‘When Jean smiled at you, you could not look away’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - In This Issue -

When you meet some­one and they smile at you like that,” says Jen­nifer Von­hol­stein, re­call­ing the first time she met Jean-Michel Basquiat, the princeling of New York’s art world dur­ing the Eight­ies, “you can’t help your face crack­ing into the big­gest smile in the world.” She laughs. “It was inescapable: Jean was a star from day one. I mean, you could not look away.”

Later this month, the first Bri­tish ret­ro­spec­tive of Basquiat’s work will open at the Bar­bican Art Gallery in Lon­don – just four months after his paint­ing Un­ti­tled (1982) sold in New York for $110.5 mil­lion (£85 mil­lion), the most ever paid at auc­tion for an Amer­i­can artist’s work.

“That sale was shock­ing,” says Von­hol­stein now. “It was out­ra­geous. Af­ter­wards, peo­ple on the in­ter­net were say­ing, ‘Oh, he would have been so proud.’ But ac­tu­ally, he was very against that, the spirit of that money. The money isn’t what’s im­por­tant.”

Von­hol­stein, an artist her­self, is speak­ing to me by phone from her farm in Wash­ing­ton State, near Seat­tle. It is her 60th birth­day, and she is cast­ing her mind back to a very dif­fer­ent time and place: Lower Man­hat­tan in 1979, when the city was, she says, “grungy, dirty, and kind of apoc­a­lyp­tic”.

At that point, Von­hol­stein – or Stein, as her sur­name was then – was 21, a na­tive New Yorker from the Upper East Side, liv­ing in a loft in Canal Street, on the south­ern edge of SoHo. She’d been given a room for free, in ex­change for work­ing as an ap­pren­tice to a Bri­tish artist, Stan Pes­kett, who was rent­ing the prop­erty. Pes­kett was deeply in­volved in the city’s graf­fiti scene. That April, he staged an event in his loft in hon­our of New York’s most ex­cit­ing graf­fiti artists, such as Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quinones. “It was truly wild,” re­calls Von­hol­stein, “the be­gin­ning of the age of street art.” Known as the Canal Zone Party, Pes­kett’s bash will be the fo­cus of an en­tire room in the Bar­bican’s ex­hi­bi­tion.

In the run-up to the Canal Zone Party, one graf­fiti writer had caught Von­hol­stein’s at­ten­tion: SAMO. The work wasn’t like the other graf­fiti that was ap­pear­ing in the city, “an ex­plo­sion of art in

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amer­ica’s most valu­able le artist, died of an over­dose at 27. His for­mer loverver tells Alas­tair Sooke why she wasn’t sur­prised ‘We were two wild teenagers, try­ing to fig­ure out our way in the world’

a time of ut­ter black and white,” as Von­hol­stein re­calls. Rather, it was more con­cep­tual, char­ac­terised by ver­bal dex­ter­ity. Com­ment­ing provoca­tively on so­ci­ety, SAMO’s cryp­tic say­ings, wit­ti­cisms and aperçus started ap­pear­ing across Lower Man­hat­tan in 1977. “They were pieces of pro­found po­etry,” says Von­hol­stein.

What she didn’t know at the time was that SAMO was, in fact,

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