Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Book: Widow Basquiat

A major exhibition of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat is coming to London later this year (at the Barbican), and I thought I ought to learn more about this artist, because frankly I knew very little beyond the Andy Warhol association and tragic death.

In a bookstore, my eyes stopped on this memoir and, reading its jacket, I thought, who best to learn about Basquiat than from his muse (and on-and-off girlfriend), Suzanne Mallouk? The book is a mix of Suzanne's stories (told by herself), and writer Jennifer Clements's poetic prose, and is an incredible insight into the life of Basquiat, into the club scene and art world of 1980s NYC, and into his paintings.

The below are highlights, written in Jennifer Clements's style. This is a great book - art history, really, told beautifully.

Suzanne heads to New York after selling all her stuff at a yard sale, advertised with the sign "FEEL GRAY, MUST EXIT"     [note - the power of these words just floor me!]

Jean comes to the bar she works at every day for 2 months, without talking to her. In the end she calls him Jean. He calls her Venus.

She works as a cigarette girl or a waitress here and there so they can buy drugs she hides in her beehive.
They stay up for days. They sleep for days. He disappears for days. Some days he only speaks Spanish.
She tenderly gives him baths.

He paints the letter S on some paintings, for her. He paints words particularly meaningful to him (eg: TAR, because "I sometimes feel as black as tar"). He doodles all over her fridge (she ends up selling it for $5,000). They listen to Charlie Parker.

Once he has a bit of cash, they go to expensive restaurants. "He always left enormous tips. He loved to shock, even shock with generosity. It was like punching someone." They hire limousines to drive them around anywhere.

They take more drugs, harder drugs. They break up. She fights Madonna over him, in a bar. He laughs. She burns some of the paintings she inspired. She can't help going back to Jean, though.

When a sort-of boyfriend, Michael Stewart, dies from being beaten up by the police, she takes on that pain and fights the police, demanding an inquiry, and winning a civil suit for wrongful death.

There's Andy Warhol. There's Keith Haring. There's Julian Schnabel. There's Debbie Harry, and so many more.

Suzanne makes her own paintings, becomes a singer, calls herself Ruby Desire, tours Europe then gives it all up. Jean asks her why she left him: she gives him a bath.

What drove him? Fighting racism. When they visit MOMA in 1982, he says "there are no black men in museums, try counting" and secretly sprinkles water around, like a Voodoo priest. When critics write about his ghetto childhood, he gets furious: "they don't invent a childhood for white artists". Visiting European museums, he exclaims: "That is why I paint. To get black men into museums."

Suzanne is still alive, now an addiction psychotherapist, still the keeper of Basquiat's flame. "Still after all these years people are looking for me. Dealers, collectors and biographers call me up. They all want to know what it was like to be with Jean. Sometimes I tell them. But they never get it right. I walk the places he has been".

I'd say this book got it right.

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