Achokka' ti mamementa yu' kada diha, manhahasso yu' todu tiempo put pinenta yan atte.
I have been inspired by many artists over the years, especially when I was an undergraduate and graduate student at UOG.
At that time, I was painting a great deal and displaying and selling my artwork around the island.
One of the biggest influences on me, and something which made me the butt of a great deal of "måtai na pepenta" na jokes, was my looking up to Jean-Michel Basquiat.
He was one of the consummate bohemian artists, who challenged artist norms in his time, was used by the artworld during his short life, and then died.
When I first created an email account for myself in 1998, I was so enamored with Basquiat, that I didn't use my name, but instead blended our names together.
Rather than mlbevacqua, I instead entered mlbasquiat.
It has created a lot of confusion over the years as people who haven't met me in person but only over email, sometime assume that my last name is Basquiat and greet me and address me as Michael Basquiat or Dr. Basquiat or Mr. Basquiat.
Below is a long article about Basquiat that appeared in Vanity Fair a few years ago.
by Anthony Haden-Guest
April 4, 2014
Much has been written about the heroin-linked death of Jean-Michel Basquiat. But one voice was missing—that of the wildly talented, wildly extravagant painter himself. Anthony Haden-Guest interviewed America’s foremost black artist in the last stages of his blazing trail, as he careened between art dealers and drug dealers.
At about one in the morning on Friday, August 12, I saw Jean-Michel Basquiat at M.K. I was surprised. The extravagantly talented young painter, once among the more visible night birds of Manhattan’s haute bohème, had become famously reclusive. The reason was not a secret. He was locked in a battle with heroin.
The upper floor of the club is baroquely lit, but he looked changed—midriff fuller, face plumper. “That is you, Jean-Michel?” I asked.
“Yeah . . . ” A front tooth was missing with disconcerting effect. His eyes were remote, his smile wan. Oh, well. Basquiat was notoriously moody. I moved on, past the pool players, down to Bryan Ferry’s postconcert party on a lower deck.
Basquiat had arrived, typically, with a couple of young women, both stunning, Kelly Inman, a makeup artist, who lived in the basement below his studio, and Kristen Vigard, a young singer, whose long red hair was now very short and bleached white, and he had only come at their urging. “We wanted to get him out of the house,” Kelly remembers.
One of the people that Basquiat bumped into was a close friend, Kevin Bray, an N.Y.U. film student. Bray, like so many, had supported Basquiat in his struggle with his addiction, and had been delighted when the artist had returned from Hawaii ten days before, ebulliently announcing that he had finally kicked the habit. “But I could tell he was really high,” Bray says. “I was very discouraged.”
Inman and Vigard were wandering around somewhere. Impulsive as always, Basquiat suggested to Bray that they leave. He wanted company. Basquiat took a cab the twenty blocks downtown to his Great Jones Street loft, Bray bicycled. “We sat, and drank Gatorade,” he says. Recently, Basquiat had been loquacious with his close friends about his plans for a new life, which were colorful, if sometimes contradictory.
Certainly he was leaving Manhattan. Almost certainly he was, at the age of twenty-seven, giving up the mercantile and treacherous art world. Perhaps he would be a writer. Perhaps he would take what he called an “honest job,” like running a tequila business in Hawaii. The following Thursday, he was leaving for the Ivory Coast, where he was expected in a Senoufo village five hundred miles inland from the capital, Abidjan. Here he would take a tribal cure for the heroin— and other New York wounds.
Tonight, though, Basquiat was quiet. “He didn’t really want to talk about anything,” Bray says, “and soon he started nodding. And I said, I’m sorry—I just can’t stay around. I wrote kind of a weird note . . . I DON’T WANT TO SIT AROUND HERE AND WATCH YOU DIE . . . And then, YES, YOU DO OWE ME SOMETHING. Because we have an ongoing dialogue . . . why he should stop [drugs], why he should keep on painting . . . he never thinks people understand the paintings.”
That agonizing present tense, when the fact of death hasn’t quite sunk in.
Bray passed the note to Basquiat, but he was too loaded to focus, so Bray read it aloud, and left, fuming. “Somebody who gets that high is dying over and over and over again,” he says now.
Kelly Inman got back from M.K. at about four in the morning. “I didn’t see Jean-Michel,” she says. “I went downstairs to bed.” She was woken by the telephone at 2:30. It was Kevin. Jean-Michel was going with him to a Run-D.M.C. concert that evening. Inman climbed into the bread-oven heat of the upstairs bedroom—the air conditioner had failed, an annoyance that Basquiat, with a characteristic twinge of paranoia, blamed on his landlord, the Warhol estate. He was sleeping, she decided not to disturb him.
Bray rang again three hours later. Inman called, received no response, and again climbed the stairs. Jean-Michel Basquiat was lying in a pool of vomit. Inman felt the pulse and did what she calls “the usual things,” but with rushing emotions—fear, frozen calm, and an odd relief that his ordeal was over— she saw that he was dead.
The brilliant, intense life of a most remarkable artist—America’s first truly important black painter—was over.
I had visited Basquiat several times last April. No name marked the thick metal door that sheltered his loft from the neighborhood derelicts and crack vendors, and the ground-floor studio/kitchen/dining room looked both busy and cozy. The floor would always be covered with unstretched canvases in various stages of completion, and Basquiat, with his usual nonchalant, fuck-you, art-world attitude, would trot messily across them to fetch me a beer or tend to the spaghetti. The place looked lighthearted, with dark-side-of-Pop touches—portraits of Elvis and James Dean—and a giant birdcage adorned with a rubber bat and containing the bird’s nest that he sometimes wore to parties. The only visible artwork not by Basquiat was a portrait of him by Andy Warhol, hanging near the sink.
The Warhol, silkscreened on a background of splotched greeny gold, was one of the notorious “piss paintings” (mostly abstracts, created by the interaction of urine and copper sulfate on canvas). “I didn’t know it was a piss painting,” Basquiat told me. He later mentioned to a friend, writer Glenn O’Brien, that the splotches were oddly predictive of his own current skin condition, which was indeed terrible, marring his striking looks. Otherwise, he seemed alert, even mischievous—on one visit he was wearing a girlfriend’s black dress—and he insisted that he had his heroin problem “under control.” Beyond that, he was reticent about it.
