“He smells of leather, oil paint, tobacco, marijuana and the faint metallic smell of cocaine. He wears handmade wool sweaters and long Mexican ponchos. He never walks in a straight line. He zigzags wherever he is going.”- Jennifer Clement, Widow Basquiat
The 1980s in New York were some interesting times, and Basquiat had maybe one of the most colourful lives I’ve ever read about: shopping with Madonna, hanging out with Gene Kelly and Andy Warhol, selling paintings to Debbie Harry.”Widow Basquiat” is a very unconventional love story, then again Basquiat, from what I’ve learned about him, epitomized unconventionality.
The “widow” in this case is Basquiat’s great love, Suzanne Mallouk, and the book goes into the strange, unique, often abusive relationship they had. Suzanne seems to have been Basquiat’s muse and perhaps one of the few people who got closest to really knowing him. We get a sense of who Basquiat was through his “widow’s” short reminiscent vignettes.
I guess from my vantage point where I’m exposed to black art and have some knowledge of black artists, it might be easy to forget that black artists were rarely accepted in the mainstream, very white, art world not so long ago (and there are obviously still structural barriers). One line regarding representation said by Basquiat himself really spoke to me: “This is why I paint,” he says.”To get black men into museums.”A lot of this book goes into the issues Basquiat experienced with racism in the art world. There is talk on the double standards of white versus black artists, for example:
“He is furious because people are writing about his ghetto childhood and call him a ‘graffiti artist’ and ‘primitive.’ “They don’t event a childhood for white artists,” he says.”
I could see his internal struggle: on one hand he was trying to make black art mainstream and respected, on another hand not wanting to accept labels. But he always remembered his past and his influences.
“His paintings were inspired by the jazz musicians and he felt akin to them. A lot of the early jazz artists, of course, couldn’t even walk through the front door of the hotels and clubs they were playing in and had to enter through back doors and kitchens, and I think Jean felt this was a metaphor for his place in the white art world: he had entered through the back door. He broke into the white art world in a way that had never been done before by a black.”
This is a very intense book, it really is. I’m not used to reading books that are very heavy on drug content and self-destruction, and despite already knowing the outcome to Basquiat’s story it was really a tough story to wrap one’s head around. My heart especially went out to Suzanne and what she was forced to go through.
What I got from this book is what I already knew and then some; Basquiat was a multifaceted, complex spirit. This book didn’t try to make excuses for him, it just stated the facts. Definitely a must-read for any Basquiat fans.
Here’s a link to the documentary: The Radiant Child