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Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Man, The Legend

The full episode transcript for How Basquiat Earned His Crown.


Into America

How Basquiat Earned His Crown

Michael Holman: I have never to this day met anybody to compare to Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Jeanine Heriveaux: He tore a page out of Malcom X, "by any means necessary." He was determined to become an artist no matter what that meant to get there.

Holman: Whether it was his music, whether it was his performance, whether it was the way he danced, whether it was the way he dressed, whether it was the way he spoke, whether it was the way he groomed his hair, you can see it all in his art, and you feel it radiating out from his work.

Heriveaux: When you were with him, you felt special because he was in the moment with you.

Holman: There was a sense of self-containment, and confidence, and vision that came out of his face and came out of his eyes that was spellbinding.

Trymaine Lee: Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of the most iconic American artists of the 20th century, known for his bold, arresting, oftentimes cryptic paintings. He drew inspiration from world history, sports, and jazz, his own sense of Blackness and Caribbean heritage to say something about society and his shifting, evolving place within it.

He swiftly rose to fame on the downtown New York scene of the 1970s and '80s before his untimely death in 1988. But the legacy he left behind continues to grow beyond measure. In the decades since Basquiat first made his debut on the art scene, his designs, like his iconic three-pointed crown or his moody skulls, have flooded pop culture.

They're on $20 T-shirts and baseball caps at major fashion retailers. And some of his multi-million-dollar original art pieces grace the homes of Black celebrities turned collectors like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who recently appeared in a major ad campaign for Tiffany's alongside some of Basquiat's work. Today, long after his death, Basquiat continues to break new ground--

Reporters: And we have an art auction record to tell you about a painting from late graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat selling for $110.5 billion.

The highest price ever paid for an American artist at auction. The untitled painting of a skull was bought by a Japanese billionaire after a ten-minute bidding war, reportedly to gasps in the room.

Lee: Basquiat created several hundred paintings and more than 1,000 drawings, mostly over a brief seven-year span. During this time, he sold out solo art shows and exhibitions all over the world in places like Germany and Japan. He got attention from major art critics and profiles in national magazines and newspapers. He had major private collectors rushing to buy his pieces.

Holman: The art world, the moment they saw his work, came rushing to his door, genuflecting to his feet. That's how incredible his vision, and his mind, and his creativity was from the jump.

Lee: But his huge popularity, especially as a young Black man, made some of the industry's white gatekeepers skeptical of Basquiat's talent, let alone his staying power.

Holman: Reviews in the press where he'd be called "art mascot to Andy Warhol," people writing about him that ignored his creative genius and only wrote about him as a brat, or a drug addict, or this, or that, really missing the point. And it depressed him. It brought him down.

Lee: This view of Basquiat, that he was too popular to be a real artist, that he wasn't a genius in his own right, had wide-ranging consequences that we're still seeing today. Despite Basquiat's national fame and global significance, very few of his paintings or drawings are on public display in museums. Instead, the vast majority of his work and even his personal notebooks are sitting in private collections, far out of reach from the public and the archives of art history.

Jordana Moore Saggese: I always talk about Jean-Michel Basquiat as an artist who is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Jean-Michel Basquiat was a bright star who took the world by storm but whose light burned out too quickly. He was a complicated artist with an even more complex legacy. Today, a deeper look at the forces that shaped Basquiat, the man and the artist, his impact on art and culture, and a new exhibition called "King Pleasure" that his family is curating to honor his legacy. Who was Jean-Michel Basquiat the man beyond all the fanfare and flashing lights, before his work was commodified and broke sales records? Basquiat's family and friends remember him as a larger-than-life, generous spirit.

Lisane Basquiat: And so what I remember about his childhood and his adolescence specifically is just a lot of life.

Lee: Yeah.

Basquiat: A lot of life. He lived.

Lee: Lisane Basquiat is one of Jean-Michel's two sisters. Lisane says her big brother was deeply thoughtful and constantly drawing inspiration from his city, New York, and the world around him.

Basquiat: I have a lot of favorite works. One is Biography. It's a drawing and it kind of lays out his life, and it make reference to, you know, uncles, and aunts, and the trajectory of our family's migration.

Lee: Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 19 60, the oldest child to a Haitian immigrant father and a Puerto Rican mother. Lisane was born four years later. And three years after that, Jeanine came along. Jeanine, whose last name is now Heriveaux, says her parents encouraged creative expression in a young Basquiat.

