece was at the Brooklyn Museum and the Seattle Art Museum before it went to Paris, meaning it’s been traveling for most of the roughly 20 months he’s owned it—some have started to worry about shipping increasingly valuable canvases.
“It was difficult,” Buchhart said. “People are much less generous in lending, because now the value is so high. People started having more concerns than they did in the past.”
Still, after more than a decade of putting together ambitious Basquiat shows, Buchhart has become good at knowing who to turn to when there’s a specific piece that scratches a curatorial itch or fills a narrative gap. He said he was able to offer primo real estate to collectors who were reluctant to share their works, enticing them with the promise that certain overlooked parts of the artist’s practice would get their star turn in this exhibition’s rejiggered format.
But some resistant collectors took more persuading. To entice would-be lenders into handing over their prized possessions for a few months, Arnault himself sent handwritten letters offering them the pick of the litter from his own personal collection to fill the white space on their walls for the duration of the show.
The surging Basquiat market has also created the problem of putting up the daunting insurance money needed to house so many blue-chip works. Buchhart claimed he didn’t know the total estimate for what the works in the show would hypothetically cost, and thus didn’t know the indemnity that had been assigned to the exhibition so that it could be staged. Dealers familiar with the Basquiat market said they had not looked at all 120 works closely enough to go on the record with a ballpark estimate.
But there’s no doubt that 120 of the greatest Basquiats in existence amount to a whole lot of money. Since 2007, nearly 40 of his paintings, drawings, and canvases on mounted wood have sold for more than $10 million. And accordingly, the two large-scale head paintings in the show not owned by Maezawa would have to be considered $100 million pictures; the 25 or so large-scale paintings are at least equal to those that have recently sold in the range of $30 million. No large-scale, four- or five-paneled works like the ones in the Fondation’s collection have come to auction, but they could conceivably break $50 million given their sheer size. In addition to these knockouts, there are dozens of smaller paintings and drawings that would collectively bring in a hefty sum. All told, it seems reasonable to estimate that the total value of the works in the exhibition could approach $2 billion.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Grillo, 1984. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo © Fondation Louis Vuitton / Marc Doma.
Insurance for this kind of exhibition would be prohibitive for most private museums. In 2011, when the National Gallery in London staged a show of nine works by Leonardo da Vinci, the indemnity was a whopping £3.3 billion, and it was halfway covered by taxpayers.
But in this case, the museum in question is sponsored by LVMH, which has assets of €68.6 billion ($82.2 billion). Buchhart says having such a backer is a huge help, but it’s also another reason why it will be difficult to stage such a show again, especially as Basquiat’s prices continue to rise.
“The insurance value of a show like this is very high, so it limits the opportunities,” Buchhart said. “On the good side, there is the recognition that comes with the high prices, but there is also the downside—the exhibitions become very expensive to do, which limits the options to do these shows.”
In March, a selection of the works—about 70 of the 120—will travel to New York to inaugurate the Brant Foundation’s first Manhattan gallery space, in Walter De Maria’s old studio in the East Village. Appropriately enough, the location is in Basquiat’s old stomping grounds, right around the corner from the Pyramid Club and other old and bygone 1980s venues where the artist jammed with his band Gray and left endless tags on the walls and bathrooms.
Until then, there’s no doubt that the full show in Paris will be as mobbed as it was on the brisk Saturday in October when I visited. There were lines around the sprawling concourse in the Bois de Boulogne then, and the visitors standing in them looked giddy, despite the hours of waiting that lay ahead.
Some of the younger people in the queue wore Basquiat shirts and were clearly very eager to witness for the first time a complete show of his work. I mentioned this to Buchhart and he said that he had noticed the kids, too. He talked about those who had heard of Basquiat, double-tapped pictures of Basquiat on Instagram, read about Basquiat, but never actually seen a Basquiat.
“It marks a global change in the reception of Basquiat, and educates many more people about what he actually did,” he said.