The sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art, closed to the public under the evening midtown sky in New York City, was witness to the first glimmers of a chic summer return for the art world on Thursday. For the first time since the pandemic, MoMA held its first in-person event, a private evening sponsored by Chanel, and presented as a part of the Tribeca Festival, celebrating the formative painter and fillmaker Julian Schnabel’s 25th anniversary remastering of “Basquiat.”
“Art, family, friends—that’s what we’ve missed for 15 months,” said Jane Rosenthal, co-founder, CEO, and executive chair of Tribeca Enterprises, gesturing to Schnabel, a longtime partner to Tribeca. “It is a privilege to be here among brilliant friends.”
Over drinks before the screening, Rosenthal shared stories of Tribeca’s long partnership with Schnabel, who Rosenthal picked as one of the festival’s first jurors 20 years ago.
“I had asked a lot of my friends who were artists to donate pieces as prizes alongside the small cash prizes we were giving,” Rosenthal recounted to Variety. “As the jurors were deliberating, there was a split in Julian’s category. They could split the cash up easily enough, but what were they going to do with the art? So, Julian said he’d go home and make something. He came back with these amazing pieces, and the filmmakers had no idea that they were being awarded priceless art.”
This year for Tribeca, Schanbel remastered his 1996 biographical picture of Jean-Michael Basquiat starring Jeffrey Wright alongside David Bowie as Andy Warhol, re-colorizing the film in black and white.
“It’s a different film when you take away all the color,” said Schnabel. “You don’t get distracted by the painting.”
That the evening was dedicated to celebrating Basquiat, now evolved as the towering figure (alongside Schnabel) of the catch-all “neo-expressionists” and an anointed martyr of a 1980s art movement that turned painters into international celebrities, offered an imaginably unintentional, though poignant contrast.
The story of Basquiat, as told admittedly by his friend and contemporary, is a parable of what happens to young artists when they’re sucked up into scenes just like this one, when the art world extends itself just far enough to pick up what’s new, remove them from their natural surroundings, and isolate them as geniuses. That power, as Schnabel suggests, is evidenced as much by Basquiat’s rocketing to fame as his death from an accidental overdose several years later.
“When he’s standing outside, nobody gives a shit about him,” Schnabel told Variety, recognizing the irony of the setting. “It’s when he’s standing inside that his problems start.”
No better example of that cautionary tale, contextualized amid Tribeca’s increased focus on issues of race and inclusion this year, is Basquiat’s growing prominence — and commercial value — as discussions of race charge contemporary art, a testament as much to the artist’s prophetic influence as the muddied lines between commerce and race in the young artist’s legacy.
“When [artist and art critic] Rene Ricard is in Basquiat’s basement studio, there’s never been a Black artist in art history who has been considered really important,’” Schnabel recalled about a scene in the film. “To that, Jean-Michel says, ‘Are you a writer, or are you a white writer?’”
“Something about that,” Schnabel said, soberly, “seems particularly right.”