Jean-Michel Basquiat painted Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio in 1983 to commemorate the death of a young black artist who died from injuries sustained while in police custody after being arrested for allegedly tagging a New York City subway station. Defacement is the starting point for the present volume, which focuses on Basquiat’s response to anti-black racism and police brutality. Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story explores this chapter in the artist’s career through both the lens of his identity and the Lower East Side as a nexus of activism in the early 1980s, an era marked by the rise of the art market, the AIDS crisis and ongoing racial tensions in the city.
Texts by Chaédria LaBouvier, Nancy Spector, J. Faith Almiron and Greg Tate are supplemented by commentary from artists and activists such as Luc Sante, Carlo McCormick, Jeffrey Deitch, Kenny Scharf, Fred Braithwaite and Michelle Shocked, who were part of this episode in New York City’s history, which parallels today’s urgent conversations about state-sanctioned racism. Basquiat’s painting is contextualized by ephemera related to Stewart’s death, including newspaper clippings and protest posters, samples of artwork from Stewart’s estate and work made by other artists in response to Stewart’s death and the subsequent trial, including pieces by Haring, Andy Warhol, David Hammons, George Condo and Lyle Ashton Harris.