FEATURE: Black Like Basquiat – Jean-Michel Basquiat & The Black Kids in Downtown NYC
By Eye Candy
March 12, 2014
People are always coming and going to Felice’s. There are writers Luc Sante and Darryl Pinckney and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Felice Rosser is the Woman-in-the-scarf in Jim’s short film Permanent Vacation and obviously the inspiration behind the character Bargatta in Darryl Pinckney’s novel High Cotton. There’s the photographer Nan Goldin, friends or friends of friends from Paris and London who regularly arrive at Felice’s door expecting accommodations and starting around the summer of 1979, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
By Jennifer Jazz, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio on Great Jones Street in NoHo, New York, 1985
In front of Flexible, 1984, Acrylic and oilstick on wood, 259 x 190.5 cm © 2010,
The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York
Photo: © Lizzie Himmel @ 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich
I first met Jean-Michel while renting a room in a loft over a sweat shop on top of the Old Bowery Savings Bank on Grand Street, now Capitale. One morning coming in from work with my apron still soaked, Richard, the owner of a nearby flower shop phoned to tell me he was with Jean and Jean wanted to meet me, most of what else he said lost in the loud music of the bar they were calling from. No time for drunks, I hung up fast and went to bed, but the next night exactly, Jean-Michel appeared with Felice at the door of the Cauldron, the kosher macrobiotic restaurant where I washed dishes. Entering, he studied me with a feline sort of caution while Felice quickly took off. The restaurant was closed. He was hungry. I let him eat whatever he wanted as quickly Jean, a Sag, and I, a Leo, were agitating each other like only two fire signs could.
Downtown, I was on vacation in a white culture but I was always aware that that culture was heavily informed, even legitimized by its connections to the Black and Latin street. So much of Jean’s notoriety was a clever engineering of this dynamic – not that he was the only black artist from Brooklyn who was in search of a commercial or emotional response to his work that he couldn’t get in the black community.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (r.) & Fab 5 Freddy
In Jean Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street, visual artist Fab Five Freddy refers to “bringing the whole music, hip-hop, art, break dancing and urban cultural thing to the downtown table.” The title of Greg Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk which is alluding to Jean Michel, would make you think downtown back then was this bland white sea in which Jean drowned though. But Jean wasn’t alone. There was Dirty Harry from the film, ‘Rockers,’ and all his park bench natty dread bredren. Space age designer Millie David who later married Bunny Wailer. Michael Holman, Snuky Tate, Ivan Julien, Neon Leon and Skully in shades and bike racing tights, handing out invites to Brooklyn Soul Boys parties. There were black free jazz musicians and crazy homeless cats down there too.
If the downtown streets were an experimental paradise for blacks too ‘out’ for the hood, black girls were the designated wallflowers. At Max’s Kansas City, The Mudd Club, Tier Three and other clubs where I’d find myself, black women were scarce and neither black nor white guys showed interest in us which certainly lent itself to some of the tension between Jean and I during our first meeting. I’d passed him plenty of times before and he’d never looked in my direction. I didn’t understand why he was suddenly so interested. Then there was the gentrification of the Nuyorican Lower East Side that rendered folks ‘really’ from that neighborhood into displaced spectators. That Jean-Michel’s graffiti was created for a highly organized network of white kids from Ohio and Wisconsin made me question his motives and loyalties. None of my interrogating, however, chased him out the door. Maybe because he didn’t know what to do with the rare girl that wasn’t his groupie. Maybe because he liked playing rough. We paced around, talking over each other until I was finally done cleaning the kitchen and it was time to lock up, then walked side by side but not quite together to Kiev. On the corner of Second Avenue, I offered him a cigarette, both of us still sizing each other up before we went our separate ways.
