Remembering Basquiat

During the winter of 1979, I moved to New York City and was crashing at Eddie Korvin’s loft in Tribeca, then a desolate area. Eddie had hooked up with my girl friend’s older sister, and after we both graduated from college, we migrated to Eddie’s, hoping to carve out a life in New York City.

Eddie was easily the coolest dude I’d ever met, running his own recording studio (Blue Rock) in SoHo. His step-dad was a famous European actor and chef, and he showed up for dinner one night with Eddie’s mom. Julia Child’s name came up frequently, and it was the first time I realized Julia was an OSS operative posing as a gourmet chef. Eddie’s stepdad had begun his career in film and theater by producing an anti-Franco documentary prior to the Spanish Civil War. When asked who her favorite amateur chef was, Julia replied “Charles Korvin.”

The greatest singer-songwriter from my college town (Thom Bishop) was also in attendance that night. I was a listener, not a talker. Nothing much happened with the tracks I watched Thom lay down at Blue Rock, including a haunting cover of “Endless Sleep,” but in 1987 Profile records released his album “Restless State of Grace.” More recently, under the pseudonym Junior Burke, he released a fantasy novel, The Cold Last Swim that opens with James Dean shooting Ronald Reagan on live television and gets weirder from there.

Eddie was quite the talented chef himself, and aside from Blue Rock, was the American agent for Chateau Gloria, a delicious red wine from Saint-Julien that was always available in abundance at Eddie’s, along with super kind bud, and, sometimes, a few lines of cocaine.

After dinner, Eddie guided us to an after hours club on Houston to provide me my first taste of New York City nightlife. There was a bebop jazz combo performing in a basement bar when we walked in. While I was standing at the bar, a black approached me and smirked: “Are you sure you’re in the right place?”

Until then, I hadn’t realized how out-of-place I looked in my button-down shirt and ski jacket, and I got very self-conscious. I’d just arrived from graduate school in the Midwest and it would take a year or two for me to assimilate into a New York sense of style. I was so punctured by the comment that I never forgot the dude, although it would be several months before we met again. I took off the ski jacket and rolled up my sleeves.

Actually, my next encounter was with the art, not the man. One hot summer afternoon,  I traveled to the Lower East Side to interview Fab Five Freddy. At the end of the interview, Fred showed me a postcard for an opening at the Annina Nosei Gallery. “Wow, what a great painting!” I exclaimed the second I saw the image of two primitive figures with a roast chicken being placed on a table.

I didn’t know much about Jean Michel at the time, but I did know something about current directions in art. After years of the dominance and eventual dead-end of minimalism, there was an obvious yearning for color and imagery. I’d recently written the first magazine profile on Julian Schnabel for the now-defunct Horizon magazine and knew imagery was on the way back. But I was startled by the originality of that postcard. I think Fred was a little let-down by my sudden burst of excitement. I’d been looking at his work for an hour (he was hoping to sell me something) and hadn’t reacted so strongly to anything he’d shown me of his own. I got the impression Fred was feeling a bit overshadowed by his friend Jean Michel’s exploding talents. Like many graffiti writers at the time, Jean Michel was making the switch from writing on walls to painting on canvas. But he wasn’t making “graffiti-style” paintings at all, rather he was creating an entirely original vocabulary.

In 1981, when Diego Cortez’s seminal “New York/New Wave” show opened at P.S. 1, I was most impressed by a photograph of a train painted by Futura 2000 titled “Break,” and purchased a signed copy from Futura. It was at that show I decided to devote the next few years of my life to researching the origins of hip hop, which culminated in the book “Hip Hop” and film “Beat Street.” Those projects took me to the South Bronx, far away from the SoHo art world Jean Michel had recently invaded.

However, as soon as I completed those projects, I began work on a book titled “Art After Midnight,” which was going to tell the story of the rise of the East Village art scene through the stories of its most famous practitioners: Jean Michel, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. I already had solid personal relationships with Haring and Scharf, but knew getting close to Jean Michel was going to present a challenge. One of my closest friends at the time was a gossip columnist for the East Village Eye and also a rival of Basquiat’s over some girl. In fact, there weren’t many scene queens from that time that hadn’t enjoyed Jean’s affections, however momentary.

I called my friend Mary Boone, someone whose rise in the art world I’d helped promote. She was now representing Basquiat and agreed to take me to visit his studio (and home). A few days later, we arrived at Great Jones Street.

The African art scholar Robert Faris Thompson (“Flash of the Spirit”) was just leaving when we arrived. Basquiat ushered us in, and seemed fully aware of my work on hip hop history and treated me with utmost respect.

He guided us to the back room and showed us his latest work, a series of oil stick drawings on paper. The work was phenomenal. Mary had a great eye and tried to pick out the best piece immediately, but Jean Michel coyly put it aside for his private collection. I could see he was pretty savvy about maintaining control over his finances. Before I left, we set up a time and date for me to come back and interview him for my upcoming book.