He was anything but reticent, though, about his upbringing, which he painted in the darkest terms. Basquiat would often talk of beatings at the hands of his father, of his mother being hospitalized for depression, of their marriage breaking up when he was seven. “I had very few friends,” he told me. “There was nobody I could trust. I left home when I was fifteen. I lived in Washington Square Park. Of course my father minded. Jesus Christ!”
The tormented picture was obviously deeply felt, but lengthy meetings with Jean-Michel’s father, Gérard Basquiat, suggest that it doesn’t wholly jibe with reality. Basquiat Sr. comes from a solidly bourgeois family in Haiti which incurred the ire of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. “My mother and father were jailed,” he says. “My brother was killed. I came to America when I was twenty.” Here, he became an accountant, married Matilde, a woman of Puerto Rican stock, and had three children, at three-year intervals, Jean-Michel, Lisane, and Jeanine. He worked hard, and prospered. “Jean-Michel, for some reason, liked to give the impression that he grew up in the ghetto,” Gérard Basquiat says, adding, “I was driving a Mercedes-Benz.” They lived in a four-story brownstone the family owned in Boerum Hill, a couple of blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
At six, Jean-Michel had been hit by a car, and had his spleen removed. This didn’t prevent him from becoming a school champion in the sprint, but it was to trouble him later. The boy was bright, and intent on becoming a cartoonist, but very difficult. He went to a sequence of schools, and finally wound up in the City-as-School, an excellent establishment which specializes in the talented and contrary. Here, actually, he had numerous friends. “Jean-Michel was very rebellious,” his father says, “very rebellious. He was expelled for throwing a pie in the face of the principal.” It was June 1978. Sometimes Gérard Basquiat “spanked”—his word— his troublesome son, but the fact is Jean-Michel stayed in fairly constant touch with both parents. He, his father, and his father’s companion of twelve years, an attractive Englishwoman called Nora, would go to the Odeon and Mr Chow’s, and Jean-Michel once took Andy Warhol to a dinner party in Brooklyn.
“My father could be severe. It came from his Haitian background,” says Lisane Basquiat. But he was a loving father, and she is glad of the strictness now. “I never realized Jean-Michel held on to so much. Childhood fights. All those little things,” she says. “He was just a boy who didn’t grow up,” says their father.
But this tendency to hoard resentment was not apparent in the inquisitive, slyly humorous seventeen-year-old who started showing up in Manhattan, at first mostly with school friend Al Diaz. Soon he was noticeable in the hyperactive downtown scene, where he had a brief fascination with bisexuality. His artistic ambitions were still unfocused. He sold painted T-shirts to tourists in Greenwich Village. Martin Aubert, another school friend, remembers Basquiat talking about how much money he could make. “He craved parental approval,” Aubert says. Meanwhile, Basquiat slept on the crash circuit of sofas, floors, and the beds of friendly women. “I was a cute kid,” he said.
Along with his raw talent, he had a shrewd tactical eye. Graffiti was very much around, although, as painter Kenny Scharf puts it, “it wasn’t really connected with art yet.” Hence, the birth of Samo. The messages that began appearing on Manhattan walls in 1978 ran from the simplistic SAMO FOR THE ART PIMPS to the poetically ominous PAY FOR SOUP, BUILD A FORT, SET IT ON FIRE. They were signed Samo, with a copyright symbol saucily appended. “Samo meant same old shit,” Basquiat told me. “It was kind of sophomoric. It was supposed to be a logo, like Pepsi.”
Basquiat was always drawn to the idea of collaboration—Al Diaz, whose graffiti tag was Bomb 1, was a partner—but Basquiat was the conceptual leader. “You didn’t see Samos up in Harlem,” observes Fred Brathwaite, a.k.a. graffiti artist/rapster Fab 5 Freddy, a close friend of Basquiat’s and a fellow Brooklynite. “They were aimed at the art community. Because he liked that crowd, but at the same time resented that crowd.”
His next step forward was through music. In late 1979 Basquiat became a member of Gray, a band that a fellow member, Michael Holman, describes as “between an art band and jazz. ‘Gray’ was Jean’s idea. I think it had to do with the color of a piece of paper that was hanging up. We said great. It wasn’t like the Angry Toads or something.” Fred Brathwaite remembers the first gig. “It was at the Mudd Club. David Byrne was there. Debbie Harry. It was a real Who’s Who. Everyone was there because of Jean . . . Samo’s in a band! . . . They came out and played for just ten minutes. Somebody was playing in a box. It just blew me away.”
Basquiat was also making art. He would draw on Mudd Club matchbooks, and sell them for a dollar. He became briefly associated with Canal Zone, a group that included Fab 5 Freddy and fellow graffitist Lee Quinones. “We were lent a loft,” Brathwaite says. “Jean-Michel would be in the back room, making ‘baseball cards.’ He would cut up these photographs, lay them down on graph paper, and draw on them. He would color-Xerox them on Spring Street, and sign them Samo or Manmade. Original limited-edition-type things.” Basquiat hawked them on the street for a few dollars. Alert to the fact that Kenny Scharf had made a splash by showing work at Fiorucci, he talked the fashion store into seeing him. “He bought oil paint on the way,” painter Keith Haring says. “He smashed it open on the street, and made a painting. In Fiorucci, he got paint on the carpet, on the couch, and all over. They threw him out. For him, this was a great triumph. He sort of wanted them to buy some color Xeroxes, but at the same time, he had a disdain for it.”
Basquiat approached Andy Warhol in a downtown restaurant where he was eating with Henry Geldzahler, and sold him one of these Xeroxes. Warhol was Basquiat’s most specific obsession. Chris Sedlmayr, an electrician who had met Basquiat at the Mudd Club, gave him odd jobs such as an installation in the Castelli gallery, where he gleefully scribbled a few furtive Samos on tubes containing Warhol silkscreens. Fred Brathwaite remembers hanging out with Basquiat, John Sex, and some other downtown types outside Club 57, and discussing the idea of doing a performance piece based on the Factory. Somebody asked, “Who will play Andy?”
“I will,” Basquiat insisted.
Visiting the actual Factory, he sold Warhol a few more Xeroxes for a dollar. Warhol gave him four or five cans of expensive Liquitex paint, which he slathered on more clothing and sold at Patricia Field’s shop on Eighth Street.
Basquiat was by then a natural choice to star in a movie about downtown called The New York Beat. It featured Debbie Harry, was financed by Rizzoli, directed by the photographer Edo (later questioned in the Crispo case), written by Glenn O’Brien, and based loosely on Basquiat’s own life. “It never came out,” O’Brien says, “because a couple of the Rizzolis went to the slammer.”
