The Jean-Michel Basquiat I knew …

October 7, 2017

The graffiti artist turned painter became the star of the 1980 s New York art scene. Since his death aged 27, his reputation has risen. On the eve of a major UK show, we speak to his friends

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 all individuals 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 find by his friends as exceptional.

” I knew when I gratified 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 altogether, 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, nearly visceral reaction. 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 stimulations that takes in music, cartoons, commerce and institutions, as well as celebrities and art greats.( Not sexuality, 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 1990 s when he was dismissed as a lightweight. Museums repudiated 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 culture influence. A few years ago a Christie’s spokesperson described him, pointedly, as” the most collected artist of sportsmen, performers, 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 runs, 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-8 0s.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting Untitled( LA Painting) selling off $110.5 million( PS85m) at Sotheby’s in New York, to became the sixth most expensive run ever sold at auction. Photo: Shutterstock

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 $110.5 m( PS85m ), the highest amount ever for an American artist at auction, constructed 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, recognise the exceptional days 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 present, explains why there hasn’t been a full retrospective up to now. Although Basquiat was immensely prolific during his short life, institutions were slow to recognise his talent.” The day between his first solo show and his death was six years ,” she says.” Organizations do not move that speedily. 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 run 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, afterward 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 mothers 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 mom, 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 1970 s was utterly unlike it is now: un-glitzy, rough, with many builds burnt out and abandoned.” The city was disintegrating ,” 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 children in New York to carry out our Warhol fiction ,” says Michael Holman,” but instead of being a ringleader as Warhol was, we were in the band ourselves, making art ourselves, “were in” are active in movies, stimulating movies, “weve all” one-man presents, with a lot of collaborations. That was the norm, to be a polymath. Whether you were a painter, relevant actors, a poet … you also had to be in a band, in order to actually be cool .”

Basquiat was, of course, in a band, with Holman and others including Vincent Gallo; the latter are called Gray. They formed in 1979, but before that, Basquiat constructed his presence felt through his graffiti. Running with his school friend Al Diaz, from 1978 he was spraying the buildings of downtown NYC with their shared SAMO tag. SAMO( c ), originally a cartoon character Basquiat had depicted for local schools publication, 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 paintings, SAMO( c) asked odd topics, or built enigmatic, poetic declarations:” SAMO( c) AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT-GENIOUS[ sic ]” or” PAY FOR SOUP, BUILD A FORT, SET THAT ON FIRE “. The SAMO( c) tag was everywhere. Before anyone knew Jean-Michel Basquiat, they knew SAMO( c ).

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz’s SAMO( c) tag. Photograph: Jean-Michel Basquiat /( c) Henry A. Flynt Jr

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 Quinones of graffiti group the Fabulous 5, and built 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 route of bringing uptown hip-hop to the downtown art mob. Before the party started, Holman remembers, this kid turned up, and said he wanted to be in the demonstrate. Holman didn’t know him, but” people with that kind of energy, “youve never” stand in their style, you just say, Yes, run !” They set up a large piece of photo newspaper 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, purposely use painting or statue as references, as opposed to music. Their highest expres of praise was ” ignorant”, used in the same way as bad( entailing good ). Holman recollects playing a gig with a long loop-the-loop of videotape 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 only 10 minutes. Somebody was playing in a box .”

Gray aimed when Basquiat’s painting took off. He was always painting and describe, initially in the style of Peter Max( guess Yellow Submarine ), but rapidly observed his own aesthetic, which used penning, 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 refrigerator, the TV, the wall, the floor. About the same day 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 received a flat- at 527 East 12 th 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 maintained a lot of his run, 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 day, 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”, employed when he was impressed, came from a Tv program ), and shaved the front half of his head, so he would” appear as though he was coming and going at the same day “.

They went out every night to the newly opened Mudd Club, in the Tribeca district. Friend 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 watched it, he was full of dislike. He took the album down and nailed up William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch in its place.” He received it offensive that I would put it up ,” says Adler. It wasn’t good enough to be art in his eyes.

