In his short life, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat put his mark on a lot of things — from large-scale murals on his apartment wall to musings and doodles on ordinary notebook paper to sweatshirts and radiator covers.
Before he became known simply as Basquiat, the Brooklyn native transformed the mundane objects surrounding him in the sixth-floor walkup he shared with Alexis Adler in New York’s East Village — her coat, a wall, a door — with a style that would later fetch very steep prices. At the time, 1979, he was leaving his “SAMO” tag on walls throughout the city — but graffiti was just one more form of expression for a restless and very prolific teenager on his way to art-world superstardom.
Adler saved more than 100 photos, art objects and ephemera from their time together. Those products of Basquiat as a young man — he was 19 — are on view at the Cranbrook Art Museum through March 11. Called “Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980,” the show features odds and ends from a notebook he kept, sweatshirts he painted and sold on the street, a jumpsuit, drawings, writings and photographs Adler took of him clowning around — that add a little more information about how Basquiat interacted with the world. The show also features paintings on loan from private collectors.
In 1988, at the age of 27, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose. At that point, he had become part of Andy Warhol’s circle and a darling of the downtown scene. His Neo-Expressionist paintings took off and he profited, but he would not live to see the day that one of his paintings (Untitled) fetched the highest price of any painting sold at auction by an American artist. A Japanese collector bought the portrait in May for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s.
A new interest in Basquiat is also evidenced by two documentaries that have just been released about his life — Rage to Riches by the BBC and Boom for Real by Adler’s friend, filmmaker Sara Driver.
Basquiat was 19 when he shared the flat with Adler, an embryologist who had moved to New York from Seattle to go to school at Barnard. They met at a club and eventually moved into a building that was half-empty. Their cozy apartment (400 square feet) burst with Basquiat’s creative output — he painted and wrote on the refrigerator, the walls, the TV — most of it preserved in one way or another through the years.
Adler, 61, has since married and divorced and raised her two children, Max and Zoe Katz, in the same 12th Street building.
After flooding from Hurricane Sandy seemed too close for comfort, Adler pulled Basquiat’s notebook and other drawings from a downtown bank where she had a safety-deposit box. In 2014, she started considering selling them. After a bit of research, Adler went with Christie’s, which cut out the wall where Basquiat had painted a mural and took a door that was also marked by his spiky brushwork.
A lawsuit by Basquiat’s estate halted the Christie’s auction after the mural and door sold — leaving the rest of the trove with Adler. That is what she is now sharing with the world. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver was the first stop, Cranbrook the second. Adler thinks the exhibit will head to St. Louis next.
“Basquiat’s time with Alexis was an important transitional moment,” says Nora Burnett Abrams, the show’s curator. “He was still exploring many creative outlets with equal passion, including playing music, performance, drawing and writing.”
Adler was happy to talk to the Jewish News about Basquiat and about how the exhibit came together:
JN: How did you meet Jean-Michel?
AA: We met at a party in the spring of 1979. I’d seen his wall tags and we were introduced. When I was leaving, there was a car at the curb and I opened a door, in jest. It wasn’t my car, and a guy came running out yelling, a mafia type. Jean came out of the club and came to my aid.
[The pair stayed with another friend, Adler says, but after a falling-out with that friend, Adler and Basquiat moved to 12th Street, which was a squat.]
JN: How did Christie’s come to see Jean’s work in the apartment, a wall mural and a door he painted?
AA: I did some basic research; people came to me with different proposals. I went with Christie’s, which offered to do a sale for me. My deal with them allowed me to have the mural removed. It was expensive; I needed their help. Conservators cut out a section of my wall.
There was always an interest [in Basquiat], but in the last few years, there’s been an avid interest about Jean and his life and his art. The art market has gotten very hot on him. I know he was recognized during his life; now it seems to be different.
JN: How much did you get for the mural and the door?
AA: I took an early retirement. My son Max just graduated from college. My daughter Zoe will graduate in a month, so college tuition was out of the way.
JN: Was Jean your boyfriend?
AA: We were intimate, but I never considered him my boyfriend. He was younger than me. We had relationships with other people. It was a different time, a time before AIDS. [He later dated a then-unknown Madonna.]
JN: What did you have in common?
AA: We were part of the same scene. We loved each other as friends, as lovers. We were definitely different, but we liked the same music, the same art, politics — everything.
JN: Did you think at the time that he’d become a famous artist?
AA: He said he would. I was definitely the first one to believe him. Everyone else was like, ‘Sure Jean.’
JN: Why did you believe him?
AA: He was brilliant. I could tell. His spirit — everything about him. He was an amazing person, a very deep-thinking individual.
He burned bright. What you saw [in the exhibit] was in between the street and the canvas, a cross-section of what is left of his art during that time. It gives you a glimpse of his thought processes when he was totally free. He was using my science books and art history books, playing music all the time. It was a special time.
JN: The collection was first shown in Denver. How did that happen?
AA: By chance, this friend of mine, Sara Driver, was making a film [about Basquiat] that just debuted in the New York Film Festival called Boom for Real. She was excited about the collection and she recorded the wall coming down, the auction. Her sound person went back to Denver for Christmas break. A family member was on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and through that connection, the Denver people came out and looked at the collection.
[Boom for Real was acquired by Magnolia Pictures and will get a theatrical release in 2018, according to Deadline Hollywood (deadline.com).]
JN: Do you belong to a synagogue?
AA: I have, but not right now. I go to services at different places. My kids were bar and bat mitzvah — the whole thing. I married a Jewish New Yorker.
JN: Did you go to Hebrew school?
AA: Yes, my dad was a refugee from Germany and my mom was from a farm in Manitoba. Her parents were Russian and Romanian. My grandfather wanted to be a farmer. He met my grandmother in Vancouver; they got married. I was born and raised in Seattle.
JN: Did you have a bat mitzvah?
AA: Yes. Jean appreciated my Jewishness.
JN: How so?
AA: We were sort of setting up house together, and we were sharing what little we had, putting together a meager family. I remember doing Chanukah together.
JN: What do your kids think of your time with Basquiat?
AA: It’s exposed parts of my life that people generally don’t know about their parents.
Drugs were a part of the scene. I explained to my kids, the art scene of the Lower East Side was very small. There was a group of 500 people. Drugs were a part of life then. Jean had access to more money than any of us. He was able to procure a lot, and that’s not good.
JN: Did you hang out with other artists who made a name for themselves?
AA: Yes, I knew Keith [Haring] and others. I was part of the downtown scene. [Basquiat sold his first painting to Debbie Harry, the frontwoman of Blondie, for $200 in 1981.]
JN: How did Jean handle fame?
AA: It was harsh. He was the goose that laid the golden egg. The BBC film had a lot of interviews with his art dealers. Those people were bloodsuckers. They don’t appear to be, but they were. He was this young kid.
Jean was a loving person, beautiful, an amazing artist. I was one to recognize that early on and provide a house for him to coalesce his work and move on to the big time.
Julie Edgar Contributing Writer
“Basquiat Before Basquiat:
East 12th Street, 1979-1980” runs through March 11
at the Cranbrook Art
Museum, Bloomfield Hills.
(248) 645-3320; cranbrookartmuseum.org.