The art Basquiat painted for the movie was a departure. “I hadn’t done anything good until then,” he told me. “Actually, my basic influence had probably been Peter Max.” But by now Basquiat had voraciously assimilated a whole new world of art, from Monet’s water lilies to Cy Twombly. He devoured Picasso’s Guernica, and later noted the irony of coming to African art via the Spaniard.
“I want to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child,” he told Fred Brathwaite, Picasso-like, in the street.
While he was living in the movie production office above the Great Jones Café, Basquiat painted his first figurative works. Then he moved in with a girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, his age and half Palestinian, half English. Mallouk allowed herself to be dominated. “I paid the rent waitressing,” she says. “I supported him.” Now he set fanatically to work.
“In 1980 I heard that Samo was making this really great art,” says Jeffrey Deitch, an art consultant for Citibank. He went to see. “I couldn’t believe it. Every surface was covered, the refrigerator, the tables. He had dozens of these little drawings on typewriter paper. The paintings were on doors and window frames taken off the street.”
Basquiat was now both ubiquitous and noticeable around lower Manhattan. For a while he had sported a bleached blond mohawk, but soon grew a crown of dreadlocks. “And he would wear this paint-spattered smock,” says Fred Brathwaite. “You could see the look on people’s faces: I don’t want to walk by this guy!”
In early 1981, Diego Cortez included a group of Basquiats in the seminal “New York/New Wave” show at P.S. 1. The show featured more than five hundred artists, but the pieces by Basquiat—who showed as Samo—were standouts. A style had suddenly fallen into place. The work is graphic, crudely drawn with oil sticks, often featuring bits of found writing—downtown street signs, whatever—and always using images at once witty and disturbing, like those used to propitiate powerful forces. No wonder, alongside his more formal sources, such as Leonardo’s codices, Basquiat sometimes mentioned voodoo.
“The common reaction, which was mine,” says Alanna Heiss, the director of P.S. 1, “was that this was the new Rauschenberg. It was a really clichéridden reaction, in terms of tingling, goose bumps, all the words we use all the time, but this time it was really true.” It was at P.S. 1 that Basquiat made converts of such influential voices as Henry Geldzahler and Peter Schjeldahl, whose review in The Village Voice singled out Robert Mapplethorpe and “Jean-Michel Basquiat, a twenty-year-old Haitian-Puerto Rican New Yorker.” Alanna Heiss recalls that, “by the end of the show, people were trying to find Jean-Michel to buy pictures. Things had gone a bit bananas already.”
Old identities folded. Samo’s penultimate graffito was: LIFE IS CONFUSING AT THIS POINT . . . Basquiat then had a “falling-out” with Al Diaz, and went around downtown writing SAMO IS DEAD. He also pulled out of Gray. “He was on this ego trip,” says band member/artist Vincent Gallo, “schmoozing with Eno and Bowie instead of taking care of band business.” Basquiat, David Byrne, and Arto Lindsay of DNA briefly rehearsed as a group named for one of Basquiat’s obsessions: Famous Black Athletes.
Basquiat’s first dealer was Annina Nosei, an Italian woman with a nose for talent and a SoHo gallery. “I was doing this show called ‘Public Address,’ ” she says. “It was a group show. I said, Are you sure you fit in? He said, Yes, yes, I fit, I fit. He said his work was addressing the public, although it was poetical, and intimate. I gave him the money to buy a big canvas.” Among the other artists that Nosei was showing for the first time were Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Keith Haring. “They were in the front room,” says Nosei. “Jean-Michel had a whole room, with five or six pieces, so it became Jean-Michel and the others.”
They all sold, at $2,500 apiece. “After that success, we planned a one-man show for March 1982,” Nosei says, “but he needed a place to paint.” She offered him the space in the basement of the gallery, which he cheerfully accepted. “It was the first time I had a place to work,” he told me. “I took it. Not seeing the drawbacks until later . . . ”
The “drawbacks” were firstly practical. “She used to bring collectors down there, so it wasn’t very private,” said Basquiat. “I didn’t mind. I was young, you know.” The greater drawback was symbolic. Brathwaite remonstrated with him: “I said, A black kid, painting in the basement, it’s not good, man. But Jean knew he was playing off this wild-man thing. Annina would let these collectors in, and he would turn, with the brush in his hand, all wet, and walk towards them . . . real quick.” On the other hand, Yann Gamblin, the French photographer, recalls Basquiat totally ignoring his visitors while attacking three canvases more or less at once.
Annina Nosei, slipping into a parental role, advanced him cash to live on. Typically he would spend it on lunch at Dean & DeLuca, the pricey SoHo grocery. Gérard Basquiat recalls a dinner with his son and Nosei at Hobeaux. “I’m like a mother to Jean-Michel,” the dealer told Basquiat père. “I thought, Oh my god, she’s finished,” he says.
Patti Astor, who started the Fun Gallery in the East Village as an anarchic reaction to the white-walled SoHo machine, says the Nosei show was one of Basquiat’s best ever, but is wry about the opening. “The fashion that year was for these hideous, green-dyed mink coats. It was raining, and the whole gallery was filled with these soaking-wet, green mink coats. 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.”
Basquiat—who would always veer from receptivity to intense mistrust— did show at the Fun Gallery. Shortly before the opening, Astor invited various artists to a pumpkin-carving party. “Kenny [Scharf], Keith [Haring], and Jean-Michel were all sitting, doing it. Julian [Schnabel] came over, and he said, Oh, this is stupid, but then he sits down, and carves this pumpkin, and he’s so proud of it, he wants to have it cast in bronze.” The pumpkins were put in the gallery window. The Schnabel one was stolen. “It became the most famous pumpkin in town,” Astor says.
The perpetrator was, of course, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The remains of the vegetable wound up in a box of white painted wood covered with drawings and enigmatically inscribed “Vagina water,” as Basquiat’s contribution to the “Art” installation at the club Area in May 1985, mounted as counterprogramming to the opening of the Palladium.
The Fun Gallery show was a resounding success for Basquiat in every way except, as he would often carp, financially. He had made his first real money in Italy, selling ten pieces through Emilio Mazzoli’s gallery in Modena. “Suddenly from nothing he has $30,000 in his pocket,” Astor says.
