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Olivia Laing | 9 mins

A Spell to Repel Ghosts


August 2017

IN THE SPRING OF 1982, a rumour started swilling around New York. The gallerist Annina Nosei had some kind of boy genius locked in her basement, a black kid, twenty-one, wild and inscrutable as Kaspar Hauser, making masterpieces out of nowhere to the accompaniment of Ravel’s ‘Boléro’. ‘Oh Christ,’ Jean-Michel Basquiat said when he heard. ‘If I was white, they would just call it an artist-in-residence.’

These were the kind of rumours he had to work against, but the wild, untutored kid was also a deliberate myth Basquiat constructed about himself, part canny bid for stardom, part protective veil, and as much a way of satirising prejudice as the African chieftain outfits he’d later wear to the parties of wealthy white collectors. His paintings started coming right at the moment that the East Village was shifting from a burnt-out wasteland inhabited by heroin addicts to the epicentre of an art boom. There was a monetisable glamour to being a down-and-out prodigy just then, and he made up out of the whole cloth of his childhood experience all kinds of patchworked, piecemeal selves, playing off people’s expectations of what a grubby, dreadlocked, half-Haitian, half-Puerto-Rican young man might be capable of.

He was a street kid, true, a teen runaway who’d slept on benches in Tompkins Square Park, but he was also a handsome, privileged boy from a Park Slope brownstone who’d gone to private school, followed by a stint at City-As-School, a destination for gifted children. Though he didn’t have a formal art education, he and his mother Matilde had been frequenting museums since he was a toddler. As his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk recalled of a trip to the Museum of Modern Art, ‘Jean knew every inch of that museum, every painting, every room. I was astonished at his knowledge and intelligence and at how twisted and unexpected his observations could be.’

When Basquiat was seven, a car hit him while he was playing basketball in the street in Flatbush. He spent a month in hospital with a broken arm and internal injuries so severe his spleen had to be removed. The gift his mother gave him then, a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, became his foundational text and talisman. He loved discovering the orderly interior architecture of the body, but he also loved the way a living thing could be reduced to the clean lines of its component parts; scapula, clavicle, three views of the shoulder joint. Later he would be similarly drawn to collections on cave art, hieroglyphs and hobo signs, the universe resolved into elegant pictorial symbols that encoded complex meanings.

1968 was a year of ruptures. Around the time he got out of hospital his parents separated and his father got custody. Disintegration and rearrangement: these are the bad feelings that lurk at the back of all those endless diagrams he made, obsessively recounting and relating the disparate things of the world, though whether he was trying to uphold order or testifying to its impossibility is not always easy to ascertain.

As a boy Jean-Michel made cartoon versions of Hitchcock films, but in the blackout year of 1977 he graduated to making his mark on the skin of New York itself. He came to prominence first not as a painter, but as a graffiti artist, part of the duo SAMO, short for same old shit, who bombed the walls and fences of downtown with enigmatic phrases. A bebop insurgent, he travelled the nocturnal city with a spray-can in his overcoat pocket, attacking in particular the high-art zone of Soho and the Lower East Side. ORIGIN OF COTTON, he wrote outside a factory, in his distinctively loose-jointed capitals, no spines on the Es, SAMO AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC FOOD STANDS. The statements were so poised in their assault on art-world inanities that many observers believed they were by a disaffected conceptual artist, someone already famous. SAMO FOR THE SO-CALLED AVANT GARDE. SAMO AS AN END TO THE POLICE.

There is a graphomanic quality to almost all of Basquiat’s work. He liked to scribble, to amend, to footnote, to second-guess and to correct himself. Words jumped out at him, from the back of cereal boxes or subway ads, and he stayed alert to their subversive properties, their double and hidden meanings. His notebooks, recently published in a facsimile by Princeton University Press, are full of stray phrases, odd or sinister combinations, like CROCODILE AS PIRATE or DO NOT DRINK / STRICTLY FOR / SUGARCANE. When he began painting, working up to it by way of hand-coloured collaged postcards, it was objects he went for first, drawing and writing on refrigerators, clothes, cabinets and doors, regardless of whether they belonged to him or not.

