The graffiti artist turned painter became the superstar of the 1980 s New York art scene. Since his death aged 27, his reputation has risen. On the eve of a major UK show, we speak to his friends

It’s always tempting to mythologise the dead, especially those who die young and beautiful. And if the dead person is also astonishingly gifted, then the myth becomes inevitable. Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 27 when he died, in 1988, a strikingly gorgeous young man whose stunning, genre-wrecking work had already brought him to international attention; who had in the space of only a few years morphed from an underground graffiti artist into a painter who commanded hundreds of thousands of dollars for his canvases.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that all individuals I talk to who knew Basquiat when he was alive, from girlfriends to collectors, musicians to painters, speaks about him as special. Still, it’s noticeable that they all do. Basquiat- even before he was acknowledged as an artist- was insured by his friends as exceptional.

” I knew when I fulfilled him that he was beyond the normal ,” tells musician and film-maker Michael Holman, who founded the noise band Gray with Basquiat.” Jean-Michel had his defects, he was mischievous, he had certain things about him that could be called amoral, but defining that aside, he had something that I’m sure he had from the moment he was born. It was like he was born fully realised, a realised being .”

” He was a beautiful person and an amazing artist ,” says Alexis Adler, a former girlfriend.” I recognised that from the get-go. I knew he was brilliant. The only person around that time I felt the same thing about was Madonna. I totally, 100% knew they were going to be big .”

Basquiat the man and Basquiat the painter is very difficult to untangle. He lived hard and succumbed harder( from an unintentional heroin overdose ), and had more of the rock-star persona than the art aesthete about him, a cool celebrity sparkle that didn’t always work in his favour. Some art connoisseurs find his work hard to take seriously; others, though, have an immediate, nearly visceral answer. To me, a non-art critic, his work is fantastic: it feels contemporary, with a chaotic, musical sensibility. It’s beautiful and hectic, young and old, graphic, apprehending, packed with equivocal codes; there’s a questioning of identity, especially race, and a sampling of life’s stimulus that takes in music, cartoons, commerce and institutions, as well as celebrities and art greats.( Not sex, though: though he had lots of partners, his paints are rarely erotic .). You could stand in front of a Basquiat painting and be fascinated for hours.

Since he died, Basquiat has had a mixed reputation. There was a time in the 1990 s when he was dismissed as a lightweight. Museums repudiated him as a jumped-up wall-sprayer. But over the past few years, his superstar has been on the rise and even those who are snooty about his art can’t argue with his cultural influence. A few years ago a Christie’s spokesperson described him, pointedly, as” the most collected artist of sportsmen, performers, musicians and entrepreneurs “. As one of the few black American painters to break through into international consciousness, he is referenced a lot in hip-hop: Kanye West, Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Nas and others cite Basquiat in their lyrics; Jay-Z, in Most Kingz, uses the” most kings get their head cut off” phrase from Basquiat’s painting Charles the First . Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz own his runs, as do Johnny Depp, John McEnroe and Leonardo DiCaprio. Debbie Harry was the first person ever to pay for a Basquiat piece; Madonna owns his art and they dated for a couple of months in the mid-8 0s.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting Untitled( LA Painting) selling off $110.5 million( PS85m) at Sotheby’s in New York, to become the sixth most expensive run ever sold at auction. Photograph: Shutterstock

A household name in the US, Basquiat is less well known in the UK, though the sale, in May, of one of his paintings ( Untitled( LA Painting ), 1982) for $110.5 m( PS85m ), the highest amount ever for an American artist at auction, made headlines. Now, Boom for Real, a vast exhibition at the Barbican- the first Basquiat show in the UK for more than 20 years- aims to open our eyes. Researched and curated for four years, it follows his career from street to gallery, recognise the exceptional hours he was working in, and expands its references from straightforwardly visual art to music, literature, Tv and movies, all areas in which Basquiat experimented. It tries to see things from Basquiat’s point of view.