At the end of the year, Basquiat went to stay with the dealer Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles. “I had a big house on the beach in Venice,” Gagosian says, “and I gave him an enormous room for a studio.” Basquiat stayed for six months, working ferociously. He developed a pattern in which work and life, completely entwined, were both forced to the limit. There was something childlike about his appetites. He had used so much cocaine he’d perforated his septum. Nile Rodgers, the musician, who ran into Basquiat in the Maxfield Blue store and gave him a ride, later found he had left half a dozen brand-new Armani suits in the car. “He was flying out friends to stay with him,” Gagosian says. “It was really a zoo.”
The long affair with Suzanne Mallouk was breaking up—“I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “He was too overpowering.” He had embarked on a series of relationships with young women. “He had a need to be surrounded by blonde models,” she adds. He could be possessive and dominating, with the usual role games, but the erotic is not a powerful element in his painted world. “It’s a theme I never approach,” he told me. “Or hardly ever. If I see sex in a movie, I want to turn away.” He was equally shy about his use of hard drugs. Though he enjoyed smoking what were obviously joints in full view, few were aware of his freebasing and dabbling with smack. “I had seen him sitting on the steps of the Electric Circus at the end of 1980,” says Martin Aubert, now a sessions guitarist. “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 . . . ”
In later years, Basquiat would claim that he only started shooting heroin after Warhol’s death. This was the junk lying. An ex-addict friend of mine remembers seeing Basquiat in late 1982 at an East Seventh Street apartment where art-world and uptown users—“no street junkies at all”—would buy their drugs and socialize. “He had a legendary habit. It gave him a lot of cachet. He would drop $20,000 or $30,000 at a time. We’re talking ounces, not stuff that had been cut and put in bags. The expectation was quite general that he wasn’t going to be around for much longer.”
Basquiat spent Christmas 1983 in Los Angeles with a girlfriend, the then unknown Madonna. Larry Gagosian remembers, “He told me, She’s going to be a big, big star.” Fred Hoffman, of the Hoffman Borman gallery, took them to lunch in the Twentieth Century Fox commissary, and remembers them glowering around, sizzling with ambition.
In the art world, at least, Basquiat had become a figure of glittering success. He had two canvases in the Palladium’s Michael Todd Room, and his name was dropped in gossip columns. There was a rustle of attention when he walked into a restaurant or a club, and he was making much more money than his friends. His success both excited and disturbed him. “From being so critical of the art scene, Jean-Michel was all of a sudden becoming the thing he criticized,” says Haring. He coped by profligacy. He tossed $100 in dollar bills from a limousine window at the panhandlers on Bowery and Houston. He ruined his designer suits by painting in them. He lent indigent friends money and art materials. He scattered drawings and paintings around like a tree shedding leaves. The rapacious homed in. “I worked with him a lot in Los Angeles,” says Matt Dike, who now has a small label, Delicious Vinyl. “Everybody was just picking up paintings and drawings. Jean-Michel was so dusted that he didn’t know what was what.” It was also at this time that he slashed a roomful of his own canvases.
With this relentless bohemianism went an odd yearning for propriety. He would now stay in hotels in Los Angeles, but disdained the funky Chateau Marmont in favor of the solidly bourgeois L’Ermitage. The lavish “art dinners” that he threw in Manhattan were less likely to be in the downtown eateries than in staid Barbetta’s on West Forty-sixth. John Good, who then worked for Leo Castelli, remembers Basquiat energetically entering the world of fine wines. “We went to Sherry-Lehmann. They were very suspicious at first, but he whips a thousand bucks out of his pocket, trying to find the best, the oldest bottles that they had. I said, Jean-Michel, you don’t have to drink ’61 Lafite all the time. There are a lot of cheaper ones that are very good. He said, Yeah, but it’s not that expensive! I mean, it’s cheaper than drugs . . .
“He was always asking about [art] dealers, which were good, which were bad. He was more ambitious than anybody ever dreamed,” says Good. “Should I have a boxing match with Julian Schnabel?” he once asked Mallouk. And he was uneasy when she posed for Francesco Clemente. “Who’s a better artist?” he asked her.
“Francesco,” she told him, wickedly. “He’s more spiritual than you are.”
One night he woke her to show her a portrait of her he’d just finished. A snake was floating above her. “Is that spiritual enough?” he asked.
Basquiat was just as hypersensitive in his relations with dealers. He left Annina Nosei for Bruno Bischofberger of Zurich, a dominant figure in the international art market. “I took him to Mary Boone. She and I were partners,” Bischofberger says. At his grand Mary Boone opening he told his former school-teacher Mary Ellen Lewis, “I wonder what Fred [the principal at whom he’d thrown the pie] will think of me now. Wasn’t I the one least likely to succeed?”
In February 1985 a shoeless Basquiat adorned the cover of The New York Times Magazine. At first euphoric, he signed copies in the Odeon and Area, but on reflection he decided to be offended. The title of the Times piece was “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist.” “As though I didn’t do it myself,” he complained. It was just one more sign that Basquiat was a rare black in a monochrome art world. Fred Hoffman celebrated Basquiat’s birthday at a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills: “I remember him looking around, then saying to us, You know what? Everybody in this restaurant is trying to figure out just why I should be here.”
His mood swings were intense, from sweetness and dry intelligence to an untrusting sullenness, abrasive, prickly, sometimes bordering on something worse. Hoffman, who was probably as close as anybody to Basquiat then, speaks of periods of “dissociation” in which the artist would have problems distinguishing reality from phantasms.
“One thing that affected Jean-Michel greatly was the Michael Stewart story,” says Haring. “Suzanne was now going out with Michael Stewart, who was a skinny black kid. He was an artist. He looked much like Jean-Michel.” Stewart was beaten up by cops in a subway station. They claimed he had been doing graffiti. He died of his injuries. That night Basquiat painted red and black skulls. He told Haring about it at the Roxy club. “He was completely freaked out,” says Haring. “It was like it could have been him. It showed him how vulnerable he was.” (The interminable inquiry into the death of Stewart ended with nobody being convicted.)
Basquiat’s metropolitan celebrity was as shiny as ever, but a new chill was developing within the inner councils of the art world. Neo-Expressionism, suddenly rather vieux chapeau, was being replaced on the assembly line by Neo-Geo and Commodity art. “It doesn’t seem very new,” Basquiat groused to me. “But people have a very short attention span. They’re looking for another artist every six months. There’s only twenty good artists in a century.”
