The show at Howl! Happening is called Zeitgeist: The Art Scene Of Teenage Basquiat. I spent an afternoon there with my pal Hayden, and our time made me realize that all is not lost in this city of high-rise luxury condos and pet spas. We can be creative while getting turned on (so to speak) by the dirty days of the Saturday Night Fever era when the trains were full of graffiti and “respectable” people didn’t travel below 14th Street.
Upon entering the humble gallery, just off the Bowery, my eyes first gaze upon a wall-sized photograph of tires on the street amongst graffiti. The genius of this once homeless artist was his ability to find ordinary junk and turn it into something extraordinary that we would have never been able to see without his vision. He also brought an intelligent awareness to the exploitation of African descendants in America’s history. From slaves to athletes, he showcased the exploitation within his paintings, ironically selling many of them to wealthy, white people. You know that must have made him laugh.
SAMO, which meant “Same old shit,” was the tag that Basquiat and pal, Al Diaz, spray-painted in the dirty alleyways and storefronts of the city. SAMO was a political statement and a conceptual art piece that demanded attention from people and helped propel Basquiat to the stardom he always wanted. Sprayed at the bottom of the wall in the gallery was: SAMO “4 THOSE OF US WHO MERELY TOLERATE CIVILIZATION.” Forty years later, Jean-Michel’s words speak volumes to most of us. Another epigram painted on the wall read: SAMO “AS AN END TO MINDWASH RELIGION, NOWHERE POLITICS AND BOGUS PHILOSOPHY.”
After every SAