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