He was also increasingly aware that he was failing to consolidate on his first success. It was true that he had influential supporters—at his death, Basquiats were owned by Eli Broad, Paul Simon, and Ethel Scull, among many others— but when Basquiat deciphered the clues, the art establishment was not anointing him. Castelli gave Haring a show—not Basquiat. He was not represented in the Saatchi Collection. “Charles Saatchi has never liked my work at all,” he told me. Most embittering of all, although pieces were owned by both MOMA and the Whitney, he had never been accorded a museum show. Some of this was paranoia induced by cocaine, but he also seemed to embrace the martyr role. “He wore a kick-me sign,” says a friend. Basquiat’s sourness extended to his fellow artists—only Schnabel and Clemente had been welcoming, he felt—and he would parse reviews for condescension, the demeaning phrase. “They still call me a graffiti artist,” he complained. “They don’t call Keith or Kenny graffiti artists anymore.” Fred Brathwaite agrees: “Graffiti had become another word for nigger.” What Basquiat felt he was encountering wasn’t racism of the cruder sort, but the subtler prejudice that women artists encounter: He wouldn’t build a career, just drop out of history, or, worse, out of the marketplace. Burn out.
There was a convenient focus for Basquiat’s resentments: his dealer. Later he complained that “Mary did nothing for my career. She never got me a museum show.” In fact, Boone worked hard to build up his market, but heroin is a formidable opponent.
Basquiat, capable of terrific work, was also alarmingly erratic and undiscriminating. She began to doubt his capacity for “articulating his vocabulary,” meaning develop, grow. Tensions worsened. He felt she was behaving like another heavy parent. One friend remembers Basquiat “literally jumping up and down, shouting, I’m the star—not Mary Boone.”
Publicly, he was having a high old time. Jonathan Scull, Ethel’s son, who owned a limousine service and sometimes drove Basquiat himself, remembers taking the artist to an opening—he was wearing pajamas and that bird’s nest on his head. After the opening of Bruce Weber’s Rio exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery he dropped his trousers, to the astonishment of some young women. At a Puck Building opening he tossed a stink bomb. The high jinks, though, were increasingly fueled by heroin. He had now grown to hate junkies and resent his addiction, but he was himself drifting out onto the dark ocean of opiates when he found a new collaborator, an unlikely savior, and a complaisant father.
Warhol did not often permit himself to appear upset. The 1982 book Edie, by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, which depicted him as a greedy voyeur in an addict’s destruction, was one such recorded case. “I never saw him so upset about any negative press,” recalls Warhol biographer Bob Colacello. In Basquiat, Warhol probably saw something like a redemption. “It was clear that Andy was trying to wean Jean-Michel off drugs,” Fred Hoffman says. “They got into this health program together, and they were exercising a lot.” (The poster for their 1986 double show would depict the unlikely partners mock-boxing in Everlast gloves.)
Basquiat and Warhol exchanged portraits in 1982. Later they began to work in the Factory, making art. Their first collaborations, prompted by Bischofberger, also involved Clemente; then the two of them carried on without him. “Jean-Michel called me and said, Papa, I’ve got Andy with a brush in his hand for the first time in twenty-three years,” Gérard Basquiat tells me. Warhol, certainly, benefited hugely. “Andy felt he was getting stale. For him, it was tremendous,” says Ethel Scull. “For Jean-Michel it was a disaster. He got whooshed into the vacuum of Andy’s world.”
Jean-Michel sometimes bubbled with resentment: “It’s as if I am just a protégé. As though I wasn’t famous before Andy found me.” Scull took Basquiat to a black-tie ballet affair at which Warhol was present, and Basquiat acted up, like a little boy: “I want to sit at Andy’s table, he demanded. Then I found him smoking marijuana in the bar.” A longtime supporter, she began to wonder if the painter was a goner.
On the surface, though, things were going well. Bruno Bischofberger says that he had paid him $300,000 for some of the Warhol collaborations and, like many Basquiat advisers, had tried to persuade him to buy real estate. Warhol moaned to Thomas Ammann, the powerful Swiss dealer, that Basquiat frittered away money: for instance, by renting an apartment in a fancy hotel that he never used. “Andy said, Buy something from Thomas. He bought a little 1922 Picasso, something a bit Constructivist.” Worried about his junkie friends, he never took possession but would sometimes show people an Ektachrome color slide of it.
By mutual consent, sixteen of the large Warhol collaborative pieces were exhibited at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery. The show got lukewarm reviews, and only one was sold. “It wasn’t seen as part of the history of art,” a collector told me, sniffily, “but of the history of public relations.” Again a parental relationship had failed to reach his expectations. He distanced himself from Warhol. That summer, Basquiat left Mary Boone’s roster of artists. It was a severe blow to him. “He had executed a number of works that had a great energy and necessity to them,” she says. “Then he began imitating those works. He was much too involved with the glamour, the names. He was more involved with who was coming to his opening party than the paintings that were going to be in the exhibition.”
Basquiat denounced Boone. His reputation among New York dealers was dismal. Bischofberger, his only remaining dealer, granted his “dearest wish” by organizing a show in “black Africa.” In mid-1986 he took Basquiat and his then regular girlfriend, Jennifer Goode, now a partner in M.K. with her brother Eric, to Abidjan. “It was Jean-Michel’s first visit to Africa,” Goode says. “We had a wonderful time. Artists came and talked to him. I remember he was disappointed that they were doing copies of Western art. He thought it would be more like his work, but the only things that were anything like his were on the outside of houses. Or just signs.” Ironically, Basquiat, who had come to primitive art via Picasso, felt that contemporary African artists needed liberation from the School of Paris.
He felt slighted by Warhol’s Christmas present that year—one of his silver wigs, flattened and framed, the precursor of a line he was planning to sell. Basquiat was so offended he withheld the Christmas card he had made for Andy, a drawing executed in the Louvre of the Victory of Samothrace. Although Basquiat had only turned up for five or six of his invitations to meet since the Shafrazi show, Warhol remained the single figure he both trusted and respected. “He was number one,” says John Good, “and that’s what Jean-Michel wanted to be.”
Warhol died on February 22, 1987. Again, swamped by grief and guilt, Basquiat reeled.
Basquiat had often been Bruno Bischofberger’s guest in Europe. The dealer now introduced him to a new Manhattan gallery, Maeght Lelong, which together with Bischofberger began paying him a monthly stipend. But he had also grown close to another dealer, Vrej Baghoomian, Tony Shafrazi’s cousin and former business manager, and began selling him paintings.