The summer of 1980 through to the spring of 1981 was a boom year, never mind that he was mostly penniless, picking up girls at clubs so that he had somewhere to spend the night. He showed his work for the first time in the scene-defining Times Square Show, which also featured Kenny Scharf, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith. He had the starring role in the legendary lost film New York Beat, which was about the post-punk Manhattan scene (it became mired in financial problems and wasn’t released until 2000, as Downtown 81). And in February 1981 he was included in New York/New Wave at PS1, the show that flipped him from hungry outsider to hot property.

Basquiat was homeless during filming, and so broke that he was thrilled when his co-star Debbie Harry gave him $100 for one of his first paintings – less than a millionth of the price reached by his work in 2017. It’s salutary to look at Cadillac Moon now, with its Twomblyish neutrals, its scumbled regions of accomplished and obscuring white and grey, behind which are visible ranks of capital As, spelling out a lexical scream, alongside cartoon cars, shackles and TV sets. At the bottom there is a sequence of names, from left to right a crossed-out SAMO, followed by AARON, a name Basquiat often incorporated into his paintings, probably after the baseball player Hank Aaron, and then his own bold signature.

There it all is: the mature elements of Basquiat’s work, worldly, reticent, communicative, crude and expert all at once. In palette and simplicity it’s a visual rhyme to the very late Riding with Death, painted in the heroin wasteland of 1988, Basquiat’s last year, in which a black man rides on a four-legged white skeleton, against an awesomely reduced background, a burlap-coloured scrim, of absolutely nothing at all.


A Basquiat alphabet: alchemy, an evil cat, black soap, corpus, cotton, crime, crimee, crown, famous, hotel, king, left paw, liberty, loin, milk, negro, nothing to be gained here, Olympics, Parker, police, PRKR, sangre, soap, sugar, teeth.

These were words he used often, names he returned to, turning language into a spell to repel ghosts. The clear use of codes and symbols inspires a sort of interpretation-mania on the part of curators. But surely part of the point of the crossed-out lines and erasing hurricanes of colour is that Basquiat is attesting to the mutability of language, the way it twists and turns according to the power status of the speaker. Crimee is not the same as criminal, negro alters in different mouths, cotton might stand literally for slavery but also for fixed hierarchies of meaning and the way people get caged inside them.

‘Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this,’ Mallouk says in Widow Basquiat, the poetic account of their shared life by Jennifer Clement. She describes him in the Museum of Modern Art sprinkling water from a bottle, hexing the temple. ‘This is another of the white man’s plantations,’ he explains.

After Basquiat, Mallouk became involved with another young artist, Michael Stewart, who in 1983 was arrested and beaten into a coma by three police officers after graffitiing a subway station wall. He died thirteen days later. The officers, who claimed Stewart had a heart attack, were charged with criminally negligent homicide, assault and perjury, but found not guilty by an all-white jury. It is thought he was killed by an illegal chokehold, as Eric Garner would be thirty-one years later.

‘It could have been me,’ Basquiat said, and set about painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart). Two cartoonish cops with malevolent Mr Punch faces and raised nightsticks wait to rain blows on a black boy, who Basquiat has drawn faceless in an overcoat, passing between them into the blue sky. Unlike the portrait of another black martyr, Emmet Till, by the white artist Dana Schutz that caused so much controversy at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Basquiat chooses not to show Stewart’s destroyed face. Instead he writes a question in Spanish: ¿DEFACIMENTO? To spoil the surface or appearance of something, with a pen or some other kind of weapon.

The pen couldn’t kill, but it could reveal the dysfunction of foundational myths. Over and over, he redrafted America’s history, the ongoing brutalising dynamic of racism and its long legacies. He painted slave auctions and lynchings, cartoon-style, livid, and he also made scathing accounts of what we might now call everyday racism. One of his obsessions was black talent and what happened to it, the way that jazz musicians and sports stars – Sugar Ray Robinson, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis – might accrue fame and money and yet remained trapped in a white system, exploited and belittled, still susceptible to being bought and sold.

What did his version of American history look like? It looked like Alto Saxophone, 1986, with its cargo of monkeys, their lips stitched shut – code for speak no evil – and at the bottom of the beautiful coloured page a small black figure turning away, arms up, and next to it the words DEAD BODY© in tiny print. It looked like Untitled (Sea Monster), 1983, or Untitled (Cruel Aztec Gods), also 1983: graphic representation of power through the centuries, scratching in and crossing out the names of kings and popes, and in the middle in block caps the words UNINHABITED BY WHITE MEN©. It looked like the raging heads made with oil stick and graphite and crayon and acrylic through the full span of his career, sometimes so scribbled over it seems as if they’re in the process of being torn apart or spun like sugar.

All the time, Basquiat was becoming more and more successful, more wealthy and famous. And yet he still couldn’t reliably hail a cab in the street. Fine, limos instead. He bought expensive wines, Armani suits to paint in, like any artist who’s suddenly made it big, yet the anecdotes about his spending were and continue to be passed on with a casual glaze of racism, as if there was something unusually revealing about his appetites. It was lonely, he was lonely, the only black man in the room, prodigy as status too close to toy. ‘They’re just racist, most of those people,’ he’s quoted as saying in Dieter Buchhart’s Now’s the Time. ‘So they have this image of me: wild man running – you know, wild monkey man, whatever the fuck they think.’

One of his closest friends in the years of his success was Andy Warhol. The first time Warhol mentioned Basquiat in his diary, on 4 October 1982, was as ‘one of those kids who drive me crazy.’ It didn’t take long, though, before they were embroiled in a full-blown friend-romance, among the most intimate and lasting of both their lives. They collaborated on over 140 paintings, one-tenth of Basquiat’s total output, worked out and went to parties, had manicures and talked for hours on the phone. Those who believe Warhol incapable of love might take a look at his diary, as he frets endlessly over his friend’s gargantuan drug consumption, the way Basquiat keeps nodding out on the Factory floor, falling asleep in the middle of tying his shoes. The partnership ended in 1985, after Basquiat was stung by a bad review of their joint show at the Tony Shafrazi gallery, which described him as succumbing to the forces that would make him an art-world mascot, though the friendship stuttered on.

JUNK AND CIGARETTES, practically the last words in his notebooks, beyond a list of famous names, the words AMATEUR BOUT and the place he hailed from, NEW YORK. There was nothing heroic or glamorous about Basquiat’s addiction. It came with the usual detritus: hitting girlfriends, accruing debts, falling out with beloved friends. He tried to stop but couldn’t, and in the end he died in the apartment he rented from Warhol on Great Jones Street on 12 August 1988, of acute mixed-drug intoxication. In its obituary, the New York Times observed that Warhol’s death the preceding year ‘removed one of the few reins on Mr. Basquiat’s mercurial behaviour and appetite for narcotics.’

Maybe so, but in that somnolent, junk-sick, grieving final year, he assembled masterpieces, among them Eroica, with its intricate map of heroes and villains, some barely visible beneath the black and white pentimenti, the repentance marks that Basquiat made his signature. Among the vanishing names is Tennessee Williams, another prodigy who’d died of his addictions, who’d tried to express how and for whom power functions in America.


These days Basquiat is among the most expensive artists in the world, his images franchised and replicated everywhere from Urban Decay blusher pots to Reebok trainers. You could scorn the commercialisation, but isn’t it what he wanted, to colour every surface with his runes?

He’s a cash cow, just as he predicted, making rich white people richer, but maybe his spells retain their secret power. They could hardly be more necessary, since the forces against which he arranged himself are unequivocally on the rise, white men parading unmasked and with torches through the streets of Charlottesville and Boston, chanting ‘blood and soil’.

‘Who do you make a painting for?’ he was asked in a filmed interview in October 1985, and he was silent for a long time. ‘Do you make it for you?’ the interviewer continued. ‘I think I make it for myself, but ultimately for the world you know,’ Basquiat said, and the interviewer asked him if he had a picture of what that world might be. ‘Just any person,’ he said, because he knew that change is coming all the time, from everywhere, and that if those of us who are leaning on the doors get out the way, freedom might be a possibility – yeah, boom, for real.