Due to a dispute with the Basquiat family over the content of the below essay, we were unable to publish this chapter about the influential 1980s New York artist Jean-Michael Basquiat in our latest guide, Art+NYC. Instead, we present it here is as a web exclusive along with listings on where Basquiat worked, dined and showed his paintings.
In 1985, Jean-Michel Basquiat appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, the painter par excellence and enfant terrible in his studio, barefoot before his work, paint spatters on his Armani suit and a satisfied but detached grin on his boyish face. The accompanying article portrays the artist as a charismatic celebrity, a regular at uptown restaurant Mr. Chow, sipping kir royale and holding court with artists Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. He was well on his way to becoming the most famous artist in New York. His paintings sold for $25,000 a pop. He was 24 years old.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born into a middle class family in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on December 22, 1960. Throughout his life, Basquiat would grapple with contradictions: he was often undervalued or discriminated against for his race (his mother is Puerto Rican, his father was Haitian), and his relationship with his father was allegedly abusive, but he grew up without economic disadvantage, and would make large sums of money in his life; he was extremely talented, and extremely self-destructive. He was a smart, rebellious kid with a strict father and sick mother. “My mother had been institutionalized many, many times … she’s very frail,” he later told Andy Warhol. He went to alternative Brooklyn private schools and acted out; at his graduation from City-As-School, Basquiat he threw a pie in the principal’s face. At 15 he ran away from home for the first time: “I was smoking pot in my room and my father came in and he stabbed me in the ass with a knife,” he told director Tamra Davis in one of only two known video interviews with the artist, in 1986. The story, like many about Basquiat, has been disputed. He headed to Washington Square Park, the heart of Greenwich Village, with no plan and no place to stay. There he met the city’s graffiti gangs: 3YB, Three Yard Boys, SS, Stone Soul Brothers, Mission Graffiti, MG. By the time his father found him in the park, Jean-Michel told him, “I will be very, very famous one day.”
Fame came quickly to Basquiat.
“Back in the late ’70s, you couldn’t go anywhere interesting in Lower Manhattan without noticing that someone named SAMO had been there first,” wrote curator and dealer Jeffrey Deitch in Flash Art. Basquiat’s SAMO (short for “same old”) tags were seductive early on, epigrammatic and self-referential texts like “SAMO DOES NOT CAUSE CANCER IN LABORATORY ANIMALS.” The young artist was astutely aware of the art market, adding a copyright to the end of SAMO and getting up where it was sure to be seen. Basquiat, with his friend and graffiti partner Al Diaz, tagged around SVA (School for the Visual Arts) with soon-to-be hot artists Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, and near the SoHo galleries where he would soon show. “He would write on hot corners, popular places where people would pass by,” remembers artist and filmmaker Fab Five Freddy. “He also tagged up quite a bit of the trains, on the D line. I don’t know why the D, but there were SAMO tags all over the insides.”
At the time, the artist was homeless and hustling, paining on whatever he could get his hands on and taking lovers just to have a place to sleep. He began to pop up unannounced on writer Glenn O’Brien’s arty cable-access talk show, TV Party. In 1979, amidst the amateur videotape, he shows up with his head shaved high at the temples, a futuristic helmet of hair onto his head, mild-mannered but quick to correct his host about the pronunciation of tag. O’Brien cast him and based the protagonist for New York Beat (released in 2000 as Downtown81), a derelict and charismatic young artist whose wishes get granted by Deborah Harry. For the winter of 1980, Basquiat lived in the loft where the film was produced, on Great Jones Street, and kept popping up at clubs around the city.
“Oh, he’s the artist and he’s young and he’s holding court at the Mudd Club,” recalls photographer Michael Halsband. “By ’81 the Mudd Club was already on its second generation of kids. It was old to me.”
But Basquiat was a master of the social scene, making famous friends with the likes of Klaus Nomi (with whom Basquiat was romantically linked, until, as rumor has it, he gave Nomi gonorrhea four times), Lydia Lunch, and David Byrne. Steve Mass had founded the legendary hangout in October 1978, equipped with a sound-system by Brian Eno, no less, in a building owned by artist Ross Bleckner. “Mudd Club was the polar opposite of what had been going on at Studio 54. It had a chain as opposed to a velvet rope, and they would let in all the cool downtown artists and filmmaker-type people,” describes Fab Five Freddy. The bar was notoriously nondescript but for aeronautic maps, and TVs lined up in a row above the bar, and its DJ, “Queen of the Discotheque DJs” Anita Sarko.
