Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat filled numerous notebooks with poetry fragments, wordplay, sketches, and personal observations ranging from street life and popular culture to themes of race, class, and world history. The first major exhibition of the artist’s notebooks, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks features 160 pages of these rarely seen documents, along with related works on paper and large-scale paintings.To dive a little deeper, learn the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s partner, Suzanne Mallouk. In Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement, the reader is plunged into 1980’s New York City where the lovers meet for the first time. All about art, underground culture, passion and creative energy, this biography is gripping and transportive. See below for an excerpt from the book.
This excerpt is from Jennifer Clement‘s Widow Basquiat, the story of the short-lived, obsessive love affair between Suzanne Mallouk and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Clement is former president of PEN Mexico and is the author of three novels and several books of poetry. THE CROSBY STREET LOFT MADNESS She irons the clothes, folds his clothes, places them in the same order on the shelf—the red sweater is folded this way and placed above the red shirt. She places the soap at an angle on the sink and always places the towels in the same order 1-2-3. She irons one shirt five times. She makes the bed three times and irons the sheets. If a sweater fades in the wash she cries. She never speaks and only answers questions or speaks in a panicky monologue: “My mother was a spy in the war. They took her to see a woman with transparent skin. They could see her heart beating in there and her lungs and blood. They could see her eyeballs turning. This was a military secret. Nobody knows about this. And they would give the woman food— turnips, oranges, bread—and watch it all go down into her. This was a military secret. I heard about her when I was five and I thought she must have been very beautiful like a larva, but very scared. I kept looking at my own stomach and wondering what was in there. I chewed care- fully. My mother said she was a kind of Venus or virgin.” At first Jean-Michel thinks this is funny and puts some of her words in his paintings. Then he tells her to shut up. He paints Self-portrait with Suzanne. He paints her speaking her chicken-chatter, “PTFME E a a a R M R M O AAAAAAAA.” They do coke six or seven times a day. He tells Suzanne she can only wear one dress. It is a gray shift with white checks. He tells her she can only wear one pair of very large men’s shoes. He does another line of coke. Suzanne walks clunk- clunk-clunk, her feet wading in the shoes, around the loft. He tells her she can’t wear lipstick anymore. He says she can only buy groceries and detergents. Then he says no, he will buy them. He does another line of coke and paints Big Shoes, a portrait of Suzanne in big shoes. He calls her Venus. He says, “Hey, Venus, come and kiss me.” He says, “Venus, go get us some coke.” He writes “Venus” into his paintings and says Suzanne is only with him for his money. Jean-Michel sticks black paper over all the windows so that they won’t know if it is day or night. “The day is too light,” he says. Soon Suzanne stops cleaning and Jean-Michel stays at home all day. Suzanne finds a place to live under a small table, like a small cat that finds a hiding place. From here she watches Jean- Michel paint, sleep and do drugs. He picks up books, cereal boxes, the newspaper or whatever is around. He finds a word or phrase and paints it on his board or canvas. A few times a day he crawls under the table with Suzanne and gives her a kiss on the forehead. Sometimes he pulls her out, has sex with her, and then puts her back under the table and continues to paint. Sometimes Suzanne weeps a little and Jean-Michel says, “Shut up, Venus. I know what it is like to be tied up and fed, with a bowl of rice on the floor, like an animal. I once counted my bruises and I had thirty-two.” Suzanne moves from under the table into a closet in the bedroom. In here there is a green trench coat, a pair of moccasins, black and pink pumps, a tin frying pan, a supermarket plastic bag full of bills, two large boxes of chalk. Under one moccasin Suzanne finds a small box of birthday candles. THEY DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DRIVE A CAR Shortly after Suzanne moves into the Crosby Street loft Jean-Michel takes her to Italy. He is having a show at the Emilio Mazzoli Gallery in Modena. Neither Jean-Michel nor Suzanne knows how to drive a car so Jean-Michel pays to bring Kai Eric along to drive them around. In the airplane Jean-Michel continuously gets up to do some coke in the bathroom. He says he has to finish it up before he goes through customs in Europe. He says he wants to open up the emergency door exit and jump on the clouds. Suzanne has hepatitis. She cannot lift up her arms. Jean-Michel sits beside her; he kisses and licks one of her arms. “Beautiful arms,” he says. “Venus, I have to paint your arms.” He takes a blue marker out of his pocket and paints on Suzanne’s arm. He paints her humerus, ulna, radius and carpus. He writes “animal cell” on the inside of her wrist. He draws a ring around her finger. “Now you are my wife,” he says. Read more about Widow Basquiat here. Learn about the Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum here.
“Sublime, poetic…A harrowing, beautifully told love story about two seekers colliding in a pivotal moment in history, and setting everything, including themselves, on fire.”—Rebecca Walker for NPR
“Stunningly lyrical . . . Original, insightful, and engrossing. . . . While filled with pop culture anecdotes art fans might seek—Andy Warhol and Rene Ricard both make appearances, for instance—Clement’s account is an honest love story above all else.”—Publishers Weekly
“The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes.”Why this book/lines? I love fiction that doesn’t have a straight narrative/chronological plot. For instance, I love books of linked short stories where you don’t realize how the characters are connected until several stories in. Justine is the first book in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which consists of four linked novels. They all tell a version of the same events from the points of view of four different characters, and in a slightly different style. You can’t get the whole picture unless you read all four, but also each stands on its own. And for Durrell, the city itself was the most important character. It’s quite magical, especially because pre-WWII Alexandria simply doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. Of the four books Justine is the most lyrical, which makes sense because Justine herself is the most inscrutable character. These books also bring me back to when I first read them, in my early 20s, traveling for six weeks in Greece, a completely improvised trip. Even in the mid-1980s you could still go somewhere not too far away but be very remote, almost like time travel. I like to revisit them every few years, like visiting old friends, and also my own past. With that first line I’m immediately transported. My favorite edition is the Penguin Ink edition, with cover art by Robert Ryan. It’s just gorgeous and so evocative of the time. Just looking at it makes me want to start reading. I have a copy in my office. – Linda F. Cowen SVP, Associate General Counsel Inspired by Justine? If you’re starting to dream of Egypt, Fodor’s has a great guide to Alexandria.