Basquiat with then girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk. Photograph: Duncan Fraser Buchanan
Michael Holman, musician and film-maker
Basquiat was born fully realised. And if anything, that is the kiss of death: you’re gonna burn brightly and burn fast. If you impressed him, if he complimented you, you just felt you’d been blessed by a saint, it was a very emotionally and spiritually profound experience. That’s one of the ways to calibrate his otherworldliness. Because he would never compliment you if he didn’t believe it to his core.
We all went out [almost] every night, till 4 in the morning. It was so important. Not only did we go out and blow off steam, and meet people, have sex in the bathroom, get high, all that stuff that you do in clubs. But within the clubs the scene also creatively happened … all kinds of happenings, performances, art shows … Club 57 and Mudd Club, they fed us and they directed us and guided us, brought us together with crucial people, in a way that going to openings or concerts just didn’t do. It created a community that supported each other. It was a special time. With [our band] Gray, I taped a microphone to the head of a snare drum, face down, and attached masking tape to the drum, then pulled the masking tape off and allowed that to be a sound. Jean would loosen the strings on an electric guitar, then run a metal file across the strings.
In 1982, two years after Jean left Gray, I’d become an avant garde film-maker. I had this cable TV show, and I asked him to do an interview. He made it clear to me, without saying anything, that I wouldn’t be able to do this interview if I didn’t get high with him. He was doing base, like a high-end form of crack. I’d never done it before and, boy, I’ve never done it since. I could barely keep my focus. I could barely stop shaking, but it barely affected him. He had such a high tolerance.
He was a sensationalist. He pushed the boundaries of any kind of sensation, anything that would set off his endorphins, his nerve endings, his brain cells. He was after the sensation of something special and brilliant and different and electric and massive. Would he have been good at middle age? Well, part of middle age is the struggle of coming to this place in which you know you’ve plateaued in some ways. When we pass that hump and start going down the other way, we are living and dying at the same time. I don’t think he wanted to go there.
Lenore and Herb Schorr, major New York collectors, and the first to recognise and support Basquiat
Lenore: We were very excited by the first painting we saw by him. This is not a common reaction, we’ve found, even now! He’s a very difficult artist for many, many people. But we just felt he was a wonderful, brilliant artist, very, very early.
Herb: The artists understood him – some of them. They were there first, along with a few professionals. Basically, he had his collector base, but they weren’t knocking down the doors for them as they are today. There was not this hysteria. Really, nothing changes. We’re just finishing reading a book called The Portrait of Dr Gachet by Cynthia Saltzman, which is about a Van Gogh painting, and a lot of it is the same story as Basquiat. It takes 20 years after his death before a Van Gogh enters a museum. Anything which breaks new ground takes a while for people to catch up to.
Lenore: Jean was very smart and he knew his art history. Modernism, Picasso, right up to the present and Jean knew it all. So we really had a nice rapport. I could see it in his work, Picasso, Rauschenberg, they were all important influences, he had absorbed their work. It was beautifully rendered, remade in his language, with his message, with New York at the time, his personal feelings.
Herb: We didn’t see him in a drugged state, well maybe once, he seemed a little angry, he wasn’t the same person. He would call and maybe he needed more money. Once, he called us up early in the morning and we lived in the suburbs, you know, and he said, “I need money, I have a painting for you.” But he didn’t turn up by the end of the day …
Lenore: It’s so sad, he tried to get off it. Andy Warhol tried hard with him, they would exercise together.
Herb: We have good memories of him. One time he said he wanted to come up and have a white man’s barbecue.
Lenore: We expected him around three and he shows up at eight, with friends. It was quite a party, there was skinny-dipping – not me! – I had the kids here and there was a little pot being smoked, I could smell it, and we were like, We’re gonna be busted! It was a great, fun evening.
Suzanne Mallouk, partner, 1981-1983, and lifelong friend
We immediately had this feeling of kindred spirits. We were the same age, I left home at 15, so did he. We were both first generation from immigrant families – my father was Palestinian, his father was Haitian. Both of us didn’t fit into any racial or ethnic group. Both of us suffered racism. We both had old-world fathers who used corporal punishment. My mother is English, from Bolton. His stepmother was English. It was very interesting, the common histories we had. Authoritarian fathers that saw European women as a prize. And I think it really shaped Jean-Michel’s experience. He was intelligent enough to resent that European women were somehow valued more, he saw the racism in that, yet most of his girlfriends were white. He was conflicted about it; he discussed it with me.
I hated that I had a job and he didn’t. I was an artist, too – how dare he make me work as a waitress and live off me! Often I would come home and he would take money out of my purse to buy drugs. We would have terrible fights. He would say, “I promise I’ll look after you when I’m famous, please just let me do my art, I’m going to be famous very soon.” But I didn’t keep anything, so I didn’t get anything. He didn’t like me keeping things, he would almost be jealous of his own artwork. He would say, “Why do you want to keep something of mine when you have me?” Eventually, he gave me the message that really I could no longer be an artist. He was the only artist in the family and I had to look after him. It was kind of misogynist.
It wasn’t that he only saw Andy [Warhol] as a father figure, he also really had a flirtation with him. Often when I was with the two of them together, it didn’t feel like I was there with Jean; it felt like I was there with two homosexual lovers. He once joked with me that he had had sex with Andy, but I don’t know if it was a joke. Jean had a history of being bisexual, but Warhol was asexual, so I don’t know. People misunderstand the relationship if they just think Andy was helping Jean. Jean was already he was highly established, he was already famous or Andy would not have been interested in him. I think Andy needed new life breathed into his career; I think the two of them needed each other.
Two weeks before his death, I was living with a new boyfriend in my little East Village hovel. Jean rang the buzzer in the middle of the night and we both got up, and said “Who is it?” “Jean-Michel, Jean-Michel, is Suzanne there?” I buzzed him in but he never came up. I ran down the stairs to look for him, but he’d gone, and two weeks later he was dead. My heart was broken when I ran down the stairs and he was gone. Because I never stopped loving him. I still feel love for him and he’s been dead for over 30 years.
You’re going to think I’m mad, but I have dreams, and in the dreams Jean-Michel is ageing. It’s as though he’s living in a parallel universe. And often he’s annoyed that I’m there, he’s like, “Don’t tell anyone I’m here Suzanne. Don’t tell anyone I faked my death, and especially don’t tell the New York Times!” He’s just living a really simple life,
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