When Larry Met Jean-Michel

In October 1981, when the art dealer Larry Gagosian first laid eyes on a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, he had never heard of the artist. “My hair stood on end,” he said of seeing the 20-year-old’s work. Just six months later, when Basquiat opened a solo show at Gagosian’s gallery in West Hollywood, the place, Gagosian recalled in an interview, “was absolutely mobbed.”

Few stars have risen so fast, and burned out so quickly. (Basquiat died in 1988 of a drug overdose at age 27.) His story is an archetypal tragedy, in which personal exceptionalism meets catastrophically with systemic prejudice — in his case, not only toward his race, but against his youthful, pan-cultural fame, his blatant ambition, his physical beauty and charisma, and his louche comportment. Even at the height of his success, New York — where he reportedly had trouble hailing a cab — was never an easy place for him.

Los Angeles, however, Basquiat liked so much that after his first visit in 1982, he soon returned, twice staying for months at a time and setting up studios at first in and then near Gagosian’s home on Market Street, a block from Venice Beach. For a spell, he was joined by his girlfriend Madonna, not yet a star, before she packed up and went home to New York. His output during his time in California was enormous, numbering around a hundred works, most now acknowledged to be museum-grade masterpieces.

Few institutions could pull off what Gagosian has achieved: an exhibition of the cream of Basquiat’s output while in Los Angeles, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made on Market Street,” at his Beverly Hills gallery. At its preview, lines ran down the block.

“Hollywood Africans,” which Basquiat painted in 1983.Credit…Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Licensed by Artestar, New York; via Whitney Museum of American Art

Larry Gagosian does not typically curate exhibitions. But this project is personal to him: It frames the story of his gallery, which began in the 1970s as a poster shop in Westwood, Los Angeles, and grew almost as quickly as Basquiat’s fame. By 1982, Gagosian was dealing works by Sol LeWitt and Ellsworth Kelly, but his first Basquiat show, “really put the gallery on the map.”

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