Basquiat was hanging out with artists Vincent Gallo and Michael Holman and with them formed the band post-punk Gray, playing shows at the Mudd Club, at the down-and-out Lower East Side non-profit ABC No Rio and even at the birthday party of grand dealer Leo Castelli. Another hangout was Club 57, at 57 St Marks Place in the East Village, which was in the basement of a Polish church and hosted by performance artist Ann Magnuson. Other East Village hangouts included Pyramid Club, Danceteria, and the Roxy, where he met and dated a pre-”Like A Virgin” Madonna. He’d met his match in fame-seeking. In an essay written for the Guardian in 1996, Madonna wrote, “He was one of the few people I was truly envious of. But he didn’t know how good he was and he was plagued with insecurities. He used to say he was jealous of me because music is more accessible and it reached more people. He loathed the idea that art was appreciated by an elite group.” In February 1981, New York/New Wave, the generation-defining P.S. 1 show organized by Diego Cortez, was the hottest ticket in town and Basquiat was its star. Thousands of people came out and saw his 15 works on canvas, featuring scratchy portraits of jazz singers in grease pencil, with elegant but untraditional composition. Critic Peter Schjedahl called him “the most impressive individual in the show after Mapplethorpe” and important collector Christophe de Menil bought from the show. When dealer Annina Nosei heard about the show, it was the beginning of one of the most productive and tumultuous artist-gallery relationships on record. Basquiat was 20 years old.
Nosei signed Basquiat, and gave him a studio in the basement under her gallery at 100 Prince Street, a fishbowl where she would bring collectors to watch him paint. “Let’s talk about that story that you’re being locked in a basement and ordered to paint” asked professor Marc Miller in the only other known video-taped footage featuring the artist. “I was never locked anywhere, oh Christ. If I was white they would just call it an artist-in residence,” Basquiat replied. Nonetheless, by the time he started being able to sell his paintings, Basquiat would ask for cash up-front.
Suddenly, Basquiat could generate a quick $10,000 with a single canvas, and in 1982 he moved into 101 Crosby Street, a loft overlooking the gas station that’s still at the intersection with Houston Street. With money to burn, he cultivated his very conspicuous consumption (a trait that’s exaggerated in Julian Schnabel’s bio-pic, says Fab Five Freddy), perfecting his paint-splattered Armani suits, and inviting friends and hangers-on to the apartment for lavish parties catered by Dean & Deluca and fueled by drugs. The media ate it up, constantly reporting on his late hours, which he’d juggle with intense bouts of painting, sometimes on command. Soon, Basquiat would say he needed cocaine, and increasingly, heroin, just to paint.
In 1983, he was selected for the Whitney Biennial, along with other first-time artist Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and David Salle. At the same time, the art world was starting to boom. Basquiat had been showing work at the first gallery in the East Village, the Fun Gallery, run by underground film actress Patti Astor and specializing in graffiti. Even though he was showing with the more traditionally posh Annina Nosei Gallery, the appeal of the East Village was hard to resists. Limos lined up before former squats, says Fab Five Freddy, who had encouraged Astor to open Fun. “Not more than a year later, I’d say a hundred galleries had opened—everywhere, from people’s closets to storefronts. Gracie Mansion’s gallery started in the dealer’s bathroom, was the story.” The limos drove off for good when the economy contracted a year later.
But Basquiat’s lifestyle had irreversibly changed. “If you had money, and you were an artist, and you knew about it, you’d go to Mr. Chow,” says Fab Five Freddy of the Midtown hotspot. The proprietor, collector Michael Chow, proudly boasted a collection of work from artists like Warhol and David Hockney. “You knew that he traded with these artists, and they would eat there. And Jean-Michel, when he got money, he made an arrangement with Mr. Chow.”
Andy Warhol and Basquiat first briefly crossed paths in 1978, when Basquiat sold him a postcard in Soho for $1. They’d meet again many times, although the artist was suspicious of the aggressive young Basquiat. But four years later the two artists shared a dealer, Zurich-based mega-collector Bruno Bischofberger. Warhol’s popularity was on the skids and Bischofberger suggested he collaborate with the very hot, very young Basquiat. Their relationship grew into constant companionship as they worked together, and in May 1983 Basquiat moved into Warhol’s building at 57 Great Jones Street, where he would live for the rest of his life in New York. Describes Basquiat biographer Phoebe Hoban: “the relationship, though never overtly physical, had a certain sexual frisson.” The duo would work out together, dine together, and hop parties and nightclubs. Basquiat seems to have seen in Warhol an approving and doting father figure, while the older artist got a new superstar. Warhol stood at the entrance to Basquat’s 1985 show at Mary Boone Gallery in Soho, greeting a crowd of hundreds.
