The Jean-Michel Basquiat I knew…


As a follow-up to our previous post Brooklyn Museum: J’Ouvert forum and last weekend of Life with Basquiat/, here are excerpts of “The Jean-Michel Basquiat I knew…” (see the complete version of this great article at The Guardian). Miranda Sawyer interviews “those who knew him best.” Sawyer writes:

It’s always tempting to mythologise the dead, especially those who die young and beautiful. And if the dead person is also astonishingly gifted, then the myth becomes inevitable. Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 27 when he died, in 1988, a strikingly gorgeous young man whose stunning, genre-wrecking work had already brought him to international attention; who had in the space of just a few years morphed from an underground graffiti artist into a painter who commanded many thousands of dollars for his canvases.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that everyone I talk to who knew Basquiat when he was alive, from girlfriends to collectors, musicians to painters, speaks about him as special. Still, it’s noticeable that they all do. Basquiat – even before he was acknowledged as an artist – was seen by his friends as exceptional.

“I knew when I met him that he was beyond the normal,” says musician and film-maker Michael Holman, who founded the noise band Gray with Basquiat. “Jean-Michel had his faults, he was mischievous, he had certain things about him that could be called amoral, but setting that aside, he had something that I’m sure he had from the moment he was born. It was like he was born fully realised, a realised being.”

“He was a beautiful person and an amazing artist,” says Alexis Adler, a former girlfriend. “I recognised that from the get-go. I knew he was brilliant. The only person around that time I felt the same thing about was Madonna. I totally, 100% knew they were going to be big.”

Basquiat the man and Basquiat the painter are hard to untangle. He lived hard and died harder (from an unintentional heroin overdose), and had more of the rock-star persona than the art aesthete about him, a cool celebrity sparkle that didn’t always work in his favour. Some art connoisseurs find his work hard to take seriously; others, though, have an immediate, almost visceral response. To me, a non-art critic, his work is fantastic: it feels contemporary, with a chaotic, musical sensibility. It’s beautiful and hectic, young and old, graphic, arresting, packed with ambiguous codes; there’s a questioning of identity, especially race, and a sampling of life’s stimuli that takes in music, cartoons, commerce and institutions, as well as celebrities and art greats. (Not sex, though: though he had lots of partners, his paintings are rarely erotic.). You could stand in front of a Basquiat painting and be fascinated for hours.

Since he died, Basquiat has had a mixed reputation. There was a time in the 1990s when he was dismissed as a lightweight. Museums rejected him as a jumped-up wall-sprayer. But over the past few years, his star has been on the rise and even those who are snooty about his art can’t argue with his cultural influence. A few years ago a Christie’s spokesperson described him, pointedly, as “the most collected artist of sportsmen, actors, musicians and entrepreneurs”. As one of the few black American painters to break through into international consciousness, he is referenced a lot in hip-hop: Kanye West, Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Nas and others cite Basquiat in their lyrics; Jay-Z, in Most Kingz, uses the “most kings get their head cut off” phrase from Basquiat’s painting Charles the First. Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz own his works, as do Johnny Depp, John McEnroe and Leonardo DiCaprio. Debbie Harry was the first person ever to pay for a Basquiat piece; Madonna owns his art and they dated for a couple of months in the mid-80s.

A household name in the US, Basquiat is less well known in the UK, though the sale, in May, of one of his paintings (Untitled (LA Painting), 1982) for $110.5m (£85m), the highest amount ever for an American artist at auction, made headlines. Now, Boom for Real, a vast exhibition at the Barbican – the first Basquiat show in the UK for more than 20 years – aims to open our eyes. Researched and curated for four years, it follows his career from street to gallery, acknowledges the exceptional times he was working in, and expands its references from straightforwardly visual art to music, literature, TV and movies, all areas in which Basquiat experimented. It tries to see things from Basquiat’s point of view.

Eleanor Nairne, co-curator of the show, explains why there hasn’t been a full retrospective until now. Although Basquiat was immensely prolific during his short life, institutions were slow to recognise his talent. “The time between his first solo show and his death was six years,” she says. “Institutions do not move that quickly. During his lifetime he only had two shows in a public space [as opposed to a commercial gallery]. There’s not a single work in a public collection in the UK.” There are not many in the US, either: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has a couple, but when the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was offered his work when he was alive, it said no, and it still doesn’t own any of his paintings (it has some on loan). The head curator, Ann Temkin, later admitted that Basquiat’s work was too advanced for her when she was offered it. “I didn’t recognise it as great, it didn’t look like anything I knew.”

Basquiat was born to a middle-class family in Brooklyn. His father was Haitian – quite a strict figure – and his mother, whose parents were Puerto Rican, was born in Brooklyn. His parents split up when he was seven and he and his sisters lived with his father, including a move, for a while, to Puerto Rico. His mother, to whom he was close, was committed to a mental hospital when he was 11. Basquiat was rebellious, angry, and moved from school to school. His education ended in New York when, for a dare, he emptied a box of shaving cream over the principal’s head during a graduation ceremony. By 15, he was leaving home on and off. He once slept in Washington Square Park for a week.

New York City in the late 1970s was utterly unlike it is now: un-glitzy, rough, with many buildings burnt out and abandoned. “The city was crumbling,” says Alexis Adler, “but it was a very free time. We were able to do whatever we wanted because nobody cared.”  [. . .] Basquiat was, of course, in a band, with Holman and others including Vincent Gallo; they were called Gray. They formed in 1979, but before that, Basquiat made his presence felt through his graffiti. Working with his school friend Al Diaz, from 1978 he was spraying the buildings of downtown NYC with their shared SAMO tag. SAMO©, originally a cartoon character Basquiat had drawn for a school magazine, was derived from the phrase “same old shit”. It was meant, in part, to be a satire on corporations and the tag was straightforward, not decorative. Instead of pictures, SAMO© asked odd questions, or made enigmatic, poetic declarations: “SAMO© AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT-GENIOUS [sic]” or “PAY FOR SOUP, BUILD A FORT, SET THAT ON FIRE”. The SAMO© tag was everywhere. Before anyone knew Jean-Michel Basquiat, they knew SAMO©.

Basquiat left home permanently at 16 and slept on the sofas and floors of friends’ places, including UK artist Stan Peskett’s Canal Street loft. There he made friends with graffiti artists including Fred Brathwaite (better known as Fab 5 Freddy) and Lee Quiñones of graffiti group the Fabulous 5, and made postcards and collages. (Once Basquiat spotted Andy Warhol in a restaurant, popped in and sold him a couple of those postcards.) Brathwaite and Holman put on a party at the loft on 29 April 1979, as a way of bringing uptown hip-hop to the downtown art crowd. Before the party started, Holman remembers, this kid turned up, and said he wanted to be in the show. Holman didn’t know him, but “people with that kind of energy, you never stand in their way, you just say, Yes, go!” They set up a large piece of photo paper and Basquiat started spraying it with a can of red paint. He wrote: “Which of the following is omniprznt [sic]? a) Lee Harvey Oswald b) Coca Cola logo c) General Melonry or d) SAMO.” “And we all went, Oh my God, this is SAMO!” says Holman. Later at the party, Basquiat asked Holman, who had been in the glam-rock band the Tubes, if he too wanted to be in a band. Gray was formed there and then.

The members of Gray, which settled into the line-up of Holman, Basquiat, Wayne Clifford and Nick Taylor, deliberately used painting or sculpture as references, as opposed to music. Their highest expression of praise was “ignorant”, used in the same way as bad (meaning good). Holman recalls playing a gig with a long loop of tape passing through a reel-to-reel machine and then around the whole band. Brathwaite was at Gray’s first gig, at the Mudd Club in New York, and said later: “David Byrne [of Talking Heads] was there. Debbie Harry. It was a real who’s who. Everyone was there because of Jean…SAMO’s in a band! They came out and played for just 10 minutes. Somebody was playing in a box.”

Gray ended when Basquiat’s painting took off. He was always painting and drawing, initially in the style of Peter Max (think Yellow Submarine), but quickly found his own aesthetic, which used writing, and had elements of Cy Twomblyand Robert Rauschenberg. Because he had no money for canvases, he painted on the detritus he dragged in from the street – doors, briefcases, tyres – as well as the more permanent elements in his flat: the fridge, the TV, the wall, the floor. About the same time that Gray began, Basquiat started dating Adler, then a budding embryologist (he stepped in to protect her when she innocently provoked a street fight). Adler found a flat – at 527 East 12th Street – where she still lives today, and they both moved in. There, Basquiat painted on everything, including Adler’s clothes. (When, in 2013, Adler revealed that she had kept a lot of his work, she sold an actual wall of her flat via a Christies auction: it had a Basquiat painting of Olive Oyl on it. “They were careful about taking it out,” she tells me. “And now we have glass bricks there instead!”)

Although she and Basquiat were sleeping together, it wasn’t a straightforward boyfriend-girlfriend thing, says Adler. “It was before Aids, a wild time, you could have whatever relationship you wanted.” They had separate rooms, and had sex with other people. Adler bought a camera to take pictures of Basquiat’s art, and of him mucking about: he played with putty on his nose, was interested in film and TV (his phrase “boom for real”, used when he was impressed, came from a TV programme), and shaved the front half of his head, so he would “look as though he was coming and going at the same time”. [. . .]

For full article, see

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