Perspective is an amazing thing. You think that you’re true about an issue, and then all of a sudden, a perspective comes along that causes a paradigm shift in your thinking.
In comes, Jennifer Clements’s book Widow Basquiat, a very personal accounting of the relationship of her friend Suzanne Mallouk longtime lover of Basquiat’s, and it reads like porn. Not just any salacious sexy porn, but art port. Not the stuff with all the nudity and sex, artists call that art.
Jennifer Clements’s book Widow Basquiat exposes the exploitation, the exploited and the need to be exploited. In her story about Mallouk, a Canadian with Palestine roots who came to New York and befriends badass graffiti (graffiti another word nigger”) artist Jean-Michele Basquiat, the New York 1980’s art scene’s enfant terrible.
Her ethnicity may seem trivial, but this is America where everything is about color. Suzanne Mallouk being from a ‘non-white’ culture understood racism. “My mother tried to get me to bleach my skin, she said…She said. I was too “Arab looking.” Suzanne Mallouk recognized the nuance that white folks don’t get with black folks; she knew Basquiat was a human being, not just a black man.
WHITE ART WORLD
To be clear, part of his appeal to the white art world, and it is white, is that: “This was partly because Basquiat was black. The otherwise monochrome Late American Art Industry felt a need to refresh itself with a touch of the “primitive… the racist idea of the black as naïf or as rhythmic innocent, and to the idea of the black artist as “instinctual,” outside “mainstream” culture, and therefore not to be judged by it: a wild pet for the recently cultivated white. Says art critic Robert Hughes in his insightful critique: Requiem for a Featherweight, November 21, 1988
Robert Hughes makes some good points, but back then I would have just tossed that up to a racist commentary. Or old fart, talking shit they don’t know anything about: a modern movement, and certainly, they know nothing about Hip Hop or graffiti.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
And I would have loved to be in Basquiat shoes, follow in his footsteps. I’m a bit older now. And that other shoe has fallen.
Clements’s book follows Basquiat’s meteoric rise through Mallouk’s point of view, the excessive drug use, endless nights, strangers, sheer excess, and insecurities. Basquiat’s kneed for acceptance, the transference of emotions, sublimation. All perhaps to heal the deep wound and to gain the acceptance of his father, and more drugs lots of drugs. Why else would he hang out with Andy Warhol? Perhaps in their obvious contrast, Warhol and Basquiat were the same.
But Basquiat did not have all of what it took to survive or to be accepted in the ‘white’ art world like Andy did. He knew he was fighting the racism in the art world with the tools that built it. Whatever he did or said, would and will be used against him; the only way for Basquiat to succeed was to come to a logical conclusion, like Charlie Parker.
“… But I have decided the true path to creativity is to burn out. He mentioned Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker. I said, All those people are dead, Jean. He said if that’s what it takes . . . ”
And Basquiat will be celebrated for doing just that. “For the very nature of Basquiat’s success forced him to repeat himself without a chance of development.” writes Robert Hughes. Although I don’t think it mattered to him; his success was what killed him. And that was the goal, to remain relevant in a world that wouldn’t have let you in otherwise.
No doubt Basquiat was a star, but a young star, Like a Young Mike Tyson without, Cus D’Amato. Basquiat had the Don Kings. He dealt with a lot of art dealers and drug dealers, but more so, lots of pimps, gallery pimps.
Suzanne Mallouk reveals the vulnerable Basquiat, the one who couldn’t live without attention. Besides the drugs, lots of drugs “His other major interest was girls, women. He loved women. He loved sex. “He always had a lot of women,” she said. White women. As much as Basquiat loved being black, his choice of women is revealing. Like the expensive foods he ate, he was constantly impressing that he had the final control over that which has been a carrot stick for black men.
Suzanne comments that Jean-Michel “…paintings were inspired by the jazz musicians and he felt akin to them.” Who 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.” She said, “Everything he did was an attack on racism.”
There is something revealing about how your partner talks about you. My wife say’s, especially when we’re having an argument, that I’m a needy insecure artist. This is not news to me really; why we do art is a question artist deal with all the time. But somehow it was in a strange way revealing. Maybe most artists don’t want to confront their vulnerability, a constant subject artists disguised in metaphors.
“It was clear that his sexual interest was not monochromatic. It did not rely on visual stimulation, such as a pretty girl. It was a very rich multichromatic sexuality. He was attracted to people for all different reasons. They could be boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly. It was, I think, driven by intelligence. He was attracted to intelligence more than anything and to pain. He was very attracted to people who silently bore some sort of inner pain as he did, and he loved people who were one of a kind, people who had a unique vision of things.”
This book pleasantly surprised me. Perhaps I was even happy, to see the Basquiat was just a regular artist. Well, really good artist. To keep the boxing metaphor, he was like a young Sugar Ray Leonard. Surprised about all that the critics had to say about him was part of another obstacle, subconscious or not, to elevate the legend of Basquiat beyond the reach of the next Charley Parker. The standard for success that white folk has for a black artist. No other black artist will ever reach the level of Basquiat, Parker or Hendrix. If they do they will have to come back from the dead. His reputation is cemented as a god, But how?
Robert Hughes: Basquiat’s stardom was waning badly when he died …The urban graffiti movement that Basquiat had used as a conduit in 1981-83 had no fans left among collectors five years later… the hot young artist with his dreadlocks had been thrust aside by the cool one with his paperback Baudrillard…There are so many Basquiat’s floating out there that the only possible strategy for maintaining their value is to romanticize their author, loudly claiming him as a potentially “major” artist, a genius cut off in his first flower.
Yes. When it comes down right to it, this is about money. And all those old white folks in old institutions that guard access to the wealth that only they can access. They set the standards. Warhol, Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg, Schnable, Franz Kline and now Basquiat.
Robert Hughes continues….“the Whitney Museum’s … and the number of its financial supporters who have been left holding Basquiat’s whose price needs to be sustained by that “proper retrospective.” Then the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles could do it too because its trustees own lots of Basquiat’s as well. This is known as Postmodernist Museum Ethics. It’s how art history gets made, bub.”