Eleanor Nairne, co-curator of the prove, explains why there hasn’t been a full retrospective up to now. Although Basquiat was immensely prolific during his short life, institutions were slow to recognise his talent.” The hour between his first solo present and his death was six years ,” she tells.” Institutions do not move that quickly. During his lifetime he only had two indicates in a public space[ as opposed to a commercial gallery ]. There’s not a single work in a public collection in the UK .” There are not many in the US, either: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has a couple, but when the city’s Museum of Modern Art( MoMA) was offered his work when he was alive, it said no, and it still doesn’t own any of his paints( it has some on loan ). The head curator, Ann Temkin, subsequently admitted that Basquiat’s work was too advanced for her when she was offered it.” I didn’t recognise it as great, it didn’t look like anything I knew .”

Basquiat was born to a middle-class household in Brooklyn. His father was Haitian- quite a strict figure- and his mother, whose mothers were Puerto Rican, was bear in Brooklyn. His mothers split up when he was seven and he and his sisters lived with his father, including a move, for a while, to Puerto Rico. His mom, to whom he was close, was committed to a mental hospital when he was 11. Basquiat was rebellious, angry, and moved from school to school. His education ended in New York when, for a dare, he emptied a box of shaving cream over the principal’s head during a graduation ceremony. By 15, he was leaving home on and off. He once slept in Washington Square Park for a week.

New York City in the late 1970 s was utterly unlike it is now: un-glitzy, rough, with many buildings burnt out and abandoned.” The city was disintegrating ,” tells Alexis Adler,” but it was a very free time. We were able to do whatever we wanted because nobody cared .” Rents were inexpensive( or people squatted) and downtown New York was a grubby, exhilarating mecca for the artistic dispossessed. The punk scene, centred on the venue CBGB, was giving way to something more experimental, involving art, movie and what would become hip-hop. Everyone used to go every night, everyone was creative, everyone was going to make it big.

” We were all these young kids in New York to carry out our Warhol fiction ,” tells Michael Holman,” but instead of being a ringleader as Warhol was, we were in the band ourselves, making art ourselves, we were are active in films, inducing films, “weve all” one-man indicates, with a lot of collaborations. That was the norm, to be a polymath. Whether you were a painter, relevant actors, a poet … you also had to be in a band, in order to really be cool .”

Basquiat was, of course, in a band, with Holman and others including Vincent Gallo; the latter are called Gray. They formed in 1979, but before that, Basquiat induced his presence felt through his graffiti. Working with his school friend Al Diaz, from 1978 he was spraying the buildings of downtown NYC with their shared SAMO tag. SAMO( c ), originally a cartoon character Basquiat had drawn for local schools publication, was derived from the phrase” same old shit “. It was meant, in part, to be a irony on corporations and the tag was straightforward , not decorative. Instead of pictures, SAMO( c) asked odd questions, or stimulated enigmatic, poetic declarations:” SAMO( c) AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT-GENIOUS[ sic ]” or” PAY FOR SOUP, BUILD A FORT, SET THAT ON FIRE “. The SAMO( c) tag was everywhere. Before anyone knew Jean-Michel Basquiat, they knew SAMO( c ).

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz’s SAMO( c) tag. Photograph: Jean-Michel Basquiat /( c) Henry A. Flynt Jr

Basquiat left home permanently at 16 and slept on the sofas and floors of friends’ places, including UK artist Stan Peskett’s Canal Street loft. There he made friends with graffiti artists including Fred Brathwaite( better known as Fab 5 Freddy) and Lee Quinones of graffiti group the Fabulous 5, and attained postcards and collages.( Once Basquiat spotted Andy Warhol in a eatery, popped in and sold him a couple of those postcards .) Brathwaite and Holman put on a party at the loft on 29 April 1979, as a route of bringing uptown hip-hop to the downtown art mob. Before the party started, Holman recollects, this kid turned up, and said he wanted to be in the depict. Holman didn’t know him, but” people with that kind of energy, “youve never” stand in their route, you just say, Yes, run !” They set up a large piece of photo newspaper and Basquiat started spraying it with a can of red paint. He wrote:” Which of the following is omniprznt[ sic ]? a) Lee Harvey Oswald b) Coca Cola logo c) General Melonry or d) SAMO .”” And we all ran, Oh my God, this is SAMO !” tells Holman. Later at the party, Basquiat asked Holman, who had been in the glam-rock band the Tubes, if he too wanted to be in a band. Gray was formed there and then.

The members of Gray, which settled into the line-up of Holman, Basquiat, Wayne Clifford and Nick Taylor, deliberately used painting or sculpture as references, as opposed to music. Their highest expression of praise was ” ignorant”, being implemented in the same route even worse( meaning good ). Holman remembers playing a gig with a long loop-the-loop of videotape passing through a reel-to-reel machine and then around the whole band. Brathwaite was at Gray’s first gig, at the Mudd Club in New York, and told subsequently:” David Byrne[ of Talking Heads] was there. Debbie Harry. It was a real who’s who. Everyone was there because of Jean…SAMO’s in a band! They came out and played for simply 10 minutes. Somebody was playing in a box .”

Gray aimed when Basquiat’s painting took off. He was always painting and draw, initially in the style of Peter Max( suppose Yellow Submarine ), but quickly found his own esthetic, which used write, and had elements of Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg. Because he had no fund for canvases, he painted on the detritus he dragged in from the street- doors, briefcases, tyres- as well as the more permanent elements in his flat: the refrigerator, the Tv, the wall, the floor. About the same day that Gray began, Basquiat started dating Adler, then a budding embryologist( he stepped in to protect her when she innocently elicited a street fighting ). Adler found a flat- at 527 East 12 th Street- where she still lives today, and they both moved in. There, Basquiat painted on everything, including Adler’s clothes.( When, in 2013, Adler revealed that she had maintained a lot of his work, she sold an actual wall of her flat via a Christies auction: it had a Basquiat painting of Olive Oyl on it.” They were careful about taking it out ,” she tells me.” And now we have glass bricks there instead !”)

Although she and Basquiat were sleeping together, it wasn’t a straightforward boyfriend-girlfriend thing, tells Adler.” It was before Aids, a wild day, you could have whatever relationship you wanted .” They had separate rooms, and had sexuality with other people. Adler bought a camera to take pictures of Basquiat’s art, and of him mucking about: he played with putty on his nose, was interested in film and Tv( his phrase” boom for real”, use when he was impressed, came from a TV program ), and shaved the front half of his head, so he would” look as though he was coming and going at the same time “.

They went out every night to the newly opened Mudd Club, in the Tribeca district. Friend came over until all hours( hard for Adler, who worked in a laboratory by day ). PiL’s Metal Box was on rotation, along with Bowie’s Low and records by Ornette Colman, Miles Davis. Adler loved Metal Box and nailed the cover up on the wall. When Basquiat watched it, he was full of disdain. He took the album down and nailed up William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch in its place.” He detected it offensive that I would put it up ,” tells Adler. It wasn’t good enough to be art in his eyes.

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Basquiat on the define of Downtown 81, spray can in hand. Photograph: Alamy

Basquiat lasted at Adler’s flat until the spring of 1980. During that year, his work featured in a couple of group indicates and he played the lead role in the film New York Beat Movie ( eventually released in 2000 as Downtown 81 ; the Barbican show will play it in full ). In the movie, Basquiat is the star, but it’s fun to play spot-the-famous-person: there are cameos by Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinones; the band Dna and even Kid Creole and the Coconuts make an appearance. The plot is of the day-in-the-life type: Basquiat plays an artist who strays the street trying to sell a painting so he can get enough fund to move back into his apartment. He sells it, but is paid by cheque, so he club-hops, trying to find a girl he can go home with. You can’t imagine the role was much of a stretch.

When he wasn’t clubbing, Basquiat worked hard- Brook Bartlett, an artist he mentored in the early 1980 s, remembers him painting continuously- and his shifting from being penniless to rich happened between 1981 and 1982. He was by then living with Suzanne Mallouk, who had moved from Canada to become an artist. They’d gratified when she was bartending at Night Bird. Basquiat would come in, stand at the back of the room and stare at her. Initially, she thought he was a hobo- “hes having” shaved hair at the front of his head, bleached baby dreads at the back, and wore a coat five sizings too big.” He wouldn’t come to the bar because he had no money for drinkings ,” she recollects.” But then, after 2 week, he came in, put a load of change down and bought the most expensive drink in the place: Remy Martin.$ 7 !”. Mallouk was intrigued. They were the same age and had a lot in common. Basquiat moved into her tiny walk-up flat.

Within eight months, there was money everywhere. Mallouk:” I watched him sell his first painting to Deborah Harry for $200, and then a few months later he was selling paints for $20,000 each, selling them faster than he could paint them. I watched him induce his first million. We ran from stealing bread on the way home from the Mudd Club and eating pasta to buying groceries at Dean& DeLuca; the fridge was full of tarts and caviar, we were drinking Cristal champagne. We were 21 years old .” Basquiat would leave pilings of cash around the apartment, buy Armani suits by the dozen, throw parties with” mounds of cocaine “. His rise coincided with a shift in the city: financiers were looking to invest in art, and they were cruising around art demonstrates, snapping up new work.

The first public illustrate of Basquiat’s paints was in 1981: New York/ New Wave, at PS1 in Long Island, brought together by Mudd Club co-founder and curator Diego Cortez. It was a group show that included pieces by William Burroughs, David Byrne, Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpeand Andy Warhol, but Basquiat was given a whole wall, which he filled with 20 paints.( The Barbican show recreates this, with 16 of the original 20 on display .) His work caused a sensation.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, 1983. Photo: Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Barbican

Basquiat gained a trader: Annina Nosei. She gave him the cellar under her gallery to work in( Fred Brathwaite didn’t approve:” A black child, painting in the basement, it’s not good, man”, he said afterward ), which was where Herb and Lenore Schorr, benign and interested art collectors, satisfied him. The Schorrs expended some time in the gallery choosing a piece of work, without knowing that Basquiat was running beneath them. Once they’d chose, he came up, and, though other collectors determined Basquiat threatening or obtuse, they liked him immediately. He didn’t explain his run-” he always said:” If you can’t figure it out, it’s your problem ,” tells Lenore; to Bartlett, he said:” I paint ghosts”- but he pointed out components that he thought he’d done particularly well, such as a snake.

Things were on the up. In early 1982, Nosei arranged for Basquiat and Mallouk to move from their small flat to the much fancier 151 Crosby Street in Soho, and she hosted his first ever solo show at her gallery: a huge success. Through another dealer, Bruno Bischofberger( his most consistent representative ), Basquiat was formally introduced to Andy Warhol; afterwards, Basquiat instantly made a paint of the two of them, and had it delivered to Warhol, still wet, two hours after they’d parted. They formed the beginning of a relationship. Basquiat was then asked to do a show in LA, at the Gagosian gallery.

Film-maker Tamra Davis, who induced the Basquiat documentary Radiant Child ( 2009 ), met him in Los Angeles. She was an assistant at another gallery and a friend brought Basquiat over.” Jean-Michel came and he didn’t have a car and he didn’t know where to go and we demonstrated him around ,” she tells.” That was our assignment. It was the funnest thing ever. I was going to cinema school, and he really loved films, so we would go to the movies together, talk about them. He was the new thing in township, everyone wanted to get to know him. He was so charming, but it was also like hanging out with the Tasmanian demon. Everywhere he went, chaos would occur. You didn’t know what was going to happen next. It was invigorating, but it was also actually tiring .”

Basquiat, though, was never tired. He had unending energy, partly drug-fuelled: he needed it in LA, as he brought no paintings with him. He rarely did, for his indicates: instead he’d arrive early at whichever city the display was in and construct the paints there.” He could make 20 paintings in three weeks ,” says Davis. In 1986, she filmed him running: he would have source books open, the Tv on, music playing and worked on several canvases at once. For this first LA show, he made works including Untitled( Yellow Tar and Feathers ) and Untitled( LA Painting ), the picture that merely expensed Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa $ 110.5 m( in 1984, it went for $19,000 ). Every single one sold.

Once back in New York, Basquiat left Nosei and joined another merchant, Mary Boone. His reputation was rocketing. The opening for his solo reveal at Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery was packed with celebrities, recall the Schorrs, who consider that particular depict to be his finest, and all the run sold on the first night.

Reviews, however, were scarce. Basquiat’s push-me-pull-you relationship with the art establishment was becoming evident: the dealer he wanted, Leo Castelli, rejected him as too troublesome; there was racism against him for his youth, for having first worked as a graffiti artist, for being untrained, and for being black. His run was represented as instinctive, as opposed to intellectual, though he was well versed in art history; some held the patronising notion that he didn’t know what he was doing.

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Basquiat’s Hollywood Africans, 1983. Photograph: Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Barbican
Racism also had an everyday impact: he would leave successful opening parties and find it impossible to get a cab. Herb Schorr would give him lifts to stimulate his life easier( they would gag that he should wear a peaked cap and be Basquiat’s driver ). George Condo, an artist on the rise at the same period, recollects going to a eatery with him in LA and not being allowed in.” I told:’ Do you know who this is? This is Jean-Michel Basquiat, the most important painter of our time .’ The guy told,’ He’s not coming in. We don’t allow his kind in here .'” Brook Bartlett recollects a journey to Europe in 1982 during which a rich Zurich socialite intimated that she, an 18 -year-old white woman, would be a civilising influence on Basquiat, who was four years older and already established. No wonder race became more prominent in his work: in his second LA Gagosian show, in 1983, Basquiat presented paintings such as Untitled( Sugar Ray Robinson ), Hollywood Africans , Horn Players and Eyes and Eggs , featuring black musicians, actors and sportsmen.

Drugs, too, were around more and more.” Everyone in the East Village and in the arts world in the 80 s did medications. Wall street did drugs, everyone did narcotics ,” says Mallouk. But after Mallouk and Basquiat split up in 1983, Basquiat got increasingly into heroin.” He was sniffing it, smoking it and injecting it ,” says Mallouk.” There were some models that he was hanging out with that were doing it and that’s how he got into it .” He became unreliable, travelling to Japan on a caprice, instead of going to Italy, where he had a present. But then, his focus was constantly diverted. Everyone wanted him. He was moving into a different world: his old friends still insured him, but intermittently.

During 1984 and 1985, Basquiat’s star shot higher and higher. There was a lot of travelling, a lot of attention. He was featured on the front covering of the New York Times Magazine in a suit with his feet bare. The Warhol estate rented him an even bigger place, a loft on Great Jones Street large enough for him to use as a studio as well as a flat, and in 1985 Basquiat and Warhol had a show of paints that they’d rendered jointly. Though the poster for the prove has subsequently been constantly reworked and sampled( even Iggy Azalea use it on the coverof her 2011 mixtape Ignorant ), at the time, the reveal was not a success. One critic called Basquiat Warhol’s ” mascot “. Tamra Davis tells this was hard for Basquiat.

” He really thought he was finally going to be appreciated ,” she says.” And instead they tore the reveal apart and said these horrible things about him and Andy and their relationship. He got so sad, and from then on it was hard to see a comeback. Anybody that you talked to that considered him around that time, he got more and more paranoid, his dread went deeper and deeper .”

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With Andy Warhol at their joint show in 1985, which was savaged by the critics. Photo: Richard Drew/ AP

And gradually, gradually his heroin use was catching up with him. Alhough he was greatly inspired by a trip to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and though he had proves all over the world- Tokyo, New York, Atlanta, Hanover, Paris- it became known among his friends that he was fighting. Mallouk would go over to his Great Jones loft.” I would beg him to get help and he only couldn’t do it ,” she tells.” He hurled the Tv at me. People would stop me on the street, telling Jean-Michel is in a really bad way, “hes having” spots all over his face, he looks really out of it, you need to go and assistance him … It was pretty common knowledge that he was not well .”

In February 1987, Andy Warhol succumbed at the age of 58. Basquiat became increasingly reclusive, though he still created work for shows, and made schemes, in early 1988, to revisit Ivory Coast to go to a Senufo village. He began to talk about doing something other than art: penning perhaps, or music, or setting up a tequila business in Hawaii. In 1988, he went to Hawaii to get clean: Davis find him in LA afterwards.” He was sober, he was gonna do better, it was like LA had a bit of Shangri-La about it for him .” But his visit was strange: he brought random people to dinner, people he’d only met at the airport, and he was unnaturally upbeat, too happy. It induced her afraid.

In 2014, Anthony Haden-Guest wrote an article for Vanity Fair that describes in detail Basquiat’s last night: 12 August 1988. In New York, he did medications during the day, and was dragged out to a Bryan Ferry aftershow party at bank-turned-club MK by his girlfriend, Kelly Inman, and another friend. He left promptly, with his pal Kevin Bray. They went back to the Great Jones loft, but Basquiat was nodding. Bray wrote him a note.” I DON’T WANT TO SIT HERE AND WATCH YOU DIE ,” it told. Bray read it out to Basquiat, and left.

The next day, Inman went to the apartment at 5.30 pm. Jean-Michel Basquiat was dead.

It was a sad objective to a rocket-flight life. And the subsequent oppose between Basquiat’s estate and various traders over pieces of his run was not fairly. Collectors sued for paintings bought but never received. Dealers claimed they owned works; the estate said they’d stolen them. There were too many Basquiat pieces knocking around on the market( 500 -6 00 canvasses, according to one expert ): the estate was able to corroborate the provenance of a few. Then the taxman arrived knocking: Basquiat hadn’t paid taxes for three years before his death.

But the years have softened or resolved the debates, and the run has had a life of its own. Though the majority of members of his most important art is owned by collectors, who keep it hidden away, it keeps seeping out, as if drawn to its public. And we want his run, it seems. Not merely are institutions eventually coming around to his genius, but his work can be seen on T-shirts, on sneakers( Reebok did a Basquiat scope ), on the arms of hip-hop artists. Just samples, short clips taken out of context, snippets and hints of the full, mind-whirling Basquiat experience.” He topics things and he references things he wants you to pay attention to ,” tells Davis.” His paints were meant to be seen by as many people as is practicable. They’re like movies or music , not just for person or persons alone .”

His art is irrevocably intertwined with his life: his charisma and drive, his race, his talent and sad demise. But it is bigger than that. Like the best art, it needs the world and the world needs it. And if you stand in front of a Basquiat and look, it sings its own song, just to you.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican, London EC2, from 21 September until 28 January 2018

Basquiat, as recollected by his friends

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Basquiat with then girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk. Photo: 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 simply 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[ virtually] every night, till 4 in the morning. It was so important. Not only did we go out and blow off steam, and gratify 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 happens, performances, art depicts … Club 57 and Mudd Club, they fed us and they directed us and guided us, brought us together with crucial people, in such a way that going to openings or concerts merely didn’t do. It generated their home communities that supported each other. It was a special day. With[ our band] Gray, I taped a microphone to the head of a snare drum, face down, and attached masking videotape to the drum, then pulled the masking tape off and allowed that to be a audio. 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 reveal, 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 maintain my focus. I could barely stop shaking, but it scarcely 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 ending, 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 succumbing at the same period. I don’t think he wanted to go there.

Lenore and Herb Schorr, major New York collectors, and the first to recognise and supporting Basquiat
Lenore : We were very excited by the first painting we ensure by him. This is not a common reaction, we’ve observed, even now! He’s a so 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 perhaps he required more fund. Once, he called us up early in the morning and we lived in the suburbs, you know, and he said,” I require money, I have a painting for you .” But he didn’t turn out 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 exercising together.

Herb : We have good memories of him. One hour 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 children here and there was a little pot being smoked, I could reek it, and we were like, We’re gonna be busted! It was a great, fun evening.

Suzanne Mallouk, partner, 1981 -1 983, 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 the various ethnic groups. Both of us suffered racism. We both had old-world parents who utilized corporal punishment. My mother is English, from Bolton. His stepmother was English. It was very interesting, the common histories we had. Authoritarian fathers that assured European women as a award. And I think it truly shaped Jean-Michel’s experience. He was intelligent enough to resent that European females 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 build me run as a waitress and live off me! Often I would come home and he would take money out of my handbag to buy narcotics. We would have terrible fightings. 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 maintaining things, he would virtually 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 watched Andy[ Warhol] as a father figure, he also truly 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 sexuality 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 guess Andy needed new life inhaled into his career; I suppose the two of them needed each other.

Two weeks before his death, I was living with a new boyfriend in my little East Village shanty. Jean rang the buzzer in the middle of the night and we both get up, and told ” Who is it ?”” Jean-Michel, Jean-Michel, is Suzanne there ?” I buzzed him in but he never came up. I operated down the stairs to look for him, but he’d gone, and two weeks later he was dead. My heart was break 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 world. 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 demise, and especially don’t tell the New York Times !” He’s just living a really simple life,

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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