A journey to the past and back to the future: The SCHIRNMAG explores Basquiat’s home turf in New York, from the Green-Wood Cemetery to SoHo, and on to Basquiat’s first apartment and the last SAMO© tag (Part I).
As I ride the train along the picturesque coast of Rhode Island and Connecticut, the skyline of Manhattan appears on the horizon in the twilight. The Empire State, the Chrysler and the grey-brown skyscrapers of the Upper East Side. “Since I was seventeen I thought I might be a star,” Jean-Michel Basquiat once said. And he became one, not just in any old town, but in New York City, in the turbulent art scene of the 1980s.
Since I was seventeen I thought I might be a star.
Having arrived at Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan, the second I leave the train I revert to being a local (I’m currently living in Boston). After four years in the city, I know the drill: Anyone standing still will simply be knocked over without mercy, so I set off towards Brooklyn, where I’m staying for the next few days before I start my journey into the past on the trail of Jean-Michel Basquiat. From the A to the L train, rarely does the journey work out as well as it has done today, perhaps a good omen for the trip.
Towards Green-Wood Cemetery
It’s cold and the scent of autumn is in the air as I make my way towards Green-Wood Cemetery this early morning. The subway is noticeably emptier than at rush hour. The cemetery where Jean-Michel Basquiat was laid to rest, and which is my first port of call on the trail of the artist in this enormous city, lies some way out, in the deepest heart of Brooklyn.
After an hour-long journey, I finally reach the stop at 4tth Ave/25th Street and walk eastward along 25th. I slide my sunglasses onto my nose – the day seems to be getting warm. I have previously read about the imposing gate that adorns the entrance to the park, but am nevertheless bowled over by the beauty of the architecture. The cemetery measures almost two square kilometers and resembles more of a landscaped park than a burial site, and when it was founded in 1838, it quickly became one of the major tourist attractions in North America.
An inspiration for the Central Park
Its popularity even inspired the construction of a park on Manhattan itself, now known as Central Park. The impressive gate built in neo-Gothic style at the entrance to 5th Ave was added to the park later, in 1865, by the architect Richard Upjohn, who popularized the neo-Gothic style in America. Since 2006, the cemetery has been listed as an historic landmark of New York City. The 560,000 permanent residents of the cemetery include composers, designers, war heroes, baseball legends, politicians, artists and many more.
The three-forked crown
The gate offers a view of green hills and trees that are well over a hundred years old. Armed with a map from the information office, I enter the park via an entrance at the side of the gate. Apart from a few gardeners and security staff I am alone in the park – a feeling one very rarely gets in New York. I cast a glance at the map: Basquiat’s grave is marked, but is at the other end of the park. I set off to find it. The street names, displayed on ornate black metal signs with white capital letters, sound like woods and meadows and are somehow reminiscent of fairytales and Winnie the Pooh. The park is enormous, but I eventually reach Sassafras Avenue and on the left-hand side is lot 44603. From the pathway I see a long row of simple graves; in the shade the grass is still moist from the morning dew and my feet are getting wet.
With a little searching, I eventually find what I’m looking for: the grave of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Alongside his name and his dates of birth and death, only one other word is chiseled into the stone: artist. Around the modest granite gravestone and on the stone itself, admirers have placed flowers, small stones, hair clips and other items. The grave is barely any different from the others, but just a few meters away I discover an old tree stump into which the symbol Basquiat so frequently used, the three-pronged crown, has been etched over and over, along with his initials. It seems somehow fitting in a place like Green-Wood to leave behind a kind of “tree graffiti” for a former graffiti artist like Basquiat.
A brutalist concrete block
From Brooklyn, not only Basquiat’s final resting place but also his home for the first 17 years of his life together with his father, mother and two sisters, I head back to Manhattan. More precisely, to Midtown, to Saint Peter’s Church, at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 54th Street. It was here that friends and relatives held the memorial service for Basquiat in 1988, after he had passed away on August 12 in his loft on Great Jones Street at the age of just 27.
