“It could have been me. It could have been me,” artist Jean-Michel Basquiat said about the incident that inspired “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” which hangs in the reading room at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) until Jan. 29.
Basquiat was shaken after the death of Stewart, a 25-year-old black man and fellow artist who was killed in 1983 by members of the New York City Police Department for allegedly spray painting a subway station wall.
In the painting, an anonymous black brushstroke stands before two policemen wielding neon orange batons. In the Romantic painting tradition, a figure with its back to us, the viewers, contemplates a massive landscape. We are meant to place ourselves in the position of that figure and imagine ourselves physically dominated, swallowed up by the raw force of nature. Here, that black scrawl can be any man in the formidable and ever-growing list of black men — recently Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, to name a few — who have died at the hands of police officers. Here, the sublime force is the overwhelming brutality of institutional racism.
What are the most chilling images from history? Not the images of such extraordinary horror as to border on incomprehension but those that return, again and again, as if cycling through the annals of history. There is more horror in the crook of an upraised arm — whether wielding a fist, a gun or, here, a baton — than in a mound of anonymous corpses. Therein lies the dread in Basquiat’s work. It uses a vocabulary of association, compressing in those quick lines, those easy strokes, an entire network of visual horror, like a fishhook probing murky depths. What, for example, is the blot of black paint in the bottom right of this work? A black body, crumpled on the ground? I see a shoulder, a knee — or is it a pool of blood? A shadow?
The title of this work is “Defacement,” and this is the word that dominates, shifting as our eyes look on different aspects of the painting. There is not only the defacement of the wall, but also the defacement of black men at the hands of police. To take someone’s life is the ultimate defacement. And notice the marks that ring the black figure’s head — like bunny ears or a clown nose. This seems to say that, to a police officer, a black man is a caricature, not an individual but a type. Or, rather, are those marks a crown of thorns — a typical motif of Basquiat’s work?
Here is an ugly smear on history, the country’s institutionalized brutalization of its own people. In the hands of each officer is an orange baton, an instrument of physical torture — but, in Basquiat’s cartoonish linework, it could almost be a pencil. At WCMA, on the coffee table in front of the work, sits a notebook asking, “What Resonates?” It reads, “You murder not only people, but you murder the past the truth and our history. You do so much more than off a name.” And: “What resonates is the sad fact that this piece is timeless.” It’s true, and it’s shocking and it’s terrible — this painting from 1983 looks like it could have been made yesterday.
Someone else writes: “Choice of frame is interesting, seems at odds with the piece.” The frame is ornate, gold, curling with floral arabesques. It looks like it should hold a French rococo painting bursting with cupids and flowers and coy women with fans. But there is something about the grandness of the frame that also seems to fit. To frame a painting is to put it in a privileged position, and the framing of this painting goes far beyond its frame. It hangs above a fireplace, in a room furnished with couches, carpets and cushions. On the coffee table is a book on Basquiat and a newspaper article from the day of the death of Michael Stewart. All other works of art have been taken down.
The implication is clear: Gather at the hearth and have a conversation. After all, those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it, and to allow this to happen again and again is a greater shame than the initial crime. WCMA putting “Defacement” up is an act of institutional allegiance to its political content, but this alone does not suffice. It is an act that needs to be completed by the viewer and by the community it resides in.
That’s not to say that this is a painting that lies flat — it has bite, and in more than the bared teeth of the policeman. The figure at the fore may be vulnerable to the baton-wielding policemen that lurk behind — but it seems to turns its back, as if in disgust, to us, the complacent audience, bystanders to violence. The graffiti tags that ornament this piece are an act of either homage or insurrection, a nod to a man fallen or else an upraised chin, a gesture of defiance. Over the “e” of the word “defacement” is an upright “I,” a black body in miniature, an assertion of identity. This is a work that at once flinches and bares its teeth, that simultaneously snaps at its viewers and beseeches them to act. Look at it; let it speak to you.
Think about it — and do something about it.