Framing Michael Stewart

I waited in three lines to see Michael Stewart. The first line was for the metal detector outside the Guggenheim Museum. The second line, inside the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, was for my reserved ticket. The third was to get into the gallery to see Basquiat’s “Defacement,” his portrait of Michael Stewart being “defaced” by police violence. The Basquiat painting, in a hyper-ornate gold frame, depicts aspiring East Village artist Michael Stewart being clubbed by police in 1983. The beating proved fatal.

Putting a frame around the event has the effect of highlighting its enigmatic quality. Was Michael Stewart’s death accidental or was it a hate crime? Was he caught by the police writing graffiti on a subway station wall? According to the catalog, Stewart had lingered outside the train station late in the evening saying goodbye to a young white woman, a casual friend. Since Stewart was African American, did that offend the police?

What’s obvious is the effect of his death. At the exhibit I looked at art legend Keith Haring’s notebook. In block letters, Haring vented his rage, wishing an equivalent punishment could be meted out to the officers responsible. According to an essay in the exhibition catalog, Basquiat painted “Defacement” on Haring’s studio wall. Later the picture was cut out of the sheetrock. An elaborate golden frame was recommended for the resulting artwork. Haring kept it over his bed until his death.

We can’t ask Michael Stewart what he would have thought of all this. The painting is iconic, as art, as a testament to the East Village scene of the 1980’s, and as a very expensive object. That’s why I had to stand in three lines to see it.