Heriveaux: My dad would bring home paper, and pencils, and stuff from work for Jean-Michel to use. My mother brought him to the Brooklyn Museum. He became a junior member. So it's something that was always around in our household.

Lee: Their father was an accountant. He loved listening to music. Jeanine says it permeated the family's brownstone in Brooklyn.

Heriveaux: So Jean-Michel was influenced initially through my dad and the music that was played in our home. My father had a broad taste in music, definitely influences from the Caribbean. He loved Spanish music. That's how he met my mother. They went to the Palladium, which was uptown at the time, and they danced. So we had influences of Tito Puente. We had influences of jazz. We had influences of classical. But we also had Donna Summer, you know, Diana Ross, Love Hangover, Chicago, Neil Diamond.

Lee: What was it like growing up with Jean-Michel? What are some of your earliest memories? As little sisters, what are some of your earliest memories of Jean-Michel?

Basquiat: Jean-Michel was mischievous. I guess it would be (LAUGH) considered mischievous, but he was incredibly curious about everything, and he was incredibly creative. And he seemed to just take the world apart in little chunks and figure out how to put it back together.

Lee: Basquiat's expressiveness couldn't be contained. He was always sketching, planning elaborate pranks, building new worlds inside of his head. And while his father wanted to support him, Jeanine says, in the beginning, it was hard to imagine an artist's life for his son.

Heriveaux: You know, my dad came here at under 20 years old. He left Haiti and it was a big adjustment for him. He came over here in January, no winter coat, a completely different experience than what he had in Haiti.

Lee: You know, I always love hearin' either immigrant stories or people that come from the South, and you arrive in winter in New York, and you're like, "Yo, what is, (LAUGH) what is this?"

Basquiat: Yo, right? (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Like, "What is?"

Heriveaux: Why do they always arrive in winter?

Basquiat: "When you said 'cold,' I thought you meant 71°." (LAUGHTER)

Lee: I know. This is 20°. It's 20° right now.

Basquiat: It's cold.

Lee: And you came from Haiti.

Basquiat: Yeah. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, yeah. And our dad, you know, he came to this country going from, you know, the lifestyle that he had in Haiti, that was very comfortable and that he knew. The first job he had was pushing garment racks down the street, you know?

And he went from that to building the American dream. So for him, you know, for a lot of people from the Caribbean, they wanted Jean-Michel to kind of take that track, that tried and true track. And Jean-Michel wanted no parts of that. But what's interesting is that they really had somewhat of a parallel determination, and focus, and the ability to really set a goal and move toward that goal in an unrelentless wanna. Both of them did.

Lee: Jean-Michel Basquiat grew into his own in the 1970s. This was the era when James Brown was telling us to Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud. Afros, bell bottom jeans, platform shoes were all the rage. And a flourishing Black arts movement was on the rise. Anything felt possible. And Lisane says they saw the spirit of the times reflected in their brother, even though the thought of Basquiat becoming an artist frightened their parents.

Basquiat: Back then, the thought of someone becoming an artist brought to mind not being able to eat. So the thing then was success looked like going through school; and getting an education; and putting on a white shirt, and a tie, and a suit; and pursuing, you know, a white collar profession. And Jean-Michel was, like, this dude who was, like, completely creative. That was not what he wanted to do. It just wasn't where he was.

Lee: In 1978, at the age of 18, Basquiat dropped out of high school and moved out on his own to pursue his dreams. Jeanine says it was a really hard moment for the family.

Heriveaux: I think we were too young to really understand the magnitude of what it was that he was doing and he was trying to accomplish. And so when he did come back home announcing that he had made that dream happen, it was, "Wow. He really did that."

Lee: Basquiat hopped around between friends' homes on the Lower East Side, supporting himself through odd jobs. At the time, New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy. Crime was high and funding for arts programs were being slashed in public schools.

It's in this context that a robust graffiti culture grew, especially on subway cars, which became these huge, mobile canvasses. This form of art spoke to a generation of Black and brown youth who the city had mostly neglected. And the idea of painting a train that would travel all across the city, granting the artist a certain kind of visibility, was appealing and exhilarating. It was a way to make the world that refused to see you literally see you.

And as this specific visual culture was being birthed, so, too was an emerging musical culture, one we'd later come to know as hip-hop. Basquiat made his foray into the arts at this precise moment in history. By the last '70s, the 18-year-old artist had already begun spray-painting these tantalizing texts on the walls of the city and the subway trains under the pseudonym SAMO. Basquiat's old friend and former band member, Michael Holman, remembers seeing the SAMO tag all around the city long before they ever met.

