If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to raise an artist. The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA) all but delcares this in their groundreaking new exhibition on the young Jean-Michel Basquiat. With the thesis-driven curation of never-before-seen materials from a pre-fame period of the artist’s young life, the LoDo museum has amplified its increasingly influential voice in the contemporary art world.

Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, unveiled earlier this month, is part of an ambitious, three-year-old initiative by MCA to create deeply researched curations that add to, if not totally re-imagine, the art world’s understanding of major artists. It is composed of materials lent to the museum by his former girlfriend, Alexis Adler, and is accompanied by a book of essays on the this period of the artist’s life produced by the museum.

Before Basquiat was elevated as an American cultural treasure for his paintings, he was an energetic artist of all disciplines: a performance artist, writer, and noise musician. Adler’s collection showcases a pre-fame period of his life, when the couple shared a small apartment in Manhattan’s East Village and Basquiat’s creativity was firing on all cylinders, in all directions.

Visitors can watch a looped video that features a young Basquiat, who then used the moniker SAMO, spraying an enigmatic declaration on a city wall, a burst of offbeat intellectualism. Hung pages of Basquiat’s notebook showcase brief, poetic scribblings and redundant writings—ideas being worked out over several nearly identical iterations. Photographs taken by Adler capture the artist performing in the apartment, Silly Putty hanging from his face, or blowing into a clarinet while sitting in the bathroom. The first incarnations of some his most famous symbols—such as the crown and sacred heart—even appear in drawings sprinkled throughout the exhibit.

Basquiat in the apartment, 1981. Photo by Alexis Adler, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver

Basquiat Before Basquiat introduces the visionary artist, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, in a way that until now, has never been seen by the public. The exhibition supports the thesis that the artist, at one point, had the potential to grow in any number of artistic directions. He absorbed inspiration from all around him—the graffiti and discarded objects of New York City’s streets, politics and popular culture at the birth of the ’80s, Adler’s apartment stocked with scientific textbooks—and went through an intense germination period in which his creative force was unrestrained by artistic disciplines.

“It was a really exciting scholarly opportunity to be able to share with the public and to make a case for the strength and importance of all the [exhibition’s] material being further evidence of how [Basquiat] was constantly sampling and absorbing wide-ranging sources,” says Nora Burnett Abrams, MCA curator.

That academic contribution is not going unnoticed. The New York Times, which has written about the MCA on a handful of occasions since the LoDo museum opened in 2003, has covered both the Basquiat and Ryan McGinley exhibitions (which is also currently on display) in the last few weeks—further proof that Denver’s contemporary art scene is attracting the attention of bigger markets.

“I came [to Denver] in 2001…people were always talking about how we can attract the best exhibitions from all over to come to Denver. And I thought, to myself at the time, actually why can’t we create the best exhibitions out there and export them all round the world?” says MCA Director Adam Lerner. “[Now] through the MCA we are doing things in Denver that people in New York are paying attention to.”

For Basquiat Before Basquiat, the MCA is planning a national tour so more museums across the country will have the opportunity to showcase the exhibit. It’s not the first time an MCA-curated exhibition has landed in Manhattan. The similarly scholarly retrospective of the work of artist and former DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh opened in Denver in the fall of 2014. After stops at five museums across the country, it’s opening at the Grey Art Gallery in New York this April.

Here in Denver, the show is part of a trio of exhibitions intended to be viewed together: MCA’s lower level currently houses Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence, which tells the story of the birth of graffiti writing in 1967 Philadelphia and New York. Viewers see how Basquiat’s work, which begins with panels depicting his graffiti writing as SAMO, grows naturally from the fertile soil of the New York graffiti scene. Similarly, from the photos of Basquiat in his and Adler’s creative enclave, it’s an easy jump to the third exhibition in the trio. Photographer Ryan McGinley, whose work is showcased on the museum’s second floor in the Kids Were Alright, chronicles every visitor to enter the young photographer’s apartment during a pre-success period of his life.

“The lesson of these exhibitions [is] that creative acts beget more creative acts, and the importance of fostering creativity in a city, and in any environment,” says Lerner. “Because you don’t know what those effects will be.”

Haley Gray
Haley Gray
Haley Gray is a Boulder-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in 5280, Roads and Kingdoms, Boulder Magazine, and the Albuquerque Journal.