The graffiti artist turned painter became the star of the 1980s New York art scene. Since his death aged 27, his reputation has soared. On the eve of a major UK show, we speak to those who knew him best
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 art-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”.
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.”