The Woman Who Had the Front-Row Seat to the Height of Basquiat’s Career

The story of Jean-Michel Basquiat's longtime companion lets us see him as more than merely a brilliant artist.

“One critic said about Basquiat that the boys in his paintings didn’t grow up to be men, they grew up to be corpses, skeletons and ghosts. Maybe that’s the curse of being young, black and gifted in America – and if you add sudden success to that, it only makes it more likely that you’ll succumb, like Basquiat did in a loft not far from the one I live in now, a loft filled with his art. But I don’t think so. I don’t accept that falling is inevitable – I think there’s a way to avoid it, a way to win, to get success and its spoils, and get away with it without losing your soul or your life or both. I’m trying to rewrite the old script, but Basquiat’s painting sits on my wall like a warning.”

— Jay Z, Decoded

* * *

…Thou art

in the ante-

chamber of after

– the Big Below –

downtown in this

City of Dis

Where your ears

From our words

Must burn –

— Kevin Young, “Man Struck Lightning – 2 Witnesses”

* * *

The smell of his sweat came out of my pores.

— Suzanne Mallouk, in Widow Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life illustrates, among so many other things, the varying dimensions of knowing someone well.

His career as a painter was brief – less than ten years, alas, before his death in 1988 at age 27 from a heroin overdose. But he crammed so much art into those years, and so much meaning into that art. His black American/Caribbean heritage, his roots as the graffiti artist once known as SAMO, his fascination with black male icons, the keen awareness of his otherness when juxtaposed with the rest of the art world, his love of bebop and his connection to hip-hop, even his own mortality – it’s all there on his canvasses, sketchpads, refrigerator doors. Basquiat was that rarest of artists, coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once. His work needs no critical eye to get on a visceral level, and closer review uncovers profound mastery of technique and depths of information and feeling.

His art resonated across worlds that otherwise had little in common. He emerged from the downtown New York City art / punk / hipster scene in the early ‘80s, which just so happened to be the first white crowd to experience the energy coming from graffiti artists and early hip-hop (that’s him standing behind the turntables in the video for Blondie’s “Rapture”, the first rap-flavored pop hit). From there, it was a short leap to the disapora of black visual artists and their patrons, and then to other creators and observers of progressive black culture. Then, thanks in large part to some aggressive management and promotion, he became the most famous artist of his generation.

The photograph Illustrating the 1985 New York Times Magazine profile – at confident repose in his studio, barefoot in a business suit, a paint brush between his fingers, looking for all the world like a young brotha at the top of the world and on his own raising-his-freak-flag-high terms at that, which at the moment he pretty much was – became iconic. Eventually, he himself became iconic. If you can’t afford any of his paintings (they routinely fetch millions in auction), you can see them depicted and analyzed in any of several volumes and monographs, or simply pick up a year’s worth on a calendar.

Basquiat is also intimately familiar to us because of how he lived, and died. He venerated Charlie Parker, and their life arcs turned out to be parallel. In remarkably compressed periods of time, they both produced prodigious, dazzling canons that opened up new ways of seeing the world through black culture and art, and vice versa. They also used heroin until it finally used them up.

He was neither the first nor the last to die far too young, and those losses always hurt. But losing him lingers in a special way because of the singularity of what he did and what he represented. The notion of an artist blazing like a supernova only to dissolve from its own flames may be romantic to some, but not to black people who are all too keenly aware of the preciousness and arbitrariness that has forever colored black life – and early death – in America. Count Basquiat among that number, as in the painting “Charles the First” (1982).

The words in the bottom left corner (Basquiat was big on using text among his elements) inspired Jay Z’s track “Most Kingz”, his 2010 meditation on fame, legacy, and his own determination not to succumb to the dangerous pitfalls and distractions of success. When not flaunting his wealth, as in the Basquiat-and-other-art-name-dropping “Picasso Baby”, Jay Z has waxed introspective on such matters; for him, Basquiat is both an artistic touchstone and a reminder of the good and the bad of what’s possible – and what lies out there – for black men who dare to dream big.

Kevin Young channeled his fascination into To Repel Ghosts, his 2001 cycle of poetry about Basquiat (better realized with his 2005 “remix” volume). It’s really more of an interpretive biography told through poems, most of which ring with tense, staccato stanzas. Young chronicles Basquiat’s life, from his formative years through his early death, incorporating painting titles and phrases he used in those paintings. The poems don’t just describe the art, they express some of why his art struck so many so deeply.