Basquiat signed a contract with Bischofberger nonetheless, exchanging his share of another twenty of the Warhol collaborations for $500,000. The contract was handwritten on a single sheet of paper, and Basquiat later claimed that he had misunderstood it. He’d thought that he was to get all the money at once. “But he’s trying to pay me $10,000 a month for years, and years, and years,” Basquiat told me, bitterly. “I realized too late that I didn’t have to sell them to him at all. He must think I’m a jerk.”
“The big ones were on sale for $200,000 to $400,000 even before Jean-Michel died,” a rival of the Swiss dealer says. “Two of the works pay for the whole thing. There’s a lot of elements of the Mark Rothko thing in this. A desperate artist, who has his own psychological problems, believes that he is being taken, but somehow still ends up in the grip of this dealer.” Bischofberger says that he and Maeght Lelong were already owed more than $275,000 by Basquiat in advances, and that the established practice of paying monthly would be “better for Jean-Michel” than a lump sum. “But sometimes he was paranoid,” says Bischofberger, whom Basquiat once drew as a wolf. “His dealers were his friends but also his enemies.” In the fall of 1987 Baghoomian opened a gallery “not for him, but because of him.”
The escalating desire for money was the root. When Basquiat had money, he got rid of it, as if he was trying to purge himself. He bought a musician friend a fishing boat. He lent a painter friend cash, and refused repayment. By 1987, he was always running out of it himself. “He even borrowed money from me, and I don’t have any,” says Arto Lindsay. It isn’t hard to see why. Sales were slow. And after Warhol’s death, he started buying dangerously adulterated heroin from street dealers. One painter who visited him for an afternoon to discuss donations to an AIDS benefit remembers Basquiat darting out four or five times to buy drugs, then disappearing upstairs to shoot up before resuming the conversation. The Maeght Lelong gallery planned a big “comeback exhibition” for the fall of 1987, but, says director Daryl Harnisch, “I saw there wasn’t going to be anything to show. He was too drugged.” He was meant to have done six or eight drawings for a show at Tony Shafrazi but only managed three.
The drawings and paintings that he had showered on friends were turning up for resale. Paintings that he had sold for hundreds were selling for tens of thousands. As his anxiety grew, so did his use of drugs. It was now all too much for Jennifer Goode. “I went to a program,” she says, “so did Jean-Michel. But he couldn’t go through with it.” He told friends that they were too intrusive, they didn’t understand that he was an artist. “He had problems with authority,” Goode says. “All those white doctors and psychiatrists, telling him what to do. He was going to do it by himself—prove he was stronger.” Similarly, he had rejected his father’s numerous offers to organize his financial affairs.
There was the psychological problem, too, of not wholly knowing the relation of the drug to his torment, and his torment to the quality of his art. Paige Powell, another longtime girlfriend, and Warhol’s frequent companion, heard from him after his Bruno Bischofberger opening in Zurich: “Somebody told him his work had softened. Next thing, he was doing heroin in Amsterdam.”
Increasingly Basquiat withdrew from the milieus he had frequented. “I can’t relate so much to the kids that go out these days,” he said. “All these young, perfect kids. It’s not the same sort of artistic climate as it was back then.”
I used the word “cave.”
“Medicine men live in caves,” he said.
He wasn’t acting like a medicine man. In Basquiat’s life, art dealers and drug dealers were now inextricably mingled—he was being given drugs, or money for drugs, in exchange for freshly painted art. One friend could see that the work was deteriorating. “He would just do something quickly, and sign it—just to get them out of there.” Then he would feel terrible. “He would talk and talk about it.”
On his rare forays out, his behavior could be fantastical. “Last year, Jean-Michel called to invite me to Bianca Jagger’s birthday party,” says Maggie Bult, one of the very few collectors he could abide. “We walked, and on the way he bought every imaginable thing in the world. He bought an enormous bubble-blowing thing from a man on the corner. He bought himself three pairs of shoes. He bought me some lilacs to give Bianca. Everyone was looking at him. Everybody knew just who he was.”
The party was at Nell’s. “As soon as we walked in, he became very paranoid,” Bult says, “because his career was a bit on the wane, and he felt he should be paid a bit more homage. He wanted more attention.” Within five minutes, Basquiat was whisking her off for dinner at Barbetta’s. “He was greeted very ceremoniously,” Bult says. “So we sat there, and he ordered only the best of the best. Champagne, and baby lamb, and on, and on. Poor thing! The bill was over $300. He loved to spend, but he shouldn’t have been spending that sort of money.” It was almost, she feels, as if he felt guilty. On their way out, Basquiat spoke sharply to the proprietor, Bult says. “He didn’t feel he had been treated with enough respect.”
The horror was looking for a taxi. Bult was in a leather skirt, and Basquiat was in a floppy black suit from Yohji Yamamoto, an open white shirt, a straight-brimmed black hat. Not one taxi driver stopped. “Several went by, two of the drivers were black, but nobody would take him. Jean-Michel turned to me and said, You know why nobody is taking us? It’s because I’m black. Can you get a taxi?” Bult swiftly got a taxi. Back at Great Jones Street, Basquiat disappeared upstairs. “In half an hour, I called up and said, Jean-Michel, what’s going on? Come up, he called.” Upstairs she found the artist collapsed, and sweating heavily. “He was in a bad state,” she says. “He began talking about Andy. He was crying. He was weeping.”
Warhol’s death precipitated a decision. When Ed Hayes, the Warhol-estate attorney, went to Great Jones Street, he found Basquiat convinced that they were trying to evict him. Actually, Hayes says, although Basquiat was chronically late with the rent, he had been instructed to offer to sell him the place at an insider price. Basquiat, he says, didn’t believe him. (Earlier, the painter had told friends that he might raise the $350,000 purchase price by selling his Picasso. He did sell it, but the money did not go into bricks and mortar. He made a 50 percent profit in eighteen months, and asked Ammann for slices of it from time to time.)
Basquiat decided his only hope was to leave New York. He had told me he was “controlling” heroin. Now he told friends he was going to give it up—using his mind, his will.
Basquiat went to Europe in January 1988. At his Paris gallery, Yvon Lambert, he met an Ivory Coast painter called Outtara. Outtara, a longtime Paris resident, thought Basquiat “un vrai bon vivant” and invited him to his homeland. Impulsively, Basquiat agreed. In Africa, surely, he could clean body and spirit alike.
