Yesterday, a permanent plaque was unveiled outside the former home and studio of Jean-Michel Basquiat at 57 Great Jones Street in Manhattan. The marker is part of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s (GVSHP) Historic Plaque Program, a partnership between the foundation and local pizza business Two Boots. Basquiat lived and worked in the downtown loft, which was then owned by Andy Warhol, from 1983 until his death in 1988. Over those years, he made some of his most significant work.
A small crowd gathered for the dedication and spilled into street, a thoroughfare just off the Bowery that doesn’t look much like it did in Basquiat’s day. New development draped in scaffolding rises around the old buildings, which increasingly house high-end retail, making this street-art-covered door at 57 Great Jones stand out. Phil Hartman of the Two Boots Foundation, which also owns the Great Jones Cafe across the way, said at the commemoration: “It’s nice to at least see this door and that crumbling building as reminders of the place we used to know.”
The event included impassioned words and readings by people who knew Basquiat or have felt the resonance of his art. Ayanna Legros of the Basquiat: Still Fly @ 55 symposium said that too often, when historians write about Basquiat’s legacy, they framed it with his eventual death from drugs. “We are here today not in the name of drugs or tragedy or overdose, but in the name of joy, celebration, and love,” Legros said.
A “Reserved for Basquiat” banner adorned with one of his iconic crowns covered the plaque until its reveal; the scraps of wheat paste and faded tags on the surrounding wall seemed to fit with the artist’s graffiti-influenced multimedia work. Compared to major cities like London and Paris, which have, respectively, blue plaques and extensive markers, New York features very few plaques for its cultural history. GVSHP has been making progress in its districts, with plaques now up at the former residences of authors James Baldwin and Frank O’Hara, the Martha Graham rehearsal space, and the birthplace of PFLAG. As the city continues to change, reminders of what’s being changed are increasingly vital.
Placing a marker at Basquiat’s studio might seem like a small thing, but it emphasizes his presence in the city — that he walked these streets, likely scavenging old doors or other materials from the then-gritty Bowery. And that’s part of the enduring magic of his art. As artist Michael Holman, who was a member of the band Gray with Basquiat, told the crowd: “He was an alchemist, and what he was basically saying was: you can be an alchemist, too.”
The permanent plaque for the studio of Jean-Michel Basquiat is located at 57 Great Jones Street (Noho, Manhattan). In conjunction with the plaque unveiling, the author of this post will lead a free walk to Basquiat’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery (Brooklyn) on July 16, 4:30pm.