Word on the street

Jean-Michel Basquiat came to promi­nence as a down-and-out prodigy, graf­fi­ti­ing walls in Man­hat­tan. Four decades on, his treat­ments of racism and power fetch record prices at auc­tion – they are needed to­day more than ever, ar­gues Olivia Laing

The Guardian - Review - - Arts - Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Bar­bican, Lon­don EC2Y, from 21 Septem­ber. bar­bican.org.uk. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, is pub­lished by Canon­gate.

In the spring of 1982, a ru­mour started swill­ing around New York. The gal­lerist An­nina No­sei had some kind of boy ge­nius locked in her base­ment, a black kid, wild and in­scrutable as Kas­par Hauser, mak­ing mas­ter­pieces out of nowhere to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of Ravel’s Boléro. “Oh Christ”, JeanMichel Basquiat said when he heard. “If I was white, they would just call it an artist-in-res­i­dence.”

These were the kind of ru­mours he had to work against, but also the de­lib­er­ate myth he con­structed about him­self, part canny bid for star­dom, part pro­tec­tive veil. Basquiat was 22 by then, and could make up out of the whole cloth of his child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence all kinds of patch­worked, piece­meal selves, play­ing off peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions of what a grubby, dread­locked, half-Haitian, half-Puerto Ri­can young man might be ca­pa­ble of.

He had come to promi­nence as a graf­fiti artist, part of the duo SAMO, short for same old shit, who bombed the doors and walls of the Lower East Side with enig­matic phrases. The paint­ings started com­ing right at the mo­ment that the East Vil­lage trans­formed from a burned-out waste­land in­hab­ited by heroin ad­dicts to the epi­cen­tre of a star­tling art boom. There was a mar­ketable glam­our to be­ing a down-and-out prodigy then, but it was an act for Basquiat, as much a way of satiris­ing prej­u­dice as the African chief­tain out­fits he’d later wear to the par­ties of wealthy white col­lec­tors.

He was a street kid, true, a teen run­away who had slept on benches in Tomp­kins Square Park, but he was also a hand­some priv­i­leged boy from a Park Slope brown­stone who had gone to pri­vate school, fol­lowed by a stint at City-As-School, a des­ti­na­tion for gifted chil­dren. Though he didn’t have a for­mal art ed­u­ca­tion, he and his mother Matilde had been fre­quent­ing mu­se­ums since he was a tod­dler. As his girl­friend Suzanne Mal­louk re­called of a trip to MoMA, “Jean knew ev­ery inch of that mu­seum, ev­ery paint­ing, ev­ery room. I was as­ton­ished at his knowl­edge and in­tel­li­gence and at how twisted and un­ex­pected his ob­ser­va­tions could be.”

All the same, there were rup­tures. His par­ents sep­a­rated when he was eight. That year, a car hit him while he was play­ing bas­ket­ball in the street. He spent a month in hos­pi­tal with a bro­ken arm and in­ter­nal in­juries so se­vere his spleen had to be re­moved. The gift his mother gave him then, a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, be­came his foun­da­tional text, his tal­is­man. He loved dis­cov­er­ing the in­te­rior ar­chi­tec­ture of his body, but he also loved the way a body could be re­duced to the clean lines of its com­po­nent parts. Later he would be sim­i­larly drawn to cave art, hi­ero­glyphs and hobo signs, the world re­solved into el­e­gant pic­to­rial sym­bols that en­coded com­plex mean­ings.

As a boy he made car­toons of Hitch­cock films, but in 1977 he grad­u­ated to mak­ing his mark on the skin of New York it­self. A be­bop in­sur­gent, he trav­elled the noc­tur­nal city with a spray-can in his over­coat pocket, at­tack­ing in par­tic­u­lar the high art zone of Soho and the Lower East Side. “ORI­GIN OF COT­TON,” he wrote on a wall in front of a fac­tory in his dis­tinc­tively loose­jointed cap­i­tals; “SAMO AS AN AL­TER­NA­TIVE TO PLAS­TIC FOOD STANDS”. The state­ments were so to­tally poised in their as­sault on art­world inani­ties that ob­servers be­lieved they were by a dis­af­fected con­cep­tual artist, some­one al­ready fa­mous. “SAMO FOR THE SO-CALLED AVANT GARDE; SAMO AS AN END TO THE PO­LICE”.