Basquiat on the situated of Downtown 81, spray can in hand. Photograph: Alamy

Basquiat lasted at Adler’s flat until the springtime of 1980. During that year, his work featured in a couple of group demonstrates and he played the lead role in the film New York Beat Movie ( eventually released in 2000 as Downtown 81 ; the Barbican demonstrate will play it in full ). In the cinema, Basquiat is the star, but it’s fun to play spot-the-famous-person: there are cameos by Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinones; the band Dna and even Kid Creole and the Coconuts make an appearance. The plot is of the day-in-the-life form: 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 1980 s, recollects him painting endlessly- and his transformation from being penniless to rich happens between 1981 and 1982. He was by then living with Suzanne Mallouk, who had moved from Canada to become an artist. They’d satisfied 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 dreadeds 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 loading of change down and bought the most expensive drink in the place: Remy 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 fund everywhere. Mallouk:” I watched him sell his first paint to Deborah Harry for $200, and then a few months later he was selling paints for $20,000 each, selling them faster than he could paint them. I watched him induce his first million. We went from stealing bread on the way home from the Mudd Club and feeing pasta to buying groceries at Dean& DeLuca; the refrigerator was full of pastries and caviar, we were drinking Cristal champagne. We were 21 years old .” Basquiat would leave pilings 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 reveals, snapping up new work.

The first public manifest of Basquiat’s paints 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 Mapplethorpeand 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.

Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, 1983. Photograph: Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Barbican

Basquiat gained a merchant: Annina Nosei. She gave him the cellar under her gallery to work in( Fred Brathwaite didn’t approve:” A black child, painting in the basement, it’s not good, man”, he said later ), which was where Herb and Lenore Schorr, benign and interested art collectors, fulfilled him. The Schorrs expended some time in the gallery choosing a piece of work, without knowing that Basquiat was running beneath them. Once they’d chose, he came up, and, though other collectors saw Basquiat threatening or obtuse, they liked him immediately. He didn’t explain his run-” 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 portions 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 demonstrate 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 paint 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 relationship. Basquiat was then asked to do a show in LA, at the Gagosian gallery.

Film-maker Tamra Davis, who constructed the Basquiat documentary Radiant Child ( 2009 ), satisfied 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 demonstrated him around ,” she says.” That was our assignment. It was the funnest thing ever. I was going to movie school, and he really loved cinemas, so we would go to the movies together, talk about them. He was the new thing in township, everyone want to get get to know him. He was so charming, but it was also like hanging out with the Tasmanian devil. Everywhere he went, chaos would pass. You didn’t know what was going to happen next. It was invigorating, but it was also actually 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 demonstrate was in and induce the paints there.” He could make 20 paintings in three weeks ,” says Davis. In 1986, she filmed him running: he would have source books open, the TV on, music playing and worked on several canvases at once. For this first LA show, he made works including Untitled( Yellow Tar and Feathers ) and Untitled( LA Painting ), the picture that just cost Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa $ 110.5 m( in 1984, it went for $19,000 ). Every single one sold.

Once back in New York, Basquiat left Nosei and joined another trader, Mary Boone. His reputation was rocketing. The opening for his solo present at Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery was packed with celebrities, recall the Schorrs, who consider that particular indicate 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 merchant he wanted, Leo Castelli, repudiated him as too troublesome; there was prejudice against him for his youth, for having first run 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.

Basquiat’s Hollywood Africans, 1983. Photograph: Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Barbican
Racism also had an everyday impact: he would leave successful opening parties and find it impossible to get a taxi. Herb Schorr would give him lifts to make their own lives 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 day, remembers going to a eatery 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 female, would be a civilising influence on Basquiat, who was four years older and already established. No wonder race became more prominent in his run: 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, performers and sportsmen.

Drugs, too, were around more and more.” Everyone in the East Village and in the arts world in the 80 s did narcotics. Wall Street did drugs, everyone did drugs ,” says Mallouk. But after Mallouk and Basquiat split up in 1983, Basquiat get 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 caprice, instead of going to Italy, where he had a demonstrate. But then, his focus was constantly diverted. Everyone wanted him. He was moving into a different world: his old friends still assured him, but intermittently.

During 1984 and 1985, Basquiat’s star shot higher and higher. There was a lot of travelling, a lot of attention. He was featured on the front encompas 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 paints that they’d created jointly. Though the poster for the display has subsequently been constantly reworked and sampled( even Iggy Azalea used it on the coverof her 2011 mixtape Ignorant ), at the time, the display was not a success. One critic called Basquiat Warhol’s ” mascot “. Tamra Davis says this was hard for Basquiat.