Holman: Nobody knew who it was. He was kind of a secret. And you have to understand that he's not writing typical hip-hop graffiti, which is just words, and letters, and names in these really colorful, exaggerated styles. He's writing poetry. He's writing these pithy, surreal lines that make you think, like, I'll give you an example of one of the ones that I read that blew my mind, like, "A pin drops like a pungent odor. Copyright SAMO." Or like, "Whoa." Like, "Make soup, build a fort, set that on fire. Copyright SAMO." And you're like, "Whoa. Who is behind this?"

Lee: Like Basquiat, Michael was part of the downtown club scene.

Holman: What we were really doing, besides going out, was making friends, making connections, finding people to start bands with, finding people to act in our films. It was that social connection in New York through nightclubbing, through socializing, through going out at night that was really the glue that held our scene together and that we built our scene upon.

Lee: I can feel, like, the energy. And I can almost taste it, that kind of bubbling and bursting at every space, that kind of engagement with each other, bouncin' off each other. What did that feel like?

Holman: Fashion. What did you wear when you went out to that club? Let's just say it was a party at The Mudd Club or it was a special event at Danceteria, whatever. How you looked was critical. The height of fashion during disco was thrift shop gear. You have to understand, it was thrift shop gear.

Now, you're moving into the later '70s, and you're going downtown, and it's not so much of a Black and Puerto Rican club disco scene, and now it's more of a downtown, East Village, perhaps more white, suburban, a lot of people coming from around the country, around the world to descend on New York and wanted to be down in this fine art, New Movement scene.

The look was still thrift shops, but it was much more deconstructed. It was much more just, like, rough-looking suits. Females at The Mudd Club were rocking much more '60s cocktail party dresses with high heels and pointy toes. The DJs would rock, you know, old-school records like everything from ten, to 15, to 20-year-old James Brown tracks, to Parliament-Funkadelic, to Iggy Pop and The Stooges, to Johnny Lydon and, you know, The Sex Pistols. It was a real mix of music. We all danced together. You know, the hip kids would get free drink tickets. We had attitude.

Lee: Michael and Basquiat finally met at the iconic Canal Zone Party of 1979. Michael organized the party with Fab 5 Freddy, a member of an emerging graffiti collective called The Fabulous 5.

Holman: So we decide to put together this party. We called it The Canal Zone Party (it happened April 29, 1979) to introduce The Fabulous 5, this graffiti collective. The spokesperson was Fab 5 Freddy. And it was to introduce The Fabulous 5 to the New York Times but also to introduce this idea of graffiti art and hip-hop culture to a downtown fine arts scene.

Lee: The Canal Zone Party marked the first time hip-hop culture and the downtown fine arts scene came together.

Holman: So anyway, now we're setting up, we're layin' out big graffiti burners on big, thick pieces of plastic by Lee Quiñones, and Doc, and Slave, and Mono, and all these cats who were in The Fabulous 5, and Fab 5 Freddy. Before the party starts, in walks this brother who's, like, young, charismatic, charming, and so self-confident that we were putty in his hands when he said, "I want to be a part of this, too. I want to be part of this, too."

We were like, "Okay, okay." So we set up this big sheet of photo paper, 9-by-12 feet, gave him a can of red spray paint, and he proceeded to write, "Which of the following symbols are omnipresent? A) Lee Harvey Oswald, B) General Malenry (PH), C) the Coca-Cola logo, or D) SAMO©." And we're like, "Whoa. You're SAMO."

Lee: That night, Michael's job was to document the party.

Holman: And I've got a microphone, and I'm asking people questions, and in some weird dadaist way, I'm putting the microphone in their face, and then pulling (LAUGH) it away before they can answer, and asking them another question.

Lee: When he finally got around to Basquiat.

Holman: And when he realizes I won't let him answer a question, he just, all the expression, and emotion, and judgment on his face just melts away. And the interview, mercifully, comes to a close. And a little bit later, I come up to him somewhat contrite and say, "Yo, man, I'm sorry about that. I was just--" and he goes, "No, man, that's all right. You want to start a band?" And I was like, "Yeah." And we started Gray that moment.

Lee: Back then, everyone wanted to be in a band. Gray was an experimental, deconstructionist group. And even though Basquiat had absolutely no musical experience, Michael said his creative genius was undeniable.

Holman: I instantly knew, instantly knew I was in the presence of a realized being. He knew who he was. He knew his mission. There was a sense of self-containment, and confidence, and vision that came out of his face and came out of his eyes that was spellbinding.

Lee: Mmm.

Holman: I have met so many interesting and famous people throughout my life, powerful, important artists who have done so much in the world. I have never, to this day, met anybody to compare to Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Lee: During this time, Basquiat was starting to develop what would become his signature painting style, with iconic symbols and imagery like those three-pointed crowns. He mixed and matched various cultural references into his work, from voodoo to da Vinci. His abstract paintings range from sketchy portraits, to grid-like cityscapes, to dynamic portrayals of Black American history.

Holman: You know, the way that he would capture these American stories from the South, and slavery, or even African, Pan-African imagery, colonialism, when he would capture those things in these childlike, humorous ways, he was basically saying, "Man, I'm showing you this art through the lens of the innocence of a child. By doing that, I'm giving you a picture that is unfiltered and genius, that's allowing everyone to understand it." It's, like, a very universal thing.

Lee: In 1980, Basquiat participated in his first group exhibition, dubbed "The Times Square Show." He was rubbin' shoulders with artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, all of whom would become his friends and occasional collaborators. The next year, he appeared as a Lower East Side nightclub DJ in Blondie's music video for Rapture.

Blondie: Fab 5 Freddy, tell me everybody's fly. DJ's spinnin'. I said, "My, my." Flash is fast. Flash is cool. François c'est pas, Flash ain't no dude. And you don't stop, sure shot.

Lee: Rapture was the first time rap vocals were ever broadcast on MTV. It marked a major milestone for hip-hop, a world that Basquiat naturally found himself a part of. Soon after, Basquiat got his big break. He scored a spot in another group exhibition, this time at the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, an underground art space that would later become PS1, part of the Museum of Modern Art. While the exhibition showcased the world of more than 20 artists, Basquiat emerged as its star.

Holman: He just blew up overnight. And I remember after our last gig at The Mudd Club, he pulled me aside and said he was gonna leave the band and, you know, he's gonna focus on making art. And I remember it was, like, this real gut punch. But I was like, "You know, right on, man," 'cause I knew that that was his next step and that he was gonna blow up.

Lee: When we come back, the rise of Basquiat in the fine arts scene and his legacy today. Stick with us.

Lee: For the next seven years, the young Jean-Michel Basquiat would take the art world by storm. In 1982, he opened six solo shows in cities across the world. And in March 1983, at 22 years old, Basquiat became the youngest artist ever to participate in the prestigious Whitney Biennial exhibition, the longest-running show for contemporary American art. His younger sister, Lisane Basquiat, recalls seeing his work in galleries for the first time.

Basquiat: In the beginning, it was a little disconcerting, I think, because there was that tension between what he wanted to do and what my father envisioned for him. Later, it was really impressive just to go to an opening, and walk into this white-walled gallery, and see all of these people, the New York, artsy (LAUGH) people, you know, observing his work and milling about about my brother, you know, in honor of him.

Lee: By the mid-1980s, Basquiat was selling his work and collaborating with iconic artists like Andy Warhol. But the established art scene in New York didn't seem to know just what to do with him.

Saggese: And he's coming into the art world not via the sort of typical channels of art school or a major gallery but instead, he's inserting himself in this milieu. And that really makes him quite different.

Lee: Jordana Moore Saggese is an art historian at the University of Maryland, College Park who published the first detailed written study on Basquiat.

Saggese: The other thing that really sets him apart and one of the reasons why a lot of critics at the time don't really know how to interpret his work is because he's doing both of these things simultaneously. He's both painting on the streets, right, and writing these sort of conceptual art poems along the walls.

But he's also sort of good these very gestural paintings. He is caught between these emergent moments of conceptual art and language art on the one side and sort of the expressive, colorful, gestural painting of Neo-Expressionism on the other side. He's unique in his combination of those trends. And that's one of the reasons why he's misinterpreted from the very start, is because he doesn't really fall into one category or the other.

Lee: Jordana says critics were still wondering if an artist could be both commercially popular and taken seriously.

Saggese: He's on MTV and he's walking in fashion shows. And that, for a lot of historians, was really evidence of him not being serious enough or avant-garde enough, right? There's a question of, "Can you be a celebrity artist and be critically significant?"

