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
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
© 1996 Anthony Haden-Guest. All rights reserved.