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Traversing First Avenue at East 6th Street, I entered through a rabbit hole into an old new world. Behind the doors of a monumental industrial building (a former Con Ed substation), was the duality of high and low in a survey of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the epochal painter who lived and worked in the neighborhood before his death in 1988. The 1920 building was artist Walter de Maria’s studio from the mid-1980s until 2013, when entrepreneur Peter Brant purchased it. Others pursuing it included developers looking to slice the building into condos or offices. Thankfully, for appreciators of art, Brant took a different tack.
Architect Richard Gluckman, long admired as an American minimalist master and art world specialist, converted the building to include 7,000 square feet of exhibition space across four floors and a landscaped roof terrace. The space is filled with ravishing visual moments: industrial remnants; soaring ceilings; landscape designer Madison Cox’s subtly stunning roof and pocket gardens; the surreal view—and jarring juxtaposition—of public housing through the south windows and the newly-sprung midtown palaces in the sky through the north windows, evoking the artist’s meteoric rise—albeit much of it posthumous—in one 180’ sweep. Crystal clean in the gritty grind of the hood, The Brant Foundation is among a run of new privately-developed museums like the Marciano Foundation (a 2017 conversion of a masonic temple in Los Angeles), 2017’s Magazzino Italian Art Foundation in Cold Spring, New York, and Maryland’s Glenstone Museum which re-opened in 2018.
At the morning preview of The Brant Foundation, a line formed down the street. The Rolling Stones’ seminal 1969 “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, emanated from headphones of a bespectacled guest. Interesting choice, sir, as Citizen Brant—a larger than life character off the story boards of Orson Welles or Oliver Stone—has long believed otherwise. Brant's endeavors around art reflect a seriousness of purpose that goes beyond the fashionable tastes of some his contemporaries. Early preview arrivals included art world patriarchs Don Rubell and Robert Mnuchin, quietly contemplating the spectacular exhibition of 70 works. Among them, Basquiat’s 1982 painting depicting a black skull (Untitled), which set a record at $110.5 million. Meanwhile, one of the most accomplished moments occurs where an entire thirty-foot high wall displays 16 stretcher-bar paintings with their deliberately exposed wooden supports, arrayed together in a composition at once cinematic and sublime.
Basquiat rocketed in his 20’s into the cannon of Twombly and Johns. In 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, for an article titled “New Art, New Money”, exploding the social order, perpetuating the compulsive collecting frenzy of the 80s. David Bowie, who lived just around the corner, was among Basquiat’s earliest collectors. Behind the seemingly simple and playful words that produced an artistic language that was new, different, and complex, the paradoxical topics Basquiat explored were both serious and deeply personal. Like his literary contemporary Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, Basquiat gives lightness to otherwise heavy subjects without diminishing their relevance, depicting monsters erupting out of capitalist consumption, with ambiguity and contradictions. He captured the 80s of capitalism, cash, and cocaine—and their opposites—in mysteriously beautiful canvases that were both spontaneous and methodical: a collectively nostalgic chronology for those of us who grew up in 80s New York, permeated through the lens of excess and excitement, degradation and danger.
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This inaugural exhibition runs March 6th to May 15th. Unlike the recent Fondation Louis Vuitton Basquiat show, thanks to walls of windows the viewer gets to experience works in context of the neighborhood, which continues to reinvent itself in the fiction inspired-by-reality, reality-by-fiction cycle. At a moment when downtown overflows with developer atrocities, this Xanadu is a welcome addition to the cultural fabric of the community.