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.” Rents were cheap (or people squatted) and downtown New York was a grubby, exhilarating mecca for the artistic dispossessed. The punk scene, centred on the venue CBGB, was giving way to something more experimental, involving art, film and what would become hip-hop. Everyone went out every night, everyone was creative, everyone was going to make it big.
“We were all these young kids in New York to carry out our Warhol fantasy,” says Michael Holman, “but instead of being a ringleader as Warhol was, we were in the band ourselves, making art ourselves, we were acting in films, making films, we were all one-man shows, with a lot of collaborations. That was the norm, to be a polymath. Whether you were a painter, an actor, a poet… you also had to be in a band, in order to really be cool.”
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 Twombly and 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”.
They went out every night to the newly opened Mudd Club, in the Tribeca district. Friends came over until all hours (hard for Adler, who worked in a laboratory by day). PiL’s Metal Box was on rotation, along with Bowie’s Low and records by Ornette Colman, Miles Davis. Adler loved Metal Box and nailed the cover up on the wall. When Basquiat saw it, he was full of disdain. He took the album down and nailed up William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch in its place. “He found it offensive that I would put it up,” says Adler. It wasn’t good enough to be art in his eyes.
Basquiat lasted at Adler’s flat until the spring of 1980. During that year, his work featured in a couple of group shows and he played the lead role in the film New York Beat Movie (eventually released in 2000 as Downtown 81; the Barbican show will play it in full). In the film, Basquiat is the star, but it’s fun to play spot-the-famous-person: there are cameos by Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quiñones; the band DNA and even Kid Creole and the Coconuts make an appearance. The plot is of the day-in-the-life type: Basquiat plays an artist who wanders the street trying to sell a painting so he can get enough money to move back into his apartment. He sells it, but is paid by cheque, so he club-hops, trying to find a girl he can go home with. You can’t imagine the role was much of a stretch.
When he wasn’t clubbing, Basquiat worked hard – Brook Bartlett, an artist he mentored in the early 1980s, recalls him painting incessantly – and his shift from being penniless to rich happened between 1981 and 1982. He was by then living with Suzanne Mallouk, who had moved from Canada to become an artist. They’d met when she was bartending at Night Bird. Basquiat would come in, stand at the back of the room and stare at her. Initially, she thought he was a hobo – he had shaved hair at the front of his head, bleached baby dreads at the back, and wore a coat five sizes too big. “He wouldn’t come to the bar because he had no money for drinks,” she recalls. “But then, after two weeks, he came in, put a load of change down and bought the most expensive drink in the place: Rémy Martin. $7!”. Mallouk was intrigued. They were the same age and had a lot in common. Basquiat moved into her tiny walk-up flat.
Within eight months, there was money everywhere. Mallouk: “I watched him sell his first painting to Deborah Harry for $200, and then a few months later he was selling paintings for $20,000 each, selling them faster than he could paint them. I watched him make his first million. We went from stealing bread on the way home from the Mudd Club and eating pasta to buying groceries at Dean & DeLuca; the fridge was full of pastries and caviar, we were drinking Cristal champagne. We were 21 years old.” Basquiat would leave piles of cash around the apartment, buy Armani suits by the dozen, throw parties with “hills of cocaine”. His rise coincided with a shift in the city: financiers were looking to invest in art, and they were cruising around art shows, snapping up new work.
The first public showing of Basquiat’s paintings was in 1981: New York/New Wave, at PS1 in Long Island, brought together by Mudd Club co-founder and curator Diego Cortez. It was a group show that included pieces by William Burroughs, David Byrne, Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol, but Basquiat was given a whole wall, which he filled with 20 paintings. (The Barbican show recreates this, with 16 of the original 20 on display.) His work caused a sensation.
Basquiat gained a dealer: Annina Nosei. She gave him the basement under her gallery to work in (Fred Brathwaite didn’t approve: “A black kid, painting in the basement, it’s not good, man”, he said later), which was where Herb and Lenore Schorr, benign and interested art collectors, met him. The Schorrs spent some time in the gallery choosing a piece of work, without knowing that Basquiat was working beneath them. Once they’d decided, he came up, and, though other collectors found Basquiat threatening or obtuse, they liked him immediately. He didn’t explain his work – “he always said: “If you can’t figure it out, it’s your problem,” says Lenore; to Bartlett, he said: “I paint ghosts” – but he pointed out parts that he thought he’d done particularly well, such as a snake.
