Condensed from the essay “National News©” by Sur Rodney Sur
Jean-Michel Basquiat created art during a period in which it had become a bastard child of art history. The field was becoming so complex, making the 1980s difficult to fully understand. Too much has been lost and records destroyed in the life of vagabonds. How do we fill in the gaps?
New Wave cinema and music had arrived. Visual artists were forming bands, making films, and creating a vibrant club scene. Jean-Michel was busy in all of it.
Basquiat in the apartment (Putty) (circa. 1981) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
Multiculturalism was considered for the first time. Graffiti, hip-hop culture, and punk were marketable.
Lower Manhattan was still a wrecking zone affording artists freedoms now long gone. And the HIV/AIDS pandemic was in full dress rehearsal.
This was the world Jean-Michel was operating in.
What did it mean to be him,
a fly in the buttermilk, his private now public? Reflecting on this heartens me to share an observation about Jean-Michel that Lorraine O’Grady makes in a 1993 Artforum story. On his being the American child of Caribbean-American parentage, she writes,
Basquiat performing in the apartment (Fridge) (circa. 1979 - 1980) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
“It was the sort of background that in the first generation of rebellious adolescents, kids no longer Caribbean and not yet American, ...
... faced with the inability of whites and blacks alike to perceive their cultural difference but convinced they were smarter than both combined, often produced a style of in-your-face arrogance and suicidal honesty. ...
... At their best, these traits sometimes ascended from mere attitude to the subversive and revolutionary.”
Alexis & SAMO
In the late 1970s, Jean-Michel lived with Alexis Adler in the East Village. He was still “writing” on and off the streets as SAMO©, beginning to earn himself recognition as a noteworthy artist. SAMO© plays heavily into his legend as a trickster, graffiti artist, street kid, and habitual drug user (most of us were) who found his way into the lower and upper tiers of the art world carrying a notebook.
Basquiat performing in the apartment (circa. 1980) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
The notebooks were where he revealed and remembered random thoughts to be revisited later. Record keeping. A point from where he began. The undated, erratic entries suggest nonlinear thinking, not unlike the zigzagging lines that also make appearances in his notebooks. Treasured words and markings.
Briefcase with cassette recorders in the apartment (circa. 1979 - 1980) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
Jean-Michel was engaged in writing, always. Some of his notations read like a scriptwriter’s notes of character dialogue. He was an astute listener who could capture and distill phrases that contained multiple meanings. “Thick peasant pea soup and yesterday’s bread.”
"The Baby" in the apartment (circa. 1979 - 1980) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
He often listened to multiple voices simultaneously—voices on the radio, television, record player, tape deck, “coarse voices through 2-inch speakers”
The apartment (circa. 1979 - 1980) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
—and he isolated words that worked well as sounds or as graphic elements when applied to any surface at hand. “MILK” on a radiator cover, hot stuff. The lower inside edge marked with a crown.
Jean-Michel had a fascinating musical mind—a jazz poet using imagery and language to reflect on history. Jazzing up language, and invitation to interpret words and their meanings—“not having money to go into diners and spread a rap as thin as margarine.” He loved the poetry, the musicality, and multiplicity of meanings.
Basquiat in the apartment (Shaved) IV (circa. 1980) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
Jean-Michel’s Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother gave him plenty of dexterity with his simulation of linguistic comprehension. In the bourgeois environment of his upbringing, language would have been both formal and colloquial. The bad child Basquiat didn’t care for formal—colloquial would do just as well.
Basquiat in the apartment (Shaved Head) (circa. 1980) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
Unforgiving is a ghetto where his use of language conflates with race matters, there’s no escaping that. Jean-Michel had a profound interest in manners of speaking, modes of communication, and lexicons—...
... printed media headlines, television and radio broadcasts, history, anthropology, a record player, a tape deck, and science— ...
... the activity of reorganizing systems of behavior of the natural world through observation and experimentation.
Basquiat in the apartment II (circa. 1981) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
As an archivist I find value in considering Jean-Michel’s notes within the discourse swirling around them. They have value as evidence of an explorative, creative, and questioning mind, something he certainly wanted to share. He said so himself in this page from one of his notebooks that attests to his thinking back then:
Basquiat in the apartment (circa. 1981) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
"This is a story I have tried to write many times that would be read in classrooms." This makes me wonder—what story is he referring to?
Basquiat and friends at the Lower East Side (circa. 1980) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing
Like the artist’s notebooks, these personal photos from the collection of Alexis Adler serve as another way to “fill in the gaps” in the story of the brief life of Jean-Michel Basquiat. They reveal the surroundings that informed his art, and his mindset at the time when his star was on the rise.
Condensed from the essay “National News©” by Sur Rodney Sur
This virtual exhibition was brought together by CaribBeing.
Founded in 2012, CaribBeing has grown into an award-winning organization with partnerships that span the globe with one ideal: a unified experience that celebrates the entire Caribbean region and its diaspora. Today, CaribBeing’s commitment remains: to deliver thought-provoking, culturally relevant content and experiences to individuals who crave Caribbean inspiration through arts, culture and curated events.
Special gratitudes to Alexis Adler, author of the photographs that compile this exhibition and to Eric Justin Johnson for the motion film footage.
Curator: Shelley V. Worrell
Exhibition design: Pablo Serrano-Otero