” He genuinely thought he was finally going to be appreciated ,” she says.” And instead they tore the demonstrate 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 assured him around that time, he got more and more paranoid, his dread went deeper and deeper .”

With Andy Warhol at their joint show in 1985, which was savaged by the critics. Photo: Richard Drew/ AP

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 only 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, “hes having” spots all over his face, he is totally out of it, you need to go and assistance him … It was pretty common knowledge that he was not well .”

In February 1987, Andy Warhol died at persons under the age of 58. Basquiat is more and more reclusive, though he still generated work for shows, and constructed plans, in early 1988, to revisit Ivory Coast to go to a Senufo village. He began to talk about doing something other than art: write perhaps, or music, or setting up a tequila business in Hawaii. In 1988, he went to Hawaii to get clean: Davis watched him in LA afterwards.” He was sobers, he was gonna do better, “its 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 merely met at the airport, and he was unnaturally upbeat, too happy. It constructed 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 narcotics 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 speedily, 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 5.30 pm. Jean-Michel Basquiat was dead.

It was a sad aim to a rocket-flight life. And the subsequent fighting between Basquiat’s estate and various dealers over pieces of his run was not pretty. Collectors sued for paintings bought but never received. Dealers claimed they owned runs; the estate said they’d stolen them. There were too many Basquiat pieces knocking around on the market( 500 -6 00 canvas, 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 debates, and the run has had a life of its own. Though the majority of members of his most important art is owned by collectors, who keep it hidden away, it keeps oozing out, as if drawn to its public. And we want his work, it seems. Not merely are institutions eventually coming around to his genius, but his run 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 topics 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 is practicable. They’re like movies or music , not just for one person alone .”

His art is irrevocably intertwined with their own lives: 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 needed most. And if you stand in front of a Basquiat and appear, it sings its own song, simply to you.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican, London EC2, from 21 September until 28 January 2018

Basquiat, as remembered by his friends

Basquiat with then girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk. Photograph: Duncan Fraser Buchanan

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[ nearly] every night, till 4 in the morning. It was so important. Not only did we go out and blow off steam, and gratify 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 pass, performances, art displays … Club 57 and Mudd Club, they fed us and they directed us and guided us, brought us along with crucial people, in such a way that going to openings or concerts simply didn’t do. It made their home communities that supported each other. It was a special day. With[ our band] Gray, I videotapeed a microphone to the head of a snare drum, face down, and attached masking videotape 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 display, 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 fissure. I’d never done it before and, boy, I’ve never done it since. I could barely maintain my focus. I could scarcely stop shake, but it scarcely 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 ending, his brain cells. He was after the sensation of something special and brilliant and different and electrical 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 way. When we pass that hump and start going down the other route, 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 subsistence Basquiat
Lenore : We were very excited by the first paint we find by him. This is not a common reaction, we’ve procured, 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 volume called The Portrait of Dr Gachet by Cynthia Saltzman, which is about a Van Gogh painting, and a lot of it is the same narrative 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 the performance of their duties. 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 country, well maybe once, he seemed a little angry, he wasn’t the same person. He would call and perhaps he required more fund. Once, he called us up early in the morning and we lived in the suburb, you know, and he said,” I require fund, 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 exert together.

Herb : We have good memories of him. One period 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 children 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 -1 983, 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 parents who utilized corporal punishment. My mom is English, from Bolton. His stepmother was English. It was very interesting, the common histories we had. Authoritarian fathers that insured European women as a prize. And I think it truly shaped Jean-Michel’s experience. He was intelligent enough to resent that European females 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 task and he didn’t. I was an artist, too- how dare he build me run as a waitress and live off me! Often I would come home and he would take fund out of my handbag to buy narcotics. We would have terrible battles. 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 watched Andy[ Warhol] as a father figure, he also genuinely had a flirting 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 sexuality with Andy, but I don’t know if it was a gag. 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 guess Andy needed new life exhaled into his career; I suppose the two of them required 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 get 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 contravene when I operated 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 dreamings, and in the dreamings Jean-Michel is ageing. It’s as though he’s living in a parallel world. 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 demise, and especially don’t tell the New York Times !” He’s just living a really simple life,

Read more:

About the Author

Leave a Comment: