Basquiat painted Defacement after fellow artist Michael Stewart was beaten to death by New York City police in September 1983. Originally painted on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio in the days after Stewart’s death, the painting is now privately owned and seldom displayed in public.
WCMA partnered with writer, activist, and Williams alumna Chaédria LaBouvier ’07 to bring the painting to campus. LaBouvier’s research frames Basquiat’s work within the context of contemporary social issues, such as black masculinity, racism, and police brutality. “This is the most topical painting in Basquiat’s body of work at the moment. When you remove the myth and iconography of Jean-Michel Basquiat and engage directly with this work, you see a 22-year-old struggling with the vulnerability of the black body, the limits of assimilation, and the idea of state violence as an American heritage,” says LaBouvier.
Thirty-three years after Basquiat painted Defacement, the work takes on new critical resonance. At a time when the reality of extrajudicial violence against black Americans is at the forefront of national conversations, Basquiat’s painting is a reminder of the long-standing history and continued reality of such violence.
Defacement will hang above the fireplace mantel as the focal point of WCMA’s historic Reading Room, part of the college’s first library. Installing the work in a domestically scaled space furnished as a living room, rather than in a traditional gallery, invites extended looking and offers a communal space for gathering. “As a campus museum, WCMA is committed to engaging with the critical issues of our time. With this powerful painting as its centerpiece, the reading room becomes a public platform to do just that. Defacement will catalyze a range of conversations about the many ways in which it continues to resonate in our contemporary social and political climate,” said Sonnet Coggins, WCMA’s Associate Director for Academic and Public Engagement.
To launch a series of public conversations hosted by a range of community and student groups and academic course meetings, LaBouvier will moderate a discussion on Thursday, November 10. The program brings together Pérez Art Museum Director Franklin Sirmans and Professor of Visual Studies at the California College of the Arts Jordana Saggese to discuss why this painting matters, what it meant in 1983, and what it means in 2016.