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The Meaning of Jean Michel Basquiat's Life

September 04, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

Rueful riddle: He was black. In the '80s he rose mercury-fashion from obscurity to superstardom. Now he is dead of a drug overdose at the age of 27. What was his occupation?

According to prevailing stereotype he should have been a rock musician. In the last three decades we have been brutalized into acceptance of handsome daredevil rockers floating Ophelia-style in bathtubs, dangling, lanced on tiny needles, extinguished after flaring briefly in the Stygian firmament of licorice discs and concert halls that yawn like purgatory. Well, there goes another one down the well.

This was a little different. The superstar was a painter. At any rate he might have become a painter if he'd lasted. As it stood, he was one of that new breed of cat spawned by the Warhol aesthetic--the cult celebrity of uncertain gifts noted for being noticed. Funny. It was only a few days earlier that we read of the death of Nico, she of the ironed blond hair and sooty mascara whom we all desired from afar in the '60s. She turned up in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," joined Warhol's entourage at the Factory, made his movies and cut records with a voice lined in whiskey-soaked wool. At least she made it into her 40s.

I digress, I digress. Perfume from a dress.

Maybe it wasn't an overdose. The obituary item equivocated--either a heart attack or an overdose. A guy I passed in the hall said it was a well-known fact that an overdose can give you a heart attack but not the other way around.

The next day I mentioned it to a well-known curator.

"Too bad about Jean Michel Basquiat dying."

He thought I said "flying" at first and just went on with the conversation the way you do when something doesn't make sense. When he realized what was said he really got quite agitated like the people at Arab funerals you see on the CBS Evening News. He shut the door to his office for privacy (even though it was glass) and made grieving gestures.

"My God, I just saw his new work in Europe. He was getting better again."

Stone cold dead in the market.

Ask The Times' editorial library to send over the clips on Basquiat. The decent thing to do in the circumstance. Review of his L.A. exhibition at the Larry Gagosian Gallery. Interview in Interview magazine by Henry Geldzahler with a portrait by the legendary black photographer James Van der Zee. Cover story in the New York Times magazine by Cathleen McGuigan. In both photographs Basquiat is as handsome as a Robert Maplethorpe model. His hair is done in tribal corkscrews but he wears an arbitrager's suit. He appears to sulk. Andy would have approved such media flash for one so young.

Basquiat's art gave him the image of a wild street kid skulking around at night painting graffiti. He did that in fact, working with a partner and signing the work SAMO. On the face of it that activity sounds like the underground poor kids movement that vandalized most subway cars from Manhattan to the Bronx giving solid citizens the creeps. The beasts had taken over the zoo. Stage set for the Bernard Goetz shooting.

There came to be another side to graffiti art. New York, with its glutton's capacity for marketing, saw a certain salability in the alarming ferocity and raw elegance of graffiti. The style bifurcated, remaining partly a grass-roots macho ritual like street corner break dancing, partly a new way to attract the attention of galleries of the East Village. A generation of artists emerged that way--Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Basquiat. The first of a new breed of throwaway artists whose fortunes peak and fizzle like pork belly futures.

Basquiat was a trifle more middle-class in background than his street-urchin image. Born in Brooklyn, he had a mother who sometimes took him to the museum and a Haitian father, a successful accountant, who brought him drawing paper from the office. Who knows what made him rebellious enough to splat a pie in the school principal's face or drop out to Washington Square Park at age 15 to sit there and fry his brain on acid for eight months?

He talked about his doping. It seemed to be something that came and went in his life with varying intensity. He always clung to the notion of making a name for himself. He started out wanting to be a cartoonist and wound up wanting to be a Star. Fatal desire. He hung around the fringes of the art scene peddling hand-made post cards and T-shirts, gradually attracting attention until he was showing in evermore prestigious galleries, peaking with exhibitions at Mary Boone, the dealer-empress of SoHo with a more sensitive eye than suggested by her glitzy image in the press.

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