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Public Figure Him Figurehead

Miles Marshall Lewis
"Samo with Ernok" by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1982). Image from

A visual hiphop artist, Basquiat rolled hiphop style by liberally sampling African-American icons, comic book superheroes, and cultural totems at will.

Location, location, location. With the frequency that I entertain buddies visiting Paris from America (at least once a month), I often feel like I only moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey instead of over the vast Atlantic Ocean to the City of Light. But it doesn't take long for my guests to feel comfortable. Downing incredibly flaky macarons from the renowned Ladurée patisserie, or sipping tea from the emporium-exhaustive menu of Mariage Frères, quickly helps them acclimate.

On the matter of adapting, the spirit of the late American-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat inhabited the French capital lately, in a gallery exhibit at the Musée Maillol and during the book-release event for Maripolarama (PowerHouse, November 2005) by his dear friend Maripol at colette. This resurgent interest in Basquiat's art reminded me that settling in to Paris makes all the difference in one's sense of place. Or as Rakim famously emceed long ago, "It's where ya at" that matters.

The Musée Maillol is an 11-year-old museum in the institutional seventh arrondissement. Local French folk warned me to lower my expectations; I might be put off by the small size of the place. Cramped quarters can ruin the perspective necessary to view paintings properly. But I was determined to take in Le Feu Sous Les Cendres (The Fire Under the Ashes), featuring Pablo Picasso's art juxtaposed with Jean-Michel Basquiat's. Curator Jan Krugier's reasoning for the showing was something typically arty and high-minded about "present[ing] a number of different tendencies that brought about ruptures in the world of art comparable to those provoked by the avant-gardes at the beginning of the century" and "explor[ing] the depths of involuntary memory."

So in the spirit of one of my primary rules, that is, "never miss Basquiat", I trooped down to the Musée Maillol. For my generation, Basquiat , aka "JMB", is the favorite visual artist among a set of people who probably can't name five visual artists off the top of their heads. These folks probably know of the Brooklyn-born painter mainly from the sentimental 1996 Basquiat film. "Beat Bop", the hiphop track he supposedly produced (apocryphal, though he painted its 12-inch sleeve), wasn't truly street popular in the schema of rap, and his touted SAMO© graffiti nom de guerre was never as culturally credible as legendary aerosal artists Dondi and Haze.

But Basquiat rolled hiphop style by liberally sampling African-American icons (St. Joe Louis Surrounded By Snakes), comic book superheroes (Riddle Me This, Batman), and cultural totems (Gri Gri) at will. His ambition was unabashedly hiphop as he collaborated on a series of artwork with fast friend Andy Warhol and commented on masters like Leonardo da Vinci (Mona Lisa) in his own oeuvre. Basquiat feasted at Mr Chow when Diddy was still eating cafeteria food, consuming conspicuously, spilling acrylic all over his Armani with abandon. Amid the recent onslaught of Basquiat commercialization � calendars, magnets, T-shirts, posters � following his 2005 Brooklyn Museum show, hipsters who were down since at least his 1992 Whitney Museum exhibit may have lost cooler-than-thou points for being up on the tragic painter by now. But c'est la vie. With talent that boundless, his secret was destined to get out eventually.

Le Feu Sous Les Cendres was a letdown, after all. Advertised on the sides of Parisian buses and in métro stations as exclusively Picasso/Basquiat, many other painters were also featured at this exhibit: Philip Guston, Germaine Richier, Francis Bacon. I'm no art critic, but I found little rhyme or reason to connect all the works. And with the main Basquiat show currently exhibiting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Musée Maillol is limited to a scant seven pieces in all: the relatively unremarkable Ancient Scientist, Crisis X, Busted Atlas 2, and some Untitleds. Basquiat partied hard in Paris during his 20s, doing cocaine lines off of glass-framed Picasso drawings at the apartment of painter George Condo, according to biographer Phoebe Hoban's Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Penguin, September 1999). I can't imagine JMB being anything but disappointed exhibiting like this at Musée Maillol alongside his hero 20 years later.

Basquiat, sporting a black sweater over a white shirt, holds a glass of wine in his right hand, staring at someone outside the frame of a Polaroid picture blown up 8" x 8". The photo rests in a page of a Maripolarama held in the hand of Maripol, signing her photography book at the head of a receiving line in the crowded colette. "Groove Is in the Heart" shuffles loudly through the air, Q-Tip's nasal rhymes penetrate the space.

Colette gives off the exact opposite vibe of the stodgy Musée Maillol. A stylish one-stop shop nearby the Louvre museum, colette trades in everything from Kiehl's skin care products to 1980s-nostaligic photo books like Ricky Powell's Frozade Moments (Eyejammie, October 2004) to its own custom line of mix CDs. Even equipped with a DJ � today it's Mark Kamins, producer of Madonna's very first single, "Everybody" � colette has been a fashionable hangout since 1997, the perfect place to host a fête for Maripol.

The New Yorkerstaff writer Malcolm Gladwell would call the Moroccan-born, Avignon-raised Maripol a Connector: a person with extraordinary social connections who traffics in people. In the Lower East Side movement of the early '80s, Maripol was down with everybody who was anybody. Debbie Harry, Warhol, Madonna, Grace Jones, Keith Haring, Vincent Gallo, and Maripol all raved together through too-cool spots like the Mudd Club, Danceteria, Studio 54, the Palladium, et al. She's art directed work for filmmaker Abel Ferrara and D'Angelo, even crafting (Basquiat's ex-girlfriend) Madonna's initial plastic-bracelets-and-lace look as a stylist and jewelry designer. Maripolarama is her collection of Polaroids taken during her fashionable romp through the eighties era.

Maripol and Basquiat sometimes took 'shrooms together back in the late '70s, when the starving artist lived with her and her boyfriend in the couple's Bleeker Street loft. That boyfriend, Edo Bertoglio, would come to direct Downtown 81, a film starring Basquiat that put brackets around the downtown 1981 scene � Maripol produced the movie, unreleased till 2000. I personally first met Maripol in 2002, as the literary editor for a mag putting Basquiat on its cover; she lent us old photos from her personal collection. At colette, she tells me of her time spent with Basquiat in Paris circa January 1987.

"One time we were here together when he was with Galerie Daniel Templon," says Maripol. "He was hanging out with a friend that I introduced him with called Louis Jammes, who was from the old school of the '80s painters and artists. He was a photographer but he would have the artists do the background for him. I just want to mention: Jean-Michel was Haitian originally and he spoke a little French, not a lot. He never went to Haiti but he would go to New Orleans, where he'd go a lot to the voodoo stores. And you could see the influence in the paintings."

Maripol speaks the truth. The only child of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mom, Basquiat was much more fluent in Spanish than French, and the sway of his Latino culture permeated his paintings much stronger than his Haitian background. Despite his French name, many of his works were entitled in Spanish � i.e., Dos Cabezas and Después de un Puño � and his signature style of including words into his paintings involved English and Spanish vocabulary, not French.

In 1988, the year of his premature death, 27-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat spent several months living in Paris. Following a January exhibit at the chic Galerie Yvon Lambert, he holed up at a hotel in the trendy Marais abusing hash, coke, heroin, and herb scored from Amsterdam for weeks on end.

A rare, poignant exception to Basquiat's non-use of French is seen in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict, wherein he inscribed "MORTE" over a black, boxy coffin.

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