He returned to Manhattan. Soon he, Kelly Inman, and Vrej Baghoomian were driving around the Catskills, looking at houses. “We saw four or five,” Inman says. “Jean-Michel put in an offer on one. He was too late. It was sold.”
Basquiat was despondently aware of the parlous state of his reputation. “The cheerleaders . . . are already reassessing Basquiat as a never-was,” a columnist wrote in the spring edition of Art Line,and his struggle with addiction continued. Frequently Inman, who had moved into the Great Jones Street basement (they were not lovers—drugs made a relationship impossible), would threaten to move. “Vrej would tell me, You can’t go,” she says.
“One day he would tell me he was giving it up,” says Vincent Gallo, “the next he’d be boasting he was doing a hundred bags a day—more than Keith Richards.”
“I truly believed he was stopping,” says Ethel Scull. She offered to take him to the Warhol sale in April, where there was a Twombly he wanted as a memento. “I said, Jean-Michel, can you afford it?” remembers Scull. He had been so desperate to get it that she was touched. “I happened to have dinner that night with Asher Edelman,” she says. They discussed it, and the other probable bidders. Maybe they could help him out by not bidding it up. “I called Jean-Michel,” she says. “I told him, You’re sitting with me. We’re going to try to let you get it.” She warned, “If you stand me up, I’ll kill you.”
Inevitably, he never showed.
“I later heard that he had gone to a jazz festival in New Orleans.” Scull abandoned all thought of saving Jean-Michel. “I never saw him again.”
Basquiat had first flown to Hawaii during an early trip to California, and had been there for visits ever since. He returned there this summer. “He called me,” says Inman. “He sounded terrific. He said he was fishing with the guys, he was giving up painting, he was going to be a writer.”
Inman joined him there at the end of June. It was less than she had been led to expect. “He started drinking in the morning. He was drinking all day,” she says. “He had stopped one thing, but hidden it with another. There were art supplies out there, but he wasn’t working. He was playing music twenty-four hours a day. He had all his jazz tapes. Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday.” As Kelly speaks, her ambivalence is painful. “He lived the right way—he lived every day. Most people have a lot of fear. Not Jean. He said he was either going to die young or he would be very old—and broke, the way he started.”
They left Hawaii at the end of June, stopping off for a day in Los Angeles. That, at least, was the plan. “He called, and said he didn’t have any money for a hotel,” says Matt Dike. “Could he stay for one night?”
From Dike’s, Basquiat called another old friend, filmmaker Tamra Davis. “We went to this dinner at Mr Chow’s,” she says, “and all these strange, strange people were there, like he’d met at the airport, a contractor from Orange County, like it was weird, man. Just two years before we’d been at the same table in the same restaurant with the cream of the arts community. But Jean-Michel was in such a good mood, smiling, and jumping up and down, and really happy, because he’d cleaned up in Hawaii, you know, not like he used to, staring at you, kind of testing you before he would say anything, if he hadn’t seen you for a while. It was like a guy had suddenly come back to life, but all of a sudden I got really afraid . . . ”
Dike was also unsettled by this freaky good humor. Basquiat announced that he was having such a terrific time— “the best time of my whole life,” he told Tamra Davis—that he had decided to stay in Los Angeles at least a week. “He wasn’t doing any art,” Dike says. “He was giving up. Now he was saying he was going to start a tequila business in Hawaii. He was drinking any kind of hard booze. He could drink a quart of tequila. It was to kill the cold turkey, I guess.”
Tamra Davis was given the task of trying to check Basquiat into a hotel. Not, this time, L’Ermitage. “I said, Let’s go to the Chateau [Marmont]. He said, No, no, no. He wanted a really cheap, sleazy hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. I was afraid of that. The drugs. We drove around for eight hours, and he kept saying he didn’t want to drive by any neighborhoods that had drugs. So I took him to this strange hotel called the Hotel Hollywood. With all that he had done to himself, poking and scratching his body, he looked like this crazy Rastafarian, he had humbled himself to such an extent. I said, You stay in the car. You can’t even be seen with me when I try to check you into this hotel. He looked like a bum or something.”
So she managed to sneak one of the outstanding painters of his generation past the desk, and upstairs. There she unpacked the bag, and it was filled with all his usual stuff, the copy of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans he often traveled with, and two sketch pads, both abnormally empty. “I said, Why don’t you draw? He said, No, I’m going to become a writer. I want to become a writer. But I can’t write. . . . ”
She left, filled with forebodings. Over the next few days, she saw him continuously. There happened to be a painting by Basquiat at Dike’s, a self-portrait executed a couple of years previously on an old door. It showed the artist, missing a front tooth, with his body as a skeleton. He was now actually missing a front tooth—he said it had just dropped out in Hawaii. “He looked at the bones,” Dike says. “He said, I hope that doesn’t come true, too.”
One night he and Davis drove up to the Country Store on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Basquiat was uproariously drunk, and in an excellent mood. “He’s sitting there with the door wide open, drinking tequila mixed with Corona, and yelling to everybody that would pull up—in a friendly way, but these people were looking at him as if he was totally crazy. Then he would get very sentimental, and want to talk about himself, really heavy things about his childhood, how he’s going to stop painting, what’s going to happen to him. K/Earth 101 was playing. There was this Firecracker 300 countdown. I was telling him to stay up and listen to the winner so he could tell me the number-one song. Because I knew it would be in the middle of the night. And I was afraid he would die before that, even.”
One of the songs they listened to was Elton John’s lament for Marilyn Monroe, “Candle in the Wind.” “He said, That’s me,” Tamra Davis says. “I’m not a real person. I’m a legend.”
His apprehensions, once he was back in New York, seemed to fade. “I saw him on the street,” Haring says. “It was the first time I had seen him in a whole while. He was really up. He told me he had kicked. Which is the first time he had even acknowledged a habit at all. He seemed honestly excited.”
Haring, who had an assignment to photograph street fashion, was carrying a camera, and Basquiat insisted on posing. Haring shot him, laid out on a subway grating on Lower Broadway. “It’s almost too weird,” Haring says. “In a lot of them he’s got his eyes closed.”
He spoke to Vincent Gallo about getting back into music. “It was as if art wasn’t part of him anymore,” Gallo says. Arto Lindsay recalls that Basquiat played some tapes to him and John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards: “murky-sounding tapes that didn’t go anywhere, outer-space-type things.”