Things were on the up. In early 1982, Nosei arranged for Basquiat and Mallouk to move from their small flat to the much fancier 151 Crosby Street in Soho, and she hosted his first ever solo show at her gallery: a huge success. Through another dealer, Bruno Bischofberger (his most consistent representative), Basquiat was formally introduced to Andy Warhol; afterwards, Basquiat immediately made a painting of the two of them, and had it delivered to Warhol, still wet, two hours after they’d parted. They formed the beginning of a friendship. Basquiat was then asked to do a show in LA, at the Gagosian gallery.
Film-maker Tamra Davis, who made the Basquiat documentary Radiant Child (2009), met him in Los Angeles. She was an assistant at another gallery and a friend brought Basquiat over. “Jean-Michel came and he didn’t have a car and he didn’t know where to go and we showed him around,” she says. “That was our assignment. It was the funnest thing ever. I was going to film school, and he really loved films, so we would go to the movies together, talk about them. He was the new thing in town, everyone wanted to get to know him. He was so charming, but it was also like hanging out with the Tasmanian devil. Everywhere he went, chaos would occur. You didn’t know what was going to happen next. It was invigorating, but it was also really tiring.”
Basquiat, though, was never tired. He had unending energy, partly drug-fuelled: he needed it in LA, as he brought no paintings with him. He rarely did, for his shows: instead he’d arrive early at whichever city the show was in and make the paintings there. “He could make 20 paintings in three weeks,” says Davis. In 1986, she filmed him working: he would have source books open, the TV on, music playing and worked on several canvases at once. For this first LA show, he created works including Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) and Untitled (LA Painting), the picture that just cost Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa $110.5m (in 1984, it went for $19,000). Every single one sold.
Once back in New York, Basquiat left Nosei and joined another dealer, Mary Boone. His reputation was rocketing. The opening for his solo show at Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery was packed with celebrities, recall the Schorrs, who consider that particular show to be his finest, and all the work sold on the first night.
Reviews, however, were scarce. Basquiat’s push-me-pull-you relationship with the art establishment was becoming evident: the dealer he wanted, Leo Castelli, rejected him as too troublesome; there was prejudice against him for his youth, for having first worked as a graffiti artist, for being untrained, and for being black. His work was represented as instinctive, as opposed to intellectual, though he was well versed in art history; some held the patronising idea that he didn’t know what he was doing.
Racism also had an everyday impact: he would leave successful opening parties and find it impossible to get a cab. Herb Schorr would give him lifts to make his life easier (they would joke that he should wear a peaked cap and be Basquiat’s driver). George Condo, an artist on the rise at the same time, recalls going to a restaurant with him in LA and not being allowed in. “I said: ‘Do you know who this is? This is Jean-Michel Basquiat, the most important painter of our time.’ The guy said, ‘He’s not coming in. We don’t allow his kind in here.’” Brook Bartlett remembers a trip to Europe in 1982 during which a rich Zurich socialite intimated that she, an 18-year-old white woman, would be a civilising influence on Basquiat, who was four years older and already established. No wonder race became more prominent in his work: in his second LA Gagosian show, in 1983, Basquiat showed paintings such as Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson), Hollywood Africans, Horn Players and Eyes and Eggs, featuring black musicians, actors and sportsmen.
Drugs, too, were around more and more. “Everyone in the East Village and in the arts world in the 80s did drugs. Wall Street did drugs, everyone did drugs,” says Mallouk. But after Mallouk and Basquiat split up in 1983, Basquiat got increasingly into heroin. “He was sniffing it, smoking it and injecting it,” says Mallouk. “There were some models that he was hanging out with that were doing it and that’s how he got into it.” He became unreliable, travelling to Japan on a whim, instead of going to Italy, where he had a show. But then, his focus was constantly diverted. Everyone wanted him. He was moving into a different world: his old friends still saw him, but intermittently.
During 1984 and 1985, Basquiat’s star shot higher and higher. There was a lot of travel, a lot of attention. He was featured on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine in a suit with his feet bare. The Warhol estate rented him an even bigger place, a loft on Great Jones Street large enough for him to use as a studio as well as a flat, and in 1985 Basquiat and Warhol had a show of paintings that they’d produced jointly. Though the poster for the show has subsequently been constantly reworked and sampled (even Iggy Azalea used it on the cover of her 2011 mixtape Ignorant), at the time, the show was not a success. One critic called Basquiat Warhol’s “mascot”. Tamra Davis says this was hard for Basquiat.
“He really thought he was finally going to be appreciated,” she says. “And instead they tore the show apart and said these horrible things about him and Andy and their relationship. He got really sad, and from then on it was hard to see a comeback. Anybody that you talked to that saw him around that time, he got more and more paranoid, his dread went deeper and deeper.”
