16. February 2018

SCHIRN MAG on the road in New York: The second part of the journey into Basquiat’s past takes us from an original SAMO© tag to his longtime studio and finally ends at Strand Book Store.

By Natalie Wichmann

After arguing with his friend Al Diaz, Basquiat declared the death of SAMO© and wrote “SAMO© IS DEAD” on almost every wall of Lower Manhattan. Not long afterwards, in 1980, he sold his first painting to Debbie Harry, lead singer of the band Blondie, for $200 – and his career as an artist took off at an incredible pace. However, commercial success and financial security – he flew Concord, was invited to LA and Europe – did not secure him the privileges his fellow artists enjoyed. Nonetheless, there was no stopping Basquiat’s meteoric rise: first articles about him appeared in Artforum and Art in America. And when he was finally featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine on February 10, 1985, everyone in New York knew who Jean-Michel Basquiat was.

Just one block away from the SoHo Contemporary Art Gallery on Bowery you can see the large construction site on the corner of Lafayette and Bond Street. The air is filled with the roaring sound of jackhammers and an ongoing dull humming. When I finally get to the green wooden paneling next to the building site I approach the nearest construction worker and ask him about the Basquiat tag, which was discovered here a few days ago underneath several layers of old paint. The giant of a man – he must be just shy of two meters tall – with a beard and clad in an orange high-visibility vest has no idea what I am talking about, but seems interested (after I tell him about Basquiat) and willing to help me.

SAMO© - An original!

Together we peek through the typical diamond-shaped building site windows – every construction site in the United States is required by law to allow the public to see into it. After walking up and down for ten minutes we find a section that is covered with white plastic sheeting; perhaps it is underneath? Unfortunately, this section is not accessible to the public. However, Basquiat’s old studio, my next stop, is just a block away, so it is highly likely that the supposed tag is an original. Days later, when I am back in Boston, I do some research on the uncovered Basquiat, I see images and even a video that confirm the find.

Construction site on Lafayette with Bond Street, Photo: Natalie Wichmann

Basquiat moved into the apartment at 57 Great Jones Street in August 1983. It was the first home of his own, and his last – he lived here until his death in 1988. He rented it from Andy Warhol, whom he had met just a few months earlier through Bruno Bischofberger, his art dealer in Zurich. At their first meeting Warhol was 54 years old and an established artist, Basquiat was 21 and his career had just begun. Warhol describes their first meeting at a lunch in one of his diaries with irritation.

An intensive collaboration

Their relationship really took off when in 1984 Bischofberger suggested a collaboration between Basquiat, Warhol and Italian artist Francesco Clemente. Each would begin a painting and then send it on to the other two to continue and complete until all three of them had worked on each picture. However, Clemente was quickly excluded from the group and instead Basquiat and Warhol began an intensive collaboration. Sixteen of these collaborative works were exhibited in the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York in 1985, the famous poster featuring both artists wearing boxing gloves originated here as an advertisement for the show. However, the critics tore the exhibition apart, and what had initially been such a symbiotic friendship – Warhol gave Basquiat a sense of affirmation for his work, and through Basquiat Warhol had access to the young hip art scene – suffered considerably. Though they remained friends up until Warhol’s death (which affected Basquiat deeply), they no longer worked together.

(We) had lunch (...) and then I took a Polaroid and he went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together. And I mean, just getting to Christie Street must have taken an hour...

Andy Warhol
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dos Cabezas, 1982, Acrylic and oil stick on canvas with wooden supports, Private collection, © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018 & The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Basquiat's Studio 

The entrance to Basquiat’s loft, a former stable at 57 Great Jones Street not far from the Bowery, is easy to find. The red steel door resembles a shrine: It is covered with stickers, graffiti and stenciling, including the iconic three-pronged crown. Famous street artists from the New York scene such as Adam Cost have already immortalized themselves here. In 2016 the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation had a bronze plaque put up in memory of Basquiat’s life and work. Years ago the alternative scene was active here; today the area is characterized by consumerism and the hipster lifestyle. 

Below the former studio a butcher sells premium Japanese beef in a classy-looking store styled in all black, and with a life-sized cow in the display window. Despite this contrast, when I look up at the full-length semi-circular window I can imagine how Basquiat must have stood there early in the morning after one of his nighttime painting sessions in his paint-smeared Armani suit, looking down at the street.

Basquiat's Studio, 57 Great Jones Street, Photo: Natalie Wichmann
Basquiat's Studio, 57 Great Jones Street, Photo: Natalie Wichmann
The trip is drawing to an end

Feeling slightly melancholy, I make my way to the last stop of my journey: Washington Square Park. Some of the streets en route still have old cobblestone surfaces. The park is just a few minutes away from the studio and Basquiat already loved hanging out here with his friends in his youth. At age 15 he ran away from home and lived there for almost a week. Unlike Central Park, Washington Square Park is not so popular with tourists, it’s mostly residents from Greenwich Village or students from New York University (NYU) who come here to read and relax. Before it was made into a park, the plot had various uses ranging from the Washington Military Parade Ground to a mass grave to being the epicenter for eccentrics and Hippies in the 1960s: The park plays a key role in the novels of beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, one of Basquiat’s literary and artistic role models.

Washington Square Park, Photo: Natalie Wichmann

My feet are tired and I am glad to slip off my shoes and sit on one of the many benches in the midst of the hustle and bustle. No matter what time of day you come, the park is always full of street artists, musicians and children, who in the summer take possession of the central fountain. Youngsters meet to chill on the grass. The one or other joint is smoked. Here someone is selling personalized poems for a dollar, over there Ricky Syers, the gifted entertainer and puppeteer, is performing with Mr. Styx, one of his handmade characters. Here everyone can just do his or her own thing, which was arguably why Basquiat found it such an appealing place. From here he could simply go home or walk on to one of his favorite clubs, both the Mudd Club and CBGBs (and many more besides) are just a ten-minute walk away.

Now my time with Basquiat is almost over. I put my shoes back on and head home. Crossing Broadway towards Union Square takes me past the Strand Book Store, and no stay in New York would be complete without a peek inside this literary mecca. While strolling along past the overladen dark-wooden book shelves I also come across the recommendations of the store employees.

Washington Square Park, Brunnen, Photo: Natalie Wichmann
Former entrance of the Mudd Club, Photo: Natalie Wichmann

I am amazed to see that Jennifer Clement’s book “Widow Basquiat. A Love Story" published in 2014 is one of them: It is a collage of quotes from Suzanne Mallouk, Basquiat’s on-off girlfriend, and biographical excerpts from their life together, written by Jennifer Clement. I take this as a sign, and decide to buy and read it on my trip back to Boston. Arriving at Penn Station I have the sensation of having “come full circle,” as the Americans would say. Two intensive days with Basquiat without having seen an original Basquiat all weekend long.

Bye, bye New York

The train is late and when I am finally sitting down I first try to bring all my impressions to paper. After just a few moments I give up, instead I pick up Clement’s book. And as the train leaves New York City in 2017, the brilliant yet brutal words of Jennifer Clement and Suzanne Mallouk take me back to the New York of the 1980s and the life and death of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Part 2 of the trip


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