The Palladium was redecorating the Mike Todd room and Basquiat told me he had offered to sell them his two paintings there for $50,000 each. Steve Rubell had declined. They were delivered back to the artist. “They’re O.K.,” he said, “except for a few holes and ballpoint-pen marks.” He returned to Hawaii for another couple of weeks, and again stopped in Los Angeles on his way back. “He must have called a million times,” Tamra Davis says. “I feel so guilty I never answered. How could I invite that drama back into my life?”
Gérard Basquiat says that his son had a flight booked to Abidjan on Sunday, August 7, but he didn’t arrive in New York until Monday. He rescheduled for Thursday, August 18. Outtara was there, waiting. “We were going to go to my village,” Outtara says. The plan was that he’d stay there for three months, painting with “natural materials,” curing himself. “Everything was ready for Jean-Michel. Everything was done,” Outtara says.
Kelly Inman returned from a trip home to the Midwest on Wednesday, and was appalled by Basquiat’s beer bloat. His sister Lisane called him on the morning of Thursday, August 11. He was curt. “I was angry when I hung up,” she says. “I discussed it with my mother. I said, How can he still keep all that pain in him?”
That was at about half past ten in the morning. There are rumors that Basquiat bought drugs that day. His father confirms that substantial quantities were found in the bedroom.
Kristen Vigard was passing Basquiat’s front door at about half past six. She hadn’t seen him for some time, but impulsively she knocked. “He took two of my friends to Hawaii. A boyfriend of mine, and a girl. They had drug problems. He cleaned them up. I thought he was a saint.”
Basquiat was overjoyed to see her, but she was shocked to find him high, and rambling. “I didn’t know what to say,” she says. “I read him a poem against drugs I had written.” Kelly Inman arrived, and they sat around drinking Coco Rico. Then Vigard went out to the store to get Basquiat some supplies. Jay Shriver, Warhol’s former painting assistant, came over at 7:30. “He told me that he was giving up drugs,” Shriver says. “He said he was just bingeing a little.”
Shriver departed. “I don’t know how Jean-Michel got out of there,” he says. “He could hardly walk.” Vigard and Inman, now both thoroughly alarmed, determined to get Basquiat on his feet. “Come to the Bryan Ferry party,” Vigard implored. They coaxed Basquiat to M.K. There they lost him.
It might be said that Basquiat died of many things. His body was terribly weakened—that missing spleen. Also that missing tooth—which fueled the rumors Peter Schjeldahl cited in his 7 Days obituary that the artist had AIDS. Junkies, however, tell me that their teeth often go (the sugar diet, the acid in the vomit). And one close friend says he saw a bag with a shiny, deadly load of needles in Basquiat’s bedroom—so forget shared syringes: “He probably changed the works every time he shot up.”
The morning after the day on which Basquiat died, Inman, who was still in a state of stunned calm, was telephoned by one of Basquiat’s “old friends.” He perfunctorily expressed his regrets. “Then he said he’d left something in the studio, a painting, a drawing, and could he come around and collect it.” Inman said no. “I would have flipped if I had seen him,” she says. “Now there’s a guard outside. The place is locked up tighter than a drum.”
Thus, the rapacity that plagued the artist in life pursues him still. “Vultures,” says Bischofberger. Even close friends of Basquiat’s that I spoke to would often get around to asking how his death would affect the value of the works. Thaddaeus Ropac, a Salzburg dealer who had put on Basquiat’s final show, ending on August 10, two days before the artist’s death, immediately bought back an important painting at double the price he’d sold it for. “I hadn’t even been paid yet,” he says. Basquiat talked of having a great deal of his work salted away in storage around New York. Michael Stout (also attorney for Dali and Mapplethorpe) speaks of four possible stores, one with “one hundred works” and another with twenty-five, also “one hundred on canvas at Great Jones Street, and hundreds of drawings,” plus “works out on consignment that we would have claims for.” It would be hard to estimate the total value of all this, probably in the tens of millions, but Vrej Baghoomian says he’s only aware of a dozen salable canvases in the studio. Paige Powell, among others, disagrees: “Andy told him to keep his best paintings. He made it cool for him to be a businessman and an artist.” Anyway, Christie’s is cataloguing, and in mid-November the Mayor Gallery in London will be showing, seventeen of the Warhol-Basquiat collaborations, priced at $300,000 a piece.
At the time of writing, no will has surfaced, so Gérard Basquiat is administering the estate. There is, however, the persistent rumor of a child. Basquiat told friends of a son in New Orleans called Noah, who would now be five. Though one source doubts that Jean-Michel was the father.
That said, Basquiat’s bitterly ironic cliché of a death—the young black on dope belongs with the drunken Indian, the thrifty Scot—will surely focus attention where it actually belongs, on his work, some of the best of which was never hung in his relatively few shows. “They were taken straight out of his studio,” says Jeffrey Deitch. “They were never catalogued. Some of the most incredible work went straight to Europe. The art world never got a chance to see them.” Much of this can now be expected to change. “I suppose he’ll get a Whitney show at last,” says Fred Brathwaite. “And all that shit he never got when he was alive. Motherfuckers!”
Three years before, on a Hawaiian holiday, Gérard Basquiat had asked his son why he was so “tense.” “You’ve got everything,” he had told him. “Only one thing worries me,” his son had said. “Longevity.” He had meant as an artist, not as a man. Some, including Larry Gagosian, feel that Basquiat was facing “a block.” Others feel his work was constantly getting stronger. It is now unknowable, as it cannot be known how seriously to take his plan of abandoning art, Rimbaud-like. “The body of work is phenomenal,” says Tony Shafrazi. “The guy produced maybe five to six hundred major canvases in about eight years. He was the epitome of the romantic artist—literally living the dark side of Van Gogh.”
Which is not to say that Basquiat’s death should be read as a pat conclusion. “Everybody was sitting around, waiting for him to do what he did,” says Glenn O’Brien, “so he could be the Jimi Hendrix of art. He burned out his body, I guess. But I don’t think he intended to die—I think he could have recovered.” In September, O’Brien and I passed Basquiat’s scarred metal front door. Somebody had made a shrine of wickerwork and hung it on the adjoining wall. A photograph of Basquiat, from the poster for his last show, was framed with flowers, candles, handwritten love letters, and a couple of brushes, one dipped in gold. “Voodoo, voodoo,” a passerby told us, cheerily. Jean-Michel Basquiat would have liked that.