The Atlantic Monthly Press
1996 Anthony Haden-Guest. 
All rights reserved.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in "an integrated middle-class section of Brooklyn" - his phrase - to a Puerto Rican mother and a father from the Haitian middle class. He had begun drawing very young on paper his father brought him and had gone to the Museum of Modern Art as a child, looking again and again at Monet's Waterlilies and, especially, at Guernica, and he himself pointed out the irony that it was through Picasso that he became aware of the aesthetic of African art. Basquiat's family split apart. He ran away from home at fifteen and wound up in Washington Square. Nights he spent in the Mudd Club. "I slept on friends' floors for years," he told me a year before his death.

He was already making art, of a sort, and selling painted T-shirts to tourists. "I was very flowery and LSD-influenced. Actually, my basic influence was probably Peter Max," he said. Seeing "some things by Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly" saved him from psychedelia. Graffiti had caught his eye. Basquiat had already come up with the notion for a phony religion while at school. He called it SAMO. "Samo was sophomoric. Same old shit!" he explained. "It was supposed to be a logo, like Pepsi." He and a high school friend, Al Diaz, began writing cryptic sentences in a methodical, unflowery script on the walls of lower Manhattan in 1978. They ran from the simplistic - SAMO FOR THE ART PIMPS - to the poetically ominous. The curiosity they aroused was intense. Basquiat told a Village Voice writer that he could do thirty on a productive day. But Basquiat and Diaz had a falling out. Basquiat said, "So I wrote SAMO IS DEAD all over the place. And I started painting."

He had a transitional piece in the "Times Square Show." Jeffrey Deitch, art consultant to Citibank, reviewed the show for Art in America, and focused on "a patch of wall painted by SAMO, the omnipresent graffiti sloganeer, [which] was a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway paint scribbles." Basquiat's first full-fledged paintings were at Diego Cortez's "New York/New Wave" at P.S. 1. He had fifteen - the only painted canvases in the show. Sandro Chia offered $1,000 for one of them. Cortez held out for more. Christophe de Menu bought it for $2,500. Alana Heiss of P.S. 1 says, "By the end of the show, people were trying to find Jean-Michel to buy pictures. Things had gone a bit bananas already." It was here too that his work came to the attention of dealer Annina Nosei.

"She gave me a studio," Basquiat said. "Right in the gallery. Downstairs. She used to bring collectors there, so it wasn't very private. I didn't mind. It was a place to work, which I had never had before. I took it, not seeing the drawbacks until later." The chief drawback being svmbolic. Fab Five Freddy, whose actual name was Fred Brathwaite, admonished Basquiat. "I said, 'A black kid painting in the basement. It's not good, man. But Jean knew he was playing with this wildman thing. Annina would let these collectors in, and he would turn, with the brush in the hand, all west, and walk towards them... real quick."

Patti Astor is sardonic about the Nosei opening. "The fashion that year was for these hideous green-dyed mink coats," she says. "Jean-Michel was hiding in the back. I couldn't go and say hi because I couldn't face that horrible phalanx. I felt that Jean-Michel needed a place to show where he could really have some input."

He showed at Fun shortly after. That show was a huge success, except, as he would often complain, financially. Basquiat made his first real money in Europe later that year, selling ten pieces at Emilio Mazzoli's gallery in Modena. "Suddenly from nothing he has thirty thousand dollars in his pocket," Astor says. He also had such a cocaine problem that he had perforated his septum, and a growing appetite for heroin. Martin Aubert, a friend, had seen him sitting on the steps of a club as early as 1980. "He was covered with paint and shivering. He said, 'I'm on heroin. I guess you don't approve of that, but I have decided the true path to creativity is to burn out.' He mentioned Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker. I said, 'All those people are dead, Jean.' He said, 'If that's what it takes...'."

1996 Anthony Haden-Guest. All rights reserved.


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