There is a grapho­ma­niac qual­ity to al­most all of Basquiat’s work. He liked to scrib­ble, to amend, to foot­note, to sec­ond-guess and to cor­rect him­self. Words jumped out at him, from the back of ce­real boxes or sub­way ads, and he stayed alert to their sub­ver­sive prop­er­ties, their dou­ble and hid­den mean­ing. His note­books, re­cently pub­lished in an ex­quis­ite fac­sim­ile by Prince­ton, are full of stray phrases, odd com­bi­na­tions. When he be­gan paint­ing, work­ing up to it by way of hand-coloured col­laged post­cards, it was ob­jects he went for first, draw­ing and writ­ing on re­frig­er­a­tors, clothes, cab­i­nets and doors, re­gard­less of whether they be­longed to him or not.

In 1980, a boom year, he was mostly home­less and pen­ni­less, pick­ing up girls from clubs so he had some­where to spend the night. He showed his work for the first time in the scene-defin­ing Times Square Show, which also fea­tured Kenny Scharf, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith. He starred as the lead char­ac­ter in New York Beat Movie, a film based loosely on his life, which wouldn’t be re­leased un­til 2000, when it was re­named Down­town 81. That year his costar Deb­bie Harry bought one of his first paint­ings, Cadil­lac Moon, for $100, less than one mil­lionth of the price reached by one of his works this year.

It’s salu­tary to look at Cadil­lac Moon, with its Twombly­ish neu­trals, its scum­bled re­gions of ac­com­plished and ob­scur­ing white and grey, be­hind which are vis­i­ble ranks of cap­i­tal “As”, spell­ing out a lex­i­cal scream, along­side car­toon cars and TV sets. At the bot­tom there is a se­quence of names, from left to right a crossed-out SAMO, fol­lowed by AARON, a name Basquiat of­ten in­cor­po­rated into his paint­ings, prob­a­bly af­ter the base­ball player Hank Aaron, and then his own bold sig­na­ture.

There it is: the ma­ture el­e­ments of Basquiat’s work, worldly, ret­i­cent, com­mu­nica­tive, crude and ex­pert all at once. In pal­ette and sim­plic­ity it’s a vis­ual rhyme to the very late Rid­ing with Death, painted in the heroin waste­land of 1988, Basquiat’s last year, in which a black man rides on a four-legged white skele­ton, against an awe­somely re­duced back­ground, a burlap-coloured scrim, of ab­so­lutely noth­ing at all. Parker, po­lice, PRKR, san­gre, soap, sugar, teeth.

These were words he used of­ten, names he re­turned to turn­ing lan­guage into a spell to re­pel ghosts. The ev­i­dent use of codes and sym­bols in­spires a sort of in­ter­pre­ta­tion-ma­nia on the part of cu­ra­tors. But surely part of the point of the crossed-out lines and eras­ing hur­ri­canes of colour is that Basquiat is at­test­ing to the mu­ta­bil­ity of lan­guage, the way it twists and turns ac­cord­ing to the power sta­tus of the speaker. Crimée is not the same as crim­i­nal, ne­gro al­ters in dif­fer­ent mouths, cot­ton might stand lit­er­ally for slav­ery but also for fixed hi­er­ar­chies of mean­ing and the way peo­ple get caged in­side them.

“Ev­ery­thing he did was an at­tack on racism and I loved him for this,” Mal­louk says in Wi­dow Basquiat , the po­etic ac­count of their shared life by Jen­nifer Cle­ment. She de­scribes him in MoMA sprin­kling wa­ter from a bot­tle, hex­ing the tem­ple. “This is an­other of the white man’s plan­ta­tions,” he ex­plains.

Af­ter Basquiat, Mal­louk be­came in­volved with an­other young artist, Michael Stew­art, who in 1983 was ar­rested and beaten into a coma by three po­lice of­fi­cers af­ter graf­fi­ti­ing a sub­way sta­tion wall. He died 13 days later. The of­fi­cers, who claimed Stew­art had a heart at­tack, were charged with crim­i­nally neg­li­gent homi­cide, as­sault and per­jury but found not guilty by an all-white jury. It is thought he was killed by an il­le­gal choke­hold, as Eric Gar­ner would be, in New York, 31 years later.

“It could have been me,” Basquiat said, and set about paint­ing De­face­ment (The Death of Michael Stew­art). Two car­toon­ish cops with malev­o­lent Mr Punch faces and raised night­sticks wait to rain blows on a black boy,

The first time Warhol men­tioned Basquiat in his di­ary was as ‘one of those kids who drive me crazy’ – be­fore long they were em­broiled in a friend-ro­mance

who Basquiat has drawn as a face­less sil­hou­ette, pass­ing be­tween them into the blue sky.