And gradually, gradually his heroin use was catching up with him. Alhough he was greatly inspired by a trip to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and though he had shows all over the world – Tokyo, New York, Atlanta, Hanover, Paris – it became known among his friends that he was struggling. Mallouk would go over to his Great Jones loft. “I would beg him to get help and he just couldn’t do it,” she says. “He threw the TV at me. People would stop me on the street, saying Jean-Michel is in a really bad way, he has spots all over his face, he looks really out of it, you need to go and help him… It was pretty common knowledge that he was not well.”
In February 1987, Andy Warhol died at the age of 58. Basquiat became increasingly reclusive, though he still created work for shows, and made plans, in early 1988, to revisit Ivory Coast to go to a Senufo village. He began to talk about doing something other than art: writing perhaps, or music, or setting up a tequila business in Hawaii. In 1988, he went to Hawaii to get clean: Davis saw him in LA afterwards. “He was sober, he was gonna do better, it was like LA had a bit of Shangri-La about it for him.” But his visit was strange: he brought random people to dinner, people he’d just met at the airport, and he was unnaturally upbeat, too happy. It made her afraid.
In 2014, Anthony Haden-Guest wrote an article for Vanity Fair that describes in detail Basquiat’s last night: 12 August 1988. In New York, he did drugs during the day, and was dragged out to a Bryan Ferry aftershow party at bank-turned-club MK by his girlfriend, Kelly Inman, and another friend. He left quickly, with his pal Kevin Bray. They went back to the Great Jones loft, but Basquiat was nodding. Bray wrote him a note. “I DON’T WANT TO SIT HERE AND WATCH YOU DIE,” it said. Bray read it out to Basquiat, and left.
The next day, Inman went to the apartment at 5.30pm. Jean-Michel Basquiat was dead.
It was a sad end to a rocket-flight life. And the subsequent fight between Basquiat’s estate and various dealers over pieces of his work was not pretty. Collectors sued for paintings bought but never received. Dealers claimed they owned works; the estate said they’d stolen them. There were too many Basquiat pieces knocking around on the market (500-600 canvasses, according to one expert): the estate would only confirm the provenance of a few. Then the taxman came knocking: Basquiat hadn’t paid taxes for three years before his death.
But the years have softened or resolved the arguments, and the work has had a life of its own. Though most of his most important art is owned by collectors, who keep it hidden away, it keeps seeping out, as if drawn to its public. And we want his work, it appears. Not only are institutions finally coming around to his genius, but his work can be seen on T-shirts, on sneakers (Reebok did a Basquiat range), on the arms of hip-hop artists. Just samples, short clips taken out of context, snippets and hints of the full, mind-whirling Basquiat experience. “He questions things and he references things he wants you to pay attention to,” says Davis. “His paintings were meant to be seen by as many people as possible. They’re like movies or music, not just for one person alone.”
His art is irrevocably intertwined with his life: his charisma and drive, his race, his talent and sad demise. But it is bigger than that. Like the best art, it needs the world and the world needs it. And if you stand in front of a Basquiat and look, it sings its own song, just to you.
Basquiat, as remembered by his friends
Michael Holman, musician and film-maker
Basquiat was born fully realised. And if anything, that is the kiss of death: you’re gonna burn brightly and burn fast. If you impressed him, if he complimented you, you just felt you’d been blessed by a saint, it was a very emotionally and spiritually profound experience. That’s one of the ways to calibrate his otherworldliness. Because he would never compliment you if he didn’t believe it to his core.
We all went out [almost] every night, till 4 in the morning. It was so important. Not only did we go out and blow off steam, and meet people, have sex in the bathroom, get high, all that stuff that you do in clubs. But within the clubs the scene also creatively happened … all kinds of happenings, performances, art shows … Club 57 and Mudd Club, they fed us and they directed us and guided us, brought us together with crucial people, in a way that going to openings or concerts just didn’t do. It created a community that supported each other. It was a special time. With [our band] Gray, I taped a microphone to the head of a snare drum, face down, and attached masking tape to the drum, then pulled the masking tape off and allowed that to be a sound. Jean would loosen the strings on an electric guitar, then run a metal file across the strings.
In 1982, two years after Jean left Gray, I’d become an avant garde film-maker. I had this cable TV show, and I asked him to do an interview. He made it clear to me, without saying anything, that I wouldn’t be able to do this interview if I didn’t get high with him. He was doing base, like a high-end form of crack. I’d never done it before and, boy, I’ve never done it since. I could barely keep my focus. I could barely stop shaking, but it barely affected him. He had such a high tolerance.