Lee: There was this intentionality to his reflecting Blackness in his art, right, a very specific kind of Blackness in a very specific kind of time, the Michael Stewart killing, like, very specific moments in New York City and American history. And I wonder how much that had to do with the critical world, the white lens kind of refracting who he was and not being able to understand him or showin' him proper respect or due, because he was this young, Black artist who was being intentionally Black in so many ways.

Saggese: We see the effects of Basquiat's Blackness during his moment, right, during his career when he's alive. We have to think about the fact that he is selling out shows at major museums and galleries in New York but can't catch a cab home.

Lee: Hmm.

Saggese: There's a lot of criticism that emerges at this moment that is specifically tinged with racism. And I can give you a great example, is that he is interpreted as a graffiti artist when he's not a graffiti artist. He's interpreted within this narrative of Primitivism.

Lee: You can hear that rhetoric and how Basquiat pushed back in this 1983 interview the then-curator Marc Miller for the program Art/New York.

Marc Miller (archival): So, and you're seen as some sort of primal Expressionism? Is that, I mean--

Jean-michel Basquiat (archival): Like an ape?

Miller (archival): Well, let's--

Basquiat (archival): A primate?

Miller (archival): Well, well, I don't know. Is that, is that what--

Basquiat (archival): You said it. I don't, you, you said it.

Miller (archival): Well, okay, you're--

Lee: In the same interview, Miller also mentioned rumors that were swirling around at the time that Basquiat's art dealer had trapped Basquiat in her basement, forcing him to paint.

Basquiat (archival): That's just, just has a nasty edge to it, you know? And I was never locked anywhere. I mean, oh, Christ. No, no, it's just, if I was white, they would just say "artist in residence" rather than say all that other stuff.

Saggese: He is haunted by these false mythologies about his upbringing, that he's homeless in the streets, when in reality, his father owns a brownstone in Brooklyn. He's marketed as untrained rather than as self-taught. All of these things begin to influence his critical position and status within the art world.

Lee: And white critics weren't just put off by Basquiat's own unapologetic Blackness but how he portrayed Blackness in his work. He used symbols and shapes from the religions of the African diaspora. He painted Black jazz musicians and athletes. And he drew inspiration from events around him, like the 1983 police killing of Michael Stewart, an aspiring Black artist on the downtown club scene. But Jordana says people often don't understand that the Blackness of Basquiat's work goes beyond his subject matter.

Saggese: You know, he's interested in politics. He's interested in art from the continent. But we see it emerge in the criticism only in terms of his subjects, right? They're only thinking about his subject matter as being specifically Black and interest in social causes or concerns.

But they're not thinking about sort of the Blackness as creative process, right? So something about the way he's metabolizing the world around him and appropriating, is there something specifically Black about that? And I would argue that yes, that we have Blackness not just in the subject matter but also in the creative making of the works, as well.

Lee: Michael Holman remembers how the pressure of the white gaze was taxing on his friend.

Holman: It's America, and it's the '80s, and racism is raging as it well, and as it does, and as it will continue to do. He hit that wall of acceptance/non-acceptance, of recognition and discounting, reviews in the press where he'd be called "art mascot to Andy Warhol," and it depressed him. It brought him down.

During his lifetime and during his career, while he was alive, there were many times that he thought that it was over for him, that he no longer was gonna get another show, that the press was saying that he was over. He thought that he might have been, even, at one point, a flash in the pan.

And that frightened him, because I think the most important thing that he cared about was that he would be forever remembered as a great artist. And the idea that he would then be forgotten, which we know could happen to anybody, that was his greatest fear.

Lee: Despite Basquiat's worldwide success, the anxiety and pressure of being an artist, a Black artist in the hostile art world continued to haunt him. During the height of his fame, Basquiat also suffered from drug addiction and spent months at a time in Hawaii trying to get sober. He would take long walks and ride horses through the Maui countryside. Basquiat struggled with his addiction mostly in private. And in 1988, he died from a drug overdose. He was just 27 years old.

Holman: I just had a dream about him last week.

Lee: More than 30 years after Basquiat's death, Michael still thinks about his old friend all the time.

Holman: And in the dream, he was working on new art, and he had a whole staff of studio assistants, and I was sort of surprised, because in the dream, I'm realizing he's dead, but yet here he is making art. And I was so happy about it. You know, of course, he disappeared in the dream.