When I returned a few days later, Jean Michel was still in bed and had forgotten about the appointment, but he agreed to get up to see me. After a short wait, his studio assistant led me upstairs to his bedroom. He had a bottle of first growth Bordeaux and a joint going. He offered me a glass of wine. “It’s a little early for me,” I said, “But I’d like a hit on the joint.”

There was a huge stack of records next to a turntable, and the room contained hundreds of videotapes and a large projection TV. It was really hard to get Basquiat to open up about his childhood, so I began talking about the club scene, specifically Club 57. I was working on a preliminary thesis there was a stylistic divide between the mostly European sensibility of the Mudd Club and the pop/camp culture of Club 57. When Jean Michel said he didn’t really grasp the appeal of the Club 57 aesthetic (“Why do something old and bad?”), I jumped on the comment and began pursuing that line of questioning, which immediately made him suspicious and paranoid unfortunately. Then the phone rang. The second he picked it up, I knew it was Andy Warhol. “I’m doing an interview,” he said, “but I’ve already said too much.” By the time he got off the phone, he’d already decided to end the interview. “It’s like the end of mystery,” he explained. “I can’t do this.”

I was pretty crushed. I’d envisioned several long interview sessions and felt it was unlikely I’d ever be invited back, which I wasn’t. Several months later we crossed paths again briefly at a Kenny Scharf VIP party at Area. I was celebrating the arrival of the proofs of a color insert for my book, “Art After Midnight,” which included double-page spreads on Basquiat, Haring and Scharf that looked spectacular. I put the layouts on the bar and  Glenn O’Brien and Jean Michel both inspected them. I could tell Jean was pleased with his layout. I was hoping the book might resurrect a relationship. Later that evening, I bumped into Jean in a remote corner of the club. He was alone and seemed strangely isolated for such a celebrated figure.

Last night I watched “The Radiant Child,” Tamra Davis’ loving 2010 documentary on Netflix. It’s a powerful film and the most well-rounded biography of Basquiat I’ve come across. I was a little bugged by the title at first since its taken from a Rene Ricard Art Forum article. “Radiant Child” is a reference to a Keith Haring icon and has nothing to do with Basquiat. I wish Tamra had come up with a different title. (In 2018, an even better film by Sara Driver, Boom For Real, explored Jean’s formative years with more precision.)

I could not fathom Jean’s attachment to Andy Warhol, whose lust for fame and fortune was guided by his devotion to rightwing dictators and Catholic causes. Warhol’s career was brilliant, of course, but based partially on vampire-ing ideas and energy from Jack Smith, Edie Sedgewick, Marisol, and ultimately Jean Michel.

It was like a scene out of Orwell’s Animal Farm watching Jean take on the lifestyle of the plush-safe he’d once satirized and condemned.

Jean would have had a long, prosperous and fully illuminated life had he stuck with pot and beer, but he quickly moved to cocaine and cabernet, and after he wrecked his nose, fell into smack, which soon dominated his life. It’s important to convey this trajectory to the youth so they understand the dangers of intoxication.

I acted as a messenger between Jean and Club 57, where he used to hang out. Once he got rich and famous, he also got isolated. But I told John Sex how much Jean respected him, and he tried to reconnect, traveling over to Jean’s with Wendy Wild and Dino. When they arrived, Jean was huddled with a phone in the corner. They stayed for an hour or two, but never spoke to Jean, who never put down the phone or left the dark corner he was in. He was trying to order some heroin. Rockets would have been one of the calls.

The crown was the central icon shared by NYC’s greatest writers, so to claim that history had zero to do with Jean Michel Basquiat’s use of crowns is absurd. The deep meaning sprung from graffiti, not the Little Rascals King Features cartoon logo.

https://www.quora.com/Why-did-Basquiat-put-crowns-in-lots-of-his-paintings/answer/Steven-Hager

7 Replies to “Remembering Basquiat”

  1. Also, I have a cameo in the film. In a segment about the Times Square Show, I’m seen checking people out…reporter on duty. I think that footage may be from Charlie Ahearn.

  2. Just a curious question that recently dawned on me after watching the Basquiat film. Seeing that you were the original writer of “Beat Street,” was the Ramo character a not-so-thinly veiled reference to Jean-Michel and his SAMO moniker? If so, what a prophetic ending!

  3. Hi Steven, if you can credit me for being the photographer of the Tracy 168 image and also the photo of Al at the High School of Art & Design w Chris Lee and others I would appreciate it. (That photo was rephotographed from a book you can tell by the reflection on the fold over Shadow. (Chris Lee). Byline should read FLINT…Gennari/FineArtFotosVideo.com. Thank you

    1. No problem. It took me a few minutes to figure where those images were. Tracy was part of a Quora post, and Al was in a Youtube video but I put the credit in both places.

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