If you look at cover of this book, you will see of deeply concentrated eyes staring back at you and it becomes instantly clear that behind those eyes is a long story yearning to be told. When I saw this book in my list of recommendations on Amazon, I did not recognize the face. I had heard the name but admittedly, did not know anything about his life. Those of us who find solace and deep interest in the arts are probably familiar with the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), who in death has earned a place on the list of the best artists from the 1980s. In this stunning biography, author Phoebe Hoban explores Basquiat’s brief and unorthodox life. And it is a story that is both hard to accept and difficult to ignore.
One definition for the word tragedy is “a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror“. It feels as though the definition could accurately describe Basquiat’s life. At the time of his death he was twenty-seven and joins the “27 Club” of which Janis Joplin (1943-1970), Jim Morrison (1943-1971) and Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970), among others. His untimely death sent the art world reeling and came the year after the death of his idol and one time mentor, Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Following his death, interest renewed in his work and today, his paintings can sell for several million dollars or more. Yet at the time he died, Basquiat had reached rocked bottom as drugs took their toll on his mind and body. He could not escape fate and his ending is a true tragedy of another young artist gone before his time. But the question here is just who was Jean-Michel Basquiat? And how did this young man from Brooklyn become one of the most prominent artists of his time?
When I learned that Basquiat was a product of my borough, my interest piqued. New York City has produced some of the greatest personalities across all spectrums and Basquiat is a perfect example. However, he had multiple fronts, one of which was very darka as we learn of in the book. The foundation for the path his life would take is laid early in the book as Hoban explains Basquiat’s early life with his Haitian father Gerard and Puerto Rican mother Matilde. Life at home is volatile and Basquiat was never able to form the bonds with either parent that are needed through adulthood. The facts about his life that we learn of in the book are early indications of the recurring theme of his life: masking pain by taking extremes. As the story picks up pace, Basquiat’s journey leads to some unexpected places and art is never far away. Native New Yorkers will fondly recall the 1980s Village in Manhattan, where artists could be whomever those chose to be and eccentric behavior was treasured ad encouraged. Drugs and art are central theme in Basquiat’s world and remain so throughout the entire book. Perhaps no one pulled it off as well as Warhol, only rivaled here by Basquiat.
Of course, love is a part of the story and Basquiat had anything but a normal dating history. To sum it up, those parts of the book are surreal. The list of paramours is long and even includes a well-known singer whom some might have guessed would have been Basquiat’s love interest. Readers should be warned that it is also these parts of the book that are somewhat challenging to read as they reveal a very disturbing side to the late artist who never truly learned what affection and empathy were. But surprisingly, many of the women remained dedicated to him even while on the path to self-destruction. Some, such as Jennifer Goode, saw the writing on the wall and abandoned ship before the fatal collision. I wondered as I read, what would have happened had he decided to settle down with one of them? Perhaps he could have saved himself before it was too late. We will never know for sure, but it is one part of Basquiat’s life that is revealed in the book, showing the artist in a revealing light that leaves more questions than answers. I am not sure that anyone truly knew him on a deep level. Trust is a theme in the book and it is reaffirmed in the book several times that he did not trust anyone. His father’s influence and effect on Basquiat’s life is never far away. And the two remained at a distance until the day Basquiat died.
As his fame rises, he draws the attention of those high up in the art world, both on an artistic level and financial level. Those figures are discussed in the book and even provide statements regarding their time and experiences with Basquiat. He was far from easy to deal with and what they say shows a young man who never truly grew up. Mary Boone, a one-time promoter of his work, explained her take:
“Jean-Michel was a time bomb, and he was going to explode. I knew this when I first took him on,” she admits. “Unlike most of my artists, whether they are still with me or not, like Julian Schnabel, or Eric Fischl, or Ross Bleckner, these are artists I took my time getting to know, and that I felt I would represent for a long time. From the onset with Jean-Michel, it was never like that. I knew this man was like a butterfly. I knew that I would keep my hand open, and he would light on it when he wanted to, and fly away when he wanted to.”
Great artists walk a very fine line between genius and insanity. For Basquiat, it seemed as if he wanted insanity over anything else. His hijinks and highly erratic behavior gives rises to questions about his mental state. But we are never really sure if he truly means what he says or if he created a persona that had to be lived up to. Some people interviewed for the book felt that he was as genuine as one could ask for. Others saw the dysfunction in him from his childhood and the closest to him knew that he was on a path to destruction and had no desire to change course. Ironically, in death he achieved the fame that he had not yet quite reached in life, even as a protégé of Andy Warhol. The story of their first meeting, later and falling out is included in the story, adding another dimension to his life. To drive home the story, Hoban includes snippets of Warhol’s personal diary, in which Andy is frank about Basquiat and the direction his life is taking. Their relationship came to an end due to an infamous op-ed that gave the impression of Basquiat being Warhol’s sidekick. However, Warhol’s death did affect him and Hoban relates that:
“On February 22, 1987, Andy Warhol, who had reluctantly checked into New York Hospital for what should have been a routine emergency gallbladder operation, died. In a sense, so did Basquiat. According to those who knew him best, he never recovered from Warhol’s death.”
Warhol was not part of the 27 Club but certainly died before his time as well. For Basquiat, it would only push him further down his ill-fated path. But before then, he would create dozens of paintings that have gone on to achieve world-wide acclaim.
The world may never see another Jean-Michel Basquiat but in this book, his continues to live on. And had he been able to read this book, I can only imagine what his reaction would be. It has been said that great artists see life through a different lens. This is certainly true for Basquiat, who marched to the beat of his own drum. And behind the brilliant artist was Mr. Hyde ready to come out and embrace the darkest demons any of us could take on. He loved art but struggled with personal demons and being a black artist in a white artistic world. His life can serve as an example of the importance of the father and son relationship that guides a boy into manhood. Gerard Basquiat never had the chance to reach his son but for the fathers that might read this post, this book will show you exactly why your role in the lives of your child or children is extremely important. But I believe you already know that.
If you are a fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, this book is a must read. It is not easy to go through at times and he never presents himself as an angel. He was a man of several faces, each with its own set of issues. But to accept him is to love him and author Phoebe Hoban shows this brilliantly as she brings him back from the past and to the present. This book is an excellent account of his hauntingly short and tragic life. Highly recommended.
“In Basquiat’s paintings, boys never become men, they become skeletons and skulls. Presence is expressed as absence—whether it’s in the spectral bodies and disembodied skulls he paints or the words he crosses out. Basquiat is obsessed with deconstructing the images and language of his fragmented world. His work is the ultimate expression of a profound sense of “no there there,” a deep hole in the soul.” – Phoebe Hoban