Basquiat bragged he got Warhol to paint again, 23 years after he’d given it up. The new works were unveiled in 1985 at the Soho gallery of Tony Shafrazi, the flamboyant artist-turned-dealer. The reviews were universally negative. The show’s poster featured a photograph, taken by Halsband, of Warhol knock-out punching Basquiat—a metaphor Hilton Kramer used in his review. “I think somehow that really hit a deep nerve,” said Halsband. “Jean-Michel felt vulnerable to that criticism, and thought maybe it was true.” This was an artist who was acutely aware of his place in the art world, and of his peers. (“I remember he took me into the basement of a gallery and showed me the most amazing Robert Longo,” said Halsband, “and then he told me it was Robert’s teacher, and Robert had ripped everything off.”) Basquiat was crushed.
Although they never spoke again, Warhol’s death in 1987 made a significant impact on Basquiat. “He cried a lot and wore a black armband,” recalled Fab Five Freddy, who also noted that Basquiat’s mourning included weeping in nightclubs. For days, he would lock himself alone in the Great Jones Street apartment, shooting and smoking hundreds of dollars of heroin a day (up to 100 bags a day, he told friends). As he exhibited internationally, the pressures only increased. His body showed the toll—sores and scabs covered his face, while his mind frayed under the pressure.
He began to escape to Hawaii, which he said was the only place he didn’t need to take drugs. He began to tell people he was finished with painting, and was going to begin writing. He slept long hours in his loft at 57 Great Jones Street, but one afternoon on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27, he didn’t come downstairs. His young girlfriend found him in his bathtub.
What followed was grief and dismay and a funeral where dealers outnumber friend, and a bitter dispute subsequently for the artist’s estate. Basquiat was a notorious consumer, and there were closets full of Armani suits and a library worth of pricey monographs. And the artist had maintained about a thousand of his own works, among them almost 200 paintings. Control of the estate went to his father, whose role in his son’s life was at best erratic, often opportunist, and at worst abusive. Those works of the state, and the thousands of others, have been shown internationally. Still there is little critical appraisal—Basquiat is still not understood.
Where to see:
Jean-Michel Basquiat Studio
57 Great Jones
In 1983, Basquiat moves his studio into a former carriage house loft owned by Andy Warhol. He would live and work here until his death from heroin overdose at the age of 27.
In 1973, Hilly Kristal opened a club featuring country, bluegrass and blues (the CBGB of the club’s name). But it’s the punk, hardcore and No Wave acts that played CBGB that came to define the space—The Ramones, Richard Hell, The Dictators, Blondie and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s band Gray. The club closed in 2006 after a final performance by Patti Smith. Today it is a high-end men’s boutique.
321 West 46th Street
Located in the heart of the Theater District on Restaurant Row, Barbetta has been on the New York dining scene for over 100 years. The classically upscale Italian restaurant has lost some of its sheen over the years, but its lush courtyard and formal dining room have hosted the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. The restaurant was a favorite of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The pair would sign autographs and make sketches for the staff and customers. The restaurant appears in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat.
324 East 57th Street
Midtown Chinese restaurant—with another location at 121 Hudson Street in Tribeca—was a major hangout for the New York art crowd in the 1980s (think Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat). Artists used to trade their work for meals. Today the split-level restaurant caters to hip-hop musicians and music moguls, but its art history presence can still be felt.
Tony Shafrazi Gallery
544 West 26th Street
Tues-Sat 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Tony Shafrazi is one of the art world’s most colorful characters—he famously vandalized Picasso’s Guernica in 1974, scrawling the words “Kill Lies All” across in it spray paint. Fittingly, when Shafrazi opened his New York gallery he exhibited the leading graffiti artists of the 1980s, including Keith Haring, Futura 2000 and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
254 East Tenth Street
In 1981, Patti Astor opened FUN Gallery, the first of the 1980s East Village galleries. Fun popularized graffiti art, offering Lee Quinones, Fab 5 Freddy, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring early one-man exhibitions. Astor and many of her artists appears in 1983’s cult-classic graffiti flick Wild Style. By the time the gallery closed in 1985, the art world was no longer interested in graffiti.
The Mudd Club
77 White Street
Opened in 1978, The Mudd Club was a gritty counterpoint to the flashy disco scene at uptown club Studio 54, with a metal chain instead of a velvet rope. Located in a building owned by artist Ross Bleckner and owned, in part, by curator Diego Cortez, the club was the scene of performances by bands like the Blondie, the B-52s and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Gray, and home to a gallery curated by Keith Haring.
Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Penguin, 1999)
Original Interviews With Fab Five Freddy Michael Halsband, 2010
Tamra Davis, Basquiat: Radiant Child, 2010