In con­trast to the por­trait of an­other black mar­tyr, Emmett Till, by the white artist Dana Schutz that caused so much con­tro­versy at this year’s Whit­ney Bi­en­nial, Basquiat chooses not to show Stew­art’s de­stroyed face. In­stead he writes a ques­tion in Span­ish: “¿DEFACIMENTO?” Who is de­fac­ing what? And was the weapon a night­stick or a felt tip pen; was it the 14th Street sub­way sta­tion wall that was de­faced, or was it the de­fac­ing of a man?

All the time, Basquiat was be­com­ing more suc­cess­ful, more wealthy and fa­mous. And yet he still couldn’t re­li­ably hail a cab in the street. Fine: limos in­stead. He bought ex­pen­sive wines, Ar­mani suits to paint in, like any artist who has sud­denly made it big, yet the anec­dotes about his spend­ing were passed on with a ca­sual glaze of racism, as if there was some­thing un­usu­ally re­veal­ing about his ap­petites.

It was lonely, he was lonely, the only black man in the room, his prodigy sta­tus like that of a toy. “They’re just racist, most of those peo­ple,” he’s quoted as say­ing in Di­eter Buch­hart’s Now’s the Time (Pres­tel). “So they have this im­age of me: wild man run­ning – you know, wild mon­key man, what­ever the fuck they think.”

One of his clos­est friends in the years of his suc­cess was Andy Warhol. The first time Warhol men­tioned Basquiat in his di­ary, on 4 Oc­to­ber 1982, was as “one of those kids who drive me crazy”. It didn’t take long, though, be­fore they were em­broiled in a full-blown friend-ro­mance, among the most in­ti­mate and last­ing of both their lives. They col­lab­o­rated on more than 140 paint­ings (this fer­tile part­ner­ship ended in 1985, af­ter Basquiat was stung by a bad re­view of their joint show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery), worked out and went to par­ties, had man­i­cures and talked on the phone for hours. Those who be­lieve Warhol in­ca­pable of ten­der­ness might take a look at his di­ary, as he frets end­lessly over Basquiat’s gar­gan­tuan drug con­sump­tion, the way he nods out on the Fac­tory floor, fall­ing asleep as he ties his shoes.

There was noth­ing heroic or glamor- ous about Basquiat’s ad­dic­tion. It came with the usual de­tri­tus: hit­ting girl­friends, ac­cru­ing debts, fall­ing out with beloved friends. He tried to stop but couldn’t, and in the end he died in the apart­ment he rented from Warhol on Great Jones Street, of acute mixed drug in­tox­i­ca­tion. In its obit­u­ary, the New York Times ob­served that Warhol’s death the pre­ced­ing year “re­moved one of the few reins on Mr Basquiat’s mer­cu­rial be­hav­iour and ap­petite for nar­cotics”.

Maybe so, but in 1988, a som­no­lent, junk-sick, griev­ing last year, he as­sem­bled mas­ter­pieces, among them Eroica, with its in­tri­cate map of he­roes and vil­lains, some barely vis­i­ble be­neath the black and white pen­ti­menti, the re­pen­tance marks that Basquiat made his sig­na­ture. Among the van­ish­ing names is Tennessee Wil­liams, an­other prodigy who died of his ad­dic­tions, who had tried to ex­press how and for whom power func­tions in the US.

These days Basquiat is among the most ex­pen­sive artists in the world; these days his im­ages are fran­chised, repli­cated ev­ery­where from Ur­ban De­cay blusher pots to Ree­bok train­ers. You could scorn the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, but isn’t it what he wanted, to colour ev­ery sur­face with his runes?

They are do­ing his spells for him and it could hardly be more nec­es­sary, since the forces that he ar­ranged him­self against are un­equiv­o­cally on the rise, since white men are parad­ing un­masked and with torches through the streets of Char­lottesville and Bos­ton, chant­ing “blood and soil”.

“Who do you make a paint­ing for?” he was asked in a filmed in­ter­view in Oc­to­ber 1985, and he was silent for a long time. “Do you make it for you?” the in­ter­viewer con­tin­ued. “I think I make it for my­self, but ul­ti­mately for the world you know,” Basquiat said, and the in­ter­viewer asked him if he had a pic­ture of what that world might be. “Just any per­son,” he said, be­cause he knew that change is com­ing all the time, from ev­ery­where, and that if those of us who are lean­ing on the doors get out the way, free­dom might be a pos­si­bil­ity – yeah, boom for real.

A Basquiat al­pha­bet: alchemy, an evil cat, black soap, cor­pus, cot­ton, crime, crimée, crown, fa­mous, ho­tel, king, left paw, lib­erty, loin, milk, ne­gro, noth­ing to be gained here, Olympics,

From top:

Por­trait of Glenn (1985);

Self-Por­trait (1984); Basquiat with Andy Warhol at the open­ing of their show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York in 1987

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