As I arrive at 54th, I’m unsure whether I’m in the right place: A brutalist block of concrete nestled against the glass high-rise behind it – can this be a church? But yes, it is. The entrance takes you directly to the gallery of this surprisingly lofty, airy hall. As I enter the building, I hear jazz music. I slightly lean over the railing and see a trio of double bass, saxophone and drums. On the walls hang colorful, abstract paintings, and next to the glass door of the entrance sits a man with a gray moustache and metal-rimmed glasses, who smiles amiably. When I ask whether it might be possible to get an insight into the history of the church and whether he can confirm that it was here where Jean-Michel Basquiat’s memorial service was held in the 1980s, he answers: “Absolutely! Lots of musicians and artists were and are buried here.”
Given the church’s unique history and its community, it’s hardly surprising that family and friends chose Saint Peter’s as a fitting place to say goodbye to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Alongside artists and writers like Keith Haring and Glenn O’Brien, musicians like Fred “Fab Five Freddy” Brathwaite and Gray, the band Basquiat co-founded, were all involved in planning the memorial service.
In 1968, at the age of eight, Jean-Michel Basquiat was run over by a car while playing in the street. While he was recovering at the hospital, his mother brought him “Gray’s Anatomy” to read, the English-language reference book on human anatomy, not realizing how much this book would influence him. It inspired him to call the band he founded with Michael Holman in 1979, Gray. Words and schematics of body parts from the reference book were incorporated into his images time and again.
The band Gray made their first official appearance at the legendary Mudd Club in TriBeCa, and subsequently played in all of New York’s cult clubs of the 1980s. They were in good company, since the city’s punk rock scene was developing in these clubs around the same time. Bands like Talking Heads and Blondie were making a name for themselves. When Basquiat moved to Manhattan, these clubs became his second home, and for two years he lived a free, wild life. That was before his artistic breakthrough.
Heading further to SoHo
From Midtown I make my way to the Lower East Side (LES) and on to SoHo, Basquiat’s hood. After leaving school at 17 (he poured a bowl of shaving foam over the principal’s head at his friend Al Diaz’s graduation ceremony), Basquiat definitively moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Here he aimed to make a name for himself in the gallery world of SoHo and the LES. Added to which, he and Diaz had founded the graffiti duo SAMO©, short for “Same old Shit”, back during their school days. The SAMO© tags were found primarily on building walls in downtown Manhattan, in SoHo, at the Bowery, and in the East Village. Many of the tags were critical commentaries on the art world. Basquiat had something of a love-hate relationship with this commercialized scene. On the one hand, he despised its elitism, yet on the other he wanted nothing more than to become a big star as an artist in this very world, and this was to be a life-long source of tension for him.
I take the subway to downtown and get out at Union Square, a good starting point for lots of places in the area that were significant for Jean-Michel Basquiat. His first apartment, in which he lived with Alexis Adler (527 E 12th Street) and both apartments he inhabited with on-off girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk (68 E 1st Street & 151 Crosby Street) are walking distance from one another – between Tompkins and Washington Square Park, Basquiat’s favorite “hang-outs”. Bowery, which lies right in the center of the district, was one of the preferred streets for SAMO© when it came to writing slogans and tags on building walls using magic marker. The Bowery was primarily the haunt of homeless people and junkies up until the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it was also frequented by the cool kids of the alternative scene.
Today the Bowery is largely gentrified, and here again there are galleries and museums. I head to one of these galleries, since this is where I expect to find an original Basquiat: SoHo Contemporary Art. The space is a typical New York gallery, painted bright white, so the colorful, Pop-Art-oriented collection can be shown to radiant advantage. I am welcomed, entirely atypically for a New York gallery, by a poodle cross named Buddy. Within a few minutes – I find two Basquiat prints but no originals – a member of staff approaches me.
A visit to Basquiat's gallery
They don’t have any Basquiat originals in their collection, the gallery’s staff member explains, and right now I won’t find any others in New York. All the originals have been sent to Europe for a major Basquiat retrospective. I explain that I am exploring New York on the trail of the artist on behalf of the SCHIRN, the very gallery that is hosting the Basquiat retrospective from February 2018. She gives me the tip that I should take a look at a building site around the corner. This morning she heard that during the renovation of a building, an old SAMO© tag was found under several layers of paint. If I hurry, she says, I might be able to get a shot of it. I rush in that direction in the hope of being able to see a genuine Basquiat.