But it’s at the end of the cycle, in poems like “Riding with Death (1988)” and “Soul”, where Young speaks to the void within us that Basquiat’s death left behind. It was as if Basquiat’s art articulated things we only knew as feelings, in a language entirely of his invention yet clear and direct enough for all to understand, and once he was gone we felt not only a personal loss but also anger and sadness that yet another brotha could not repel those ghosts.

Over the years, we have come to know the particulars of his life and times. The basic facts were laid out in Phoebe Hoban’s 1994 biography Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, and fleshed out further in Tamra Davis’ 2010 documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Art critics and historians have done their work dissecting the themes and techniques and influences and deeper meanings inside the paintings. But as much as he said about himself in his art, and as much as we have gleaned from that and everything else that’s out there, we cannot know what it was like to be Basquiat, either the man or the brand.

Now, with Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat, we’re more able to see him not as merely a brilliant artist, let alone one who was saying things few other artists had ever said in a manner few had ever attempted, let alone one who told truths both modern and timeless. Now, we can see his paintings and hear more things go “click” in our heads about the human being who made them.

Originally published in England in 2000, Widow Basquiat begins as the life story of Canadian-born Suzanne Mallouk. Her mother was a nursery school teacher who took in troubled children and draft dodgers. Her father was a self-made man who beat Suzanne and her siblings. At some point, she became enamored of Iggy Pop, and for that reason chose New York as the place she bolted to in 1980 once she decided to leave home.

On the advice of some of those draft dodgers, she went straight to the Seville Hotel, and quickly found a place within the burgeoning downtown scene. She struck up a friendship with Rene Ricard, a poet she’d heard about back home. She picked up a few server jobs, including one at a dark little place called Night Birds, where she met Basquiat.

He would soon move in with her, and for the next several years Mallouk witnessed both Basquiat’s ascent into art stardom, and his descent into heroin’s ravages. She had the front-row seat to the height of his career, from his early gallery shows to his collaborations with Andy Warhol. As fate would have it, it was Ricard who, early on in their relationship, christened Mallouk “Widow Basquiat”.

As the pressures of success and the allure of heroin dug into Basquiat, Mallouk’s tale sounds much like that of any addict’s companion. He’s gone for days, then he comes back. The stance towards money is cavalier, at best. He is generous and affable on a good day. He is also unpredictable, and increasingly finds it harder and harder to balance himself between his life’s extremes.

Eventually, so does Mallouk (who is no bystander here, carrying heroin around town in her beehive hairdo). She finally ends the relationship, and tries her hand at art and music for a moment. But she and Basquiat never severed ties. He came to see her at two in the morning one night in the summer of 1988. She knew it was his way of saying goodbye. Two weeks later, he was gone. After his death, Mallouk left New York and that drug-fueled life behind.

Clement met Mallouk in New York early on in the ‘80s (there aren’t any dates given for much of the action in the book, so readers might want to consult a Basquiat chronology from time to time), and ended up becoming friends. Together, years later, they struck upon a novel way of telling Mallouk’s story. The chapters are short and terse, not unlike Young’s poems, and many of them refer directly to Basquiat paintings. Clement’s factual accounts are to the point, shorn of decoration and interpretation. But throughout the book, Mallouk speaks directly in italicized sections, illuminating the action, talking more about the friends and episodes she and Basquiat shared.

They break the pattern only for a postscript, from a meeting of old friends at a 2010 Basquiat retrospective in Switzerland. By now, Mallouk has a doctorate in front of her name, and a medical practice specializing in treating artists suffering from addiction. The exhibition and meetup took place in the year Basquiat would have turned 50.

It is shocking to think Basquiat went that soon and has been gone this long – that’s how much immediacy his work retains. That only makes it all the more mind-boggling to contemplate how much he lived through and produced while he was here. Widow Basquiat shows us some of how that happened, and in the process humanizes a man whose work made the world want to elevate him to a loftier status. Especially when we find ourselves in the presence of singular, mercurial genius we can’t help taking to heart and soul, such grounding is corrective and useful. If anything, a fuller postscript might have told Mallouk’s post-Basquiat story, and how her adventures informed her life going forward from those heady days and nights.

As revealing as it is, Widow Basquiat is far from the final word here. Canada’s first major Basquiat exhibition opened in February, and an exhibition compiled from his notebooks is on tap for this spring in Brooklyn. And it would not surprise me at all to see other attempts to excavate new knowledge and insights from his paintings as the years go by. Such is our endless attraction to Basquiat, to the way his art still speaks to our world 30 years after the fact, to the rhythms and colors and spirits he brought from his darkness, and his blackness, for all to see.

RATING 7 / 10