And, you know, I woke up with that heavy feeling but yet that light feeling of, like, "I got to hang out with him a little bit." That's how Jean made you feel, you know? You'd hang out with him, and you'd go home, and you'd think about the things he said, and you'd think about the things he did, and you'd think about the art he made and the way he processed things. And you realized that you had been to the University of Basquiat and you were lucky to graduate with an insight and with a strength and power to see the world in a new way that would change your life forever.

Lee: Wow. Jordana says part of what makes Basquiat so incredible and his legacy so important is that even though the gatekeepers of the art world refused to take him seriously when he was alive, Basquiat never compromised his art or his Blackness.

Saggese: I think that the legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat is really connected deeply to his Blackness. He sows us that Blackness is not something that's found in a single point of origin but something that is consciously produced and reproduced, right?

He shows us Blackness across the Atlantic, right? And he shows us sort of the creative processes, right, that are located in a Black aesthetic of sort of borrowing, and appropriating, mixing, right, sources from both sort of, you know, Africa and the Americas. I think that he is able to cross boundaries in a way that no other artist before him could.

Lee: While galleries and private collectors snapped up original Basquiats even during his lifetime, many museums passed on the opportunity to buy his work because they thought his success would be short lived. Michael even told me about this one couple woh tried to donate their Basquiats to museums.

Holman: And, at the time that Jean was alive, they were like, "Nah, that's okay."

Lee: Wow.

Holman: "We're not interested."

Lee: Which sounds insane. Like, right now, it sounds crazy. (LAUGH)

Holman: Right now, it sounds insane. And I think that was because he was a young Black man who, you know, it's like, "Well, let's wait and see."

Lee: Jean-Michel Basquiat produced several hundred paintings and over 1,000 drawings during his lifetime. And while his art is splashed on everything from special clothing lines at the fast fashion company Uniqlo to city walls lined with impersonations of his images, his original artwork is hard to find.

We checked out the websites of several New York museums while producing this story, and the Whitney, the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, and MoMA all own paintings or drawings of his. But none currently have them on display. And Jordana says this jeopardizes Basquiat's legacy.

Saggese: And it is a critical point of my project, is to really, you know, sound that alarm. But we are at risk of losing the history of Jean-Michel Basquiat if we don't pay attention to collecting these oral histories, to getting these works into public collections, and to documenting those archives. I think it's really critically important to the survival of this artist.

Lee: In the years after Basquiat's death, Jeanine and Lisane have been reflecting on their role in preserving their brother's legacy. They currently manage his estate. And this year, for the very first time, they've curated their own exhibition in New York to honor their late brother. It's called "King Pleasure."

Heriveaux: Going to the warehouse and seeing each item that we selected, the texture, the scale and all that these pieces were telling us and speaking to us was emotional. But also we had a lot of pride. There were a lot of moments where we hugged, and smiled, and laughed, and were excited about what we're doing here.

Lee: This process, this beautiful unfolding of memories and art objects has been a special healing balm for Jeanine and Lisane.

Basquiat: If you know anything about the loss of a family member, it's not a one-and-done thing. There are layers to it. As you discover yourself, you discover more about that person, and that loss, and the grief associated with the loss of that person. This project has been incredibly cathartic for this layer.

Lee: Because underneath Basquiat the icon, there's Basquiat the man, the son and brother. Lisane says there's a picture that she holds dear. It's of Basquiat from the late '70s, a bit before his breakout moment in New York. He has this expression on his face. It's long and heavy as he looks over his shoulder, beyond the camera's gaze.

Basquiat: I look at that photo, and I remember those days of Jean-Michel couch surfing, and not living in the brownstone that he grew up in, and having a different kind of an experience. The bigger picture is that he was on his way to something and there were sacrifices that he needed to make and challenges that he had to go through in order to get there.

And that's really the crux of this entire exhibition for us, because it is as much about the celebration of Jean-Michel and his life as it is a message to other people who want to do something or have a goal that they want to achieve, understanding that there's work to be done in order to get there.

And I do wish that he were here on this plane to actually see the way it plays out and for us to be sitting in a room having conversations and all of that. But I'm really happy for what he's done, and what he accomplished, and what his name means, what he did.

Lee: Organized and curated by the family of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the "King Pleasure" exhibition is on display at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea through the summer. If you check it out, you gotta let us know. And you can find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle @IntoAmericaPod.

Or you could Tweet me @trymainelee. If you want to write to us, our email is That was IntoAmerica@NBC and the letters Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. Special thanks to Dr. Mark Anthony Neal for his research support. I'm Trymaine Lee. Catch y'all next Thursday.