Postscript to my memoir Widow Basquiat
JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT (1960–1988)
THE BEYELER RETROSPECTIVE 2010
AND A HANDFUL OF FRIENDS
For Tony Frazer
In Basel, Switzerland, banners that announce the great art exhibitions line the streets and blow and soar like flags. For the next few months, above the streets these signs read: BASQUIAT. Glued to poles and walls are the almost life-size posters of Jean-Michel sitting barefoot in a chair wearing a black Armani suit and tie that are covered in splashes of red paint. He holds a long paintbrush in his hand and looks straight into the camera’s eye. This photograph was used for the cover of the New York Times Magazine on February 19, 1985. This year, at the Beyeler Foundation, the largest retrospective ever of Basquiat’s work is being exhibited in order to celebrate what would have been Basquiat’s fiftieth birthday. A handful of his friends have come: Dr Suzanne Mallouk, Michael Holman, Fab 5 Freddie, B-Dub, Stephen Torton and myself. This year we have all been celebrating our own middle-aged birthdays of the living.
We meet in the foyer of the gallery and walk together among the paintings. I listen to the voices of these friends around me just as I used to listen to them when we were in our early twenties in New York City – at clubs, shows, in the subway and on the streets. As we move in the large exhibition halls, we comment on the paintings we know well and marvel at the ones we’ve never seen. Basquiat’s work takes us back to our old lives; our young lives.
Under the painting, Red Man, Fab 5 Freddie asks, ‘Do you know where Jean-Michel is buried?’
Suzanne says, ‘Yes, of course, in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Section 176, Lot 44603.’
‘You really amaze me!’ Freddie exclaims. ‘Dr Mallouk, you’re something else! Have you been there? I want to go there. Let’s go. When can we all go?’
Suzanne tells us a story that no one has ever heard. ‘After Jean died some rich socialite, who had been his lover, had a court order issued to the coroner to take a blood test to make sure that Basquiat had not died of AIDS.’
We stand quietly for a moment thinking of those who are not here because of an overdose of drugs or because of AIDS. We think of Cookie Mueller and her husband, Tina Chow, Keith Haring, Joseph’s boyfriend, Klaus Nomi and John Sex.
‘Jean did not have AIDS,’ Suzanne confirms.
For a moment we also remember the writers. NYC graffiti artists always called themselves writers. They’d say, ‘Let’s go writing”’ or ‘Are you a writer?’ or ‘What do you write?’ This writing was used to communicate among the city’s straphangers. Walls were paper and trains were books. And reading graffiti meant reading backwards as this was always a first step to understanding the words.
There was also artistry in how the can of spray paint was used. The paint could not drip and, if it did, the drips were called ‘tears’. If it dripped very badly we would say it was ‘crying’. I remember once walking down 1st Avenue past Tompkins Square Park and reading some graffiti that wept blue all down the wall. The rounded, balloon letters said: He Makes Me Eat Meat. Under these words was written: Why Do Father’s Walk Out On Their Kids?
Jean-Michel, as SAMO, wrote all over the Lower East Side one summer. He wrote: Which of the following Institutions has the most political influence: A. Television B. Church C. SAMO D. McDonald’s. This wall was immortalised in one of Lisa Kahane’s photographs.
We remember Rammellzee’s loft with his robot creatures on skateboards and where each skateboard stood for a letter of the alphabet and we also remember Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery. Patti was the first art gallery in NYC to show graffiti art and she was instrumental in bringing hip hop culture into the mainstream white art world.
In Switzerland, we feel the small street gang of New York City ghosts around us: Dondi, A-one, Bear 167, and Rammellzee. Some of these ghosts had premonitions when they were alive and even tagged TDS (The Death Squad) all over the subway trains and walls. We think of Michael Stewart who was killed by seven policemen for writing in a subway: PIR NEMA PIR NEMA.
Stephen Torton, who Jean-Michel had hired as his assistant at the beginning of his rise to fame, describes how he used to make Jean’s canvases out of anything he could find. We stand and look at Portrait of VRKS, Untitled (Hand Anatomy) and Low Pressure Zone as Stephen speaks. ‘I used any old sticks nailed together with no attempt to create a 90 degree corner so that the cloth was stretched and stapled onto sticks without wrapping around the back.’
We stop and look at the painting Irony of Negro Policeman and I whisper, ‘Irony. Irony. So, what do we all think about the fact that the abuser is in charge of the legacy of his victim?’
We are all quiet.
We know that we cannot repel ghosts.
Michael Holman, who used to be a member of Basquiat’s band Gray, reminds us of the drug dealer on 3rd Street between Avenue A and B. We used to stand outside his window and call up to the third floor, ‘Raton! Raton!’ An empty plastic cup with a drawing of the Jetson family on one side would be lowered out the window on a string. We would fill the cup with money and the man would pull it back up and into his apartment. After a few minutes of waiting we’d call out, ‘Raton! Raton!’ and once again and the cup would be lowered with drugs inside.
We walk through the gallery pointing to the large painting of ‘Eyes and Eggs’ that Suzanne named, as she did many of his works. It is a painting of the cook at Dave’s Luncheonette, a place we all would go at four in the morning, starving after a night of dancing and drugs at the Mudd Club. We look at the painting and remember the coffee and scrambled eggs and egg creams. We recall the bright, stainless steel light, cigarette smoke, and the prostitutes and pimps hanging out at the next table with black and brown Doberman dogs outside tied up to parking meters.
We walk quietly for a while looking at the paintings of famous boxers.
‘What happened to Annina Nosei?’ Michael asks, referring to Basquiat’s first art dealer.
‘She’s a professional ballroom dancer now,’ Suzanne answers.
‘It’s so strange what happens to people – where they go and what they become,’ Michael continues. ‘I heard about a woman who fell in love with the Eiffel Tower and married it! I think I remember this because the Eiffel Tower was always too big for me, just too damn big for me.’
In a back room of the museum Suzanne and I are suddenly confronted by her old refrigerator covered with Basquiat’s doodles and the words, ‘Tar, tar,’ scribbled on it. It had always stood in her kitchen at 68 East 1st Street. She sold the refrigerator at Sotheby’s for five thousand dollars. Andy Warhol bought it. As we look at it we remember her apartment that was covered with Jean-Michel’s paint splatters on the walls and paint stick melted into the floor ridges in the wood floor.
I remember what it was like to open that refrigerator in 1983 and find a half-eaten pastry, a red and white milk carton, a box of Domino sugar, a pair of red high-heeled shoes, a dish of bracelets and a cup of earrings. Suzanne even kept her ‘Jackie-O’ sunglasses in that refrigerator and a couple of books. ‘I don’t lose the things I keep in there,’ she used to say in her singsong, song-sing voice. As we contemplate the refrigerator in the cold and reverent gallery space with a white sign beside it that says, ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ and protected by alarm wires and a museum guard, Suzanne and I turn and look at each other, really look at each other.
Suzanne says, You know, I kept no souvenirs. I did not want to be a tourist in my own life.’