He was a sensationalist. He pushed the boundaries of any kind of sensation, anything that would set off his endorphins, his nerve endings, his brain cells. He was after the sensation of something special and brilliant and different and electric and massive. Would he have been good at middle age? Well, part of middle age is the struggle of coming to this place in which you know you’ve plateaued in some ways. When we pass that hump and start going down the other way, we are living and dying at the same time. I don’t think he wanted to go there.
Lenore and Herb Schorr, major New York collectors, and the first to recognise and support Basquiat
Lenore: We were very excited by the first painting we saw by him. This is not a common reaction, we’ve found, even now! He’s a very difficult artist for many, many people. But we just felt he was a wonderful, brilliant artist, very, very early.
Herb: The artists understood him – some of them. They were there first, along with a few professionals. Basically, he had his collector base, but they weren’t knocking down the doors for them as they are today. There was not this hysteria. Really, nothing changes. We’re just finishing reading a book called The Portrait of Dr Gachet by Cynthia Saltzman, which is about a Van Gogh painting, and a lot of it is the same story as Basquiat. It takes 20 years after his death before a Van Gogh enters a museum. Anything which breaks new ground takes a while for people to catch up to.
Lenore: Jean was very smart and he knew his art history. Modernism, Picasso, right up to the present and Jean knew it all. So we really had a nice rapport. I could see it in his work, Picasso, Rauschenberg, they were all important influences, he had absorbed their work. It was beautifully rendered, remade in his language, with his message, with New York at the time, his personal feelings.
Herb: We didn’t see him in a drugged state, well maybe once, he seemed a little angry, he wasn’t the same person. He would call and maybe he needed more money. Once, he called us up early in the morning and we lived in the suburbs, you know, and he said, “I need money, I have a painting for you.” But he didn’t turn up by the end of the day …
Lenore: It’s so sad, he tried to get off it. Andy Warhol tried hard with him, they would exercise together.
Herb: We have good memories of him. One time he said he wanted to come up and have a white man’s barbecue.
Lenore: We expected him around three and he shows up at eight, with friends. It was quite a party, there was skinny-dipping – not me! – I had the kids here and there was a little pot being smoked, I could smell it, and we were like, We’re gonna be busted! It was a great, fun evening.
Suzanne Mallouk, partner, 1981-1983, and lifelong friend
We immediately had this feeling of kindred spirits. We were the same age, I left home at 15, so did he. We were both first generation from immigrant families – my father was Palestinian, his father was Haitian. Both of us didn’t fit into any racial or ethnic group. Both of us suffered racism. We both had old-world fathers who used corporal punishment. My mother is English, from Bolton. His stepmother was English. It was very interesting, the common histories we had. Authoritarian fathers that saw European women as a prize. And I think it really shaped Jean-Michel’s experience. He was intelligent enough to resent that European women were somehow valued more, he saw the racism in that, yet most of his girlfriends were white. He was conflicted about it; he discussed it with me.
I hated that I had a job and he didn’t. I was an artist, too – how dare he make me work as a waitress and live off me! Often I would come home and he would take money out of my purse to buy drugs. We would have terrible fights. He would say, “I promise I’ll look after you when I’m famous, please just let me do my art, I’m going to be famous very soon.” But I didn’t keep anything, so I didn’t get anything. He didn’t like me keeping things, he would almost be jealous of his own artwork. He would say, “Why do you want to keep something of mine when you have me?” Eventually, he gave me the message that really I could no longer be an artist. He was the only artist in the family and I had to look after him. It was kind of misogynist.
It wasn’t that he only saw Andy [Warhol] as a father figure, he also really had a flirtation with him. Often when I was with the two of them together, it didn’t feel like I was there with Jean; it felt like I was there with two homosexual lovers. He once joked with me that he had had sex with Andy, but I don’t know if it was a joke. Jean had a history of being bisexual, but Warhol was asexual, so I don’t know. People misunderstand the relationship if they just think Andy was helping Jean. Jean was already he was highly established, he was already famous or Andy would not have been interested in him. I think Andy needed new life breathed into his career; I think the two of them needed each other.
Two weeks before his death, I was living with a new boyfriend in my little East Village hovel. Jean rang the buzzer in the middle of the night and we both got up, and said “Who is it?” “Jean-Michel, Jean-Michel, is Suzanne there?” I buzzed him in but he never came up. I ran down the stairs to look for him, but he’d gone, and two weeks later he was dead. My heart was broken when I ran down the stairs and he was gone. Because I never stopped loving him. I still feel love for him and he’s been dead for over 30 years.
You’re going to think I’m mad, but I have dreams, and in the dreams Jean-Michel is ageing. It’s as though he’s living in a parallel universe. And often he’s annoyed that I’m there, he’s like, “Don’t tell anyone I’m here Suzanne. Don’t tell anyone I faked my death, and especially don’t tell the New York Times!” He’s just living a really simple life, in the swamplands of Florida and he sells crocodile eggs. He has this hippy wife and about eight little dreadlocked children. I like it.
George Condo, artist
Jean-Michel was the first person I had ever met from New York City. We were both in art punk bands – he was in Gray and I was in Girls. Our first gig was at Tier 3, a club in Tribeca, in 1979, and they were opening for us. So I saw Jean at the soundcheck, and we started talking about electronic music from the late 50s. I had no idea he was an artist, nor did he know I was, we just were mutual admirers of Davidovsky and Cage.
Later on the same evening at the Mudd Club, we both started talking about art and he told me he was in a show, so I went to the opening and was blown away by the paintings. In a way he persuaded me to move to New York. At that moment, I knew it was time to leave Boston for good.So at the end of December I left. I can remember vividly thinking, “It’s day one of the 80s, how great, and I’m in New York. This is where I live now.”
The scene in New York was turbulent, but wild and exciting, dangerous and demanding. It seemed like you had to become a famous artist by the time you were 24 or you were finished. The pressure was extremely intense. Music was an enormous influence on both of us. Rap had come in and replaced the jazz scene to a degree; artists were using words to execute lines and phrases that normally would have been shouted out by people like Miles Davis or Eric Dolphy with their instruments. Each of us had a number of friends who were rappers and originators of the new movement that led to hip-hop. But he came to see me in Paris in 85 and I showed him this VHS of Miles playing So What with his original quintet and that immediately set him off to do an amazing drawing with trumpets and the words “whole tone and hole tone” all over it. But someone stole it.
I was heartbroken when he died. I could see it coming, in his work and in his life, but I hoped it was just another insane way of him pushing the envelope to the extreme. The last time I saw him was at [the restaurant] Indochine; he told me, “I’m all washed up in this town … nobody will show my work … nobody.” It was a few weeks before he died., Only Bruno Bischofberger, his long-time gallerist, was still behind him. The pranks, the excessive junk habit, the sultry indifference had turned everyone off. He said the only guy left willing to show him was Vrej Baghoomian. I said, “Wait a minute – that’s the guy who’s showing me! Even when I tried to tell him not to.” We both cracked up and ended up walking up to Times Square just lamenting and singing out our blues in the streets. I walked him all over town thinking I would see him again soon. But I never did.
Brook Bartlett, artist, was aged 16, when she met Basquiat; he became a friend and encouraged her career
Whenever I ran into him, he was always like, “Are you working?” He was like a mom or something, “What are you doing with your life?” I was making music at the time and we would fight about that a lot. He would say, “I did my thing with music – you’re basically a slave, especially as a black man, there’s no respect. If I get into the music industry, I’m just gonna be another nigger, that’s how it’s gonna be. But as a painter, my colleagues are Picasso, Rauschenberg.” He was very proud to be black and very sensitive about it.
What happened to us was [all about] money and race. He said, “I have to go to St Moritz to see my dealer, he’s kind of a shark but he’s a good shark. Come with me, it’s your 18th birthday, I hate leaving New York, I’ve never been to Europe.”
So we met Bruno [Bischofberger, Basquiat’s Swiss dealer]. We took a private jet over the Alps, went to this dinner of Count so-and-so. It was the Iran hostage crisis at the time, [there was] a blockade. And these people had decided to smuggle caviar out of Iran. There were salad bowls filled with Iranian caviar and people put ¼ litre-sized amounts of caviar on their baked potatoes while doing coke.
We ended up in a conversation with one of the guys doing the coke and [he] looked at me, just turning 18 that day, a girl who had never shown any demonstrably great work, and said, “You will be important for his work, you must show him the way, you will be instrumental…” basically talking as though I should be taming this savage. And I was just like, this party is revolting, I wanna go home.
On the way back on the plane, he was nervous, he drank a lot and he was held up for about two hours in customs. When he got out he just said that they questioned that he could fly in first class as a black man with dreadlocks. We kept walking and this black janitor, pushing a broom, like from a movie, says to him, “What they get you for, brother?” And [Basquiat] turned round and said to him, “I’m not your fucking brother.” And kept walking. This was the guy who would give $100 bills to any Bowery bum; any brother that talked to him he wanted to talk to them. That broke my heart.
Thanks to Toby Amies and Tom Wilton.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010