Ever transient, I wound back up at Felice’s, only to find Jean Michel Basquiat crashing there, our tension continuing in her living room. Jean appears totally naked, asking me to tell him if I see a spot on the back of his lower thigh. I curse until he goes away. Jean puts on Sinatra. I complain and put on PIL. He leaves burnt pots on the stove he doesn’t clean, coming and going without contributing any money towards bills. I demand that he chip in, to which he pays no mind whatsoever. The stories he brings up about being chased out of his house with a knife by his father, and his mother being in a mental hospital, resemble my own dysfunctional family life too much to care. He was producing postcard sized art at this time and selling or giving it away. I remember the mini art scattered all over Felice’s living room. Ivan Ward, one of the writers of the experimental film, Dora: A Case of Mistaken Identity (and current director of the Freud Museum in London) who had only seen Jean’s work on walls, walked in the apartment one day, picked up a postcard and smiled, asking how much it would cost to buy one.
During a cleaning frenzy, Felice chucked Jean’s postcards and sketch pads in the trash. When I recently told her I was almost certain she had painted over work he had put on her living room wall, she assured me that if he had tried to paint on her walls, she wouldn’t have let him, but during the course of their friendship, she never encouraged the over-the-top exhibitionism that Jean-Michel mania thrived on. She had met him in front of Club 57 one night and walked with him to another club because he reminded her of a “little brother.”
Felice Rosser’s current band, Faith
Born in 1960 in a New York City outer borough, as I was, so much of Jean’s work is imaginary juvenilia from that time. The x-ray specs and submarines with periscopes ads from Marvel and DC comics. Canvases that call up vandalized public school text books and blackboards. His dreads, my wild electric mane, the black liberation lyrics of Felice’s dub records spinning in the background. It was funny that he, Felice and I wound up under one roof. There was comfort in knowing that there were other young blacks who had thrown aside the bourgeois script for a life of decadence, but in the East Village, blacks definitely did not high-five each other on the street. Still, there was a pride that did exist in being black and downtown that many of us linked to older radically hip stars and relatives.
Buzz Jackson from Brooklyn, the black singer of Modern Clix, a downtown band from that period, remembers sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park wearing a painted up shirt from the trendy Pat Field boutique on Eighth Street, and Jean-Michel walking over to tell him he was the shirt artist, making Buzz feel “kind of inspired.” Michael Holman who formed the band Gray with Basquiat ― he’s the light skinned guy bound to a chair in Downtown 81 – would complain to me about how inaccurately, the black punk star Neon Leon was portrayed in the film, Sid and Nancy. Jean-Michel swinging his axe through the streets of Downtown 81 is Jean channeling Charlie Parker. In Jean’s early experiments with dope, was he doing the same?
Jean-Michel Basquiat and Michael Holman, 1979
Black musician and visual artist Danny Hamilton who played in the Flux with David Linton and Lee Ranaldo in 1979, and with whom I later had a child, once told me without a shred of regret that paintings he exhibited in a late 1970s East Village group shows were all in the garbage because he’d cut them into smaller pieces while experimenting and none of them had “survived,” which exemplifies a disregard for the market place that defined art downtown. So I was shocked to learn when I returned to New York in the spring of 1981 that Jean-Michel had become a successful painter selling his art for – not close to what he’d soon make – but what was already lots of money. I recall sitting across from him in the club Area one night, passing him on the street once or twice after that, but not speaking.
In 1986 on St. Mark’s Place, all of a sudden, Jean stepped in front of me, wanting to talk. When he told he’d been to West Africa and planned to go to Haiti, I could tell he was offering a version of himself he thought I preferred, needing to bond in a way he no longer could now that he was being mentioned in the same gossip columns as Madonna, Mary Boone and Mister Chow’s. St. Mark’s Place was no longer a runway of kids with blue Mohawks in tight pants. He was wearing a kufi, both of us so cordial, It was weird.
Jean-Michel Basquiat in Africa
But my last face-to-face with Jean was in Montreal in 2001, after he had passed. I was 41, trying to make a living in the corporate world. It was a bad fit. My brief vacation wasn’t working either. Drifting through the Montreal Museum of Art, this hopeless distance between me and the rest of the planet seemed to extend in every step. Then I turned a corner and Basquiat’s “A Panel of Experts” and “Seascape” appeared, generating so much power, the clean white room they were in was convulsing. For the first time in years, I was home.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Seascape” 1983. Montreal Museum of Fine Art.
* Jennifer Jazz is a New York writer, musician and performance artist, closely associated with the eighties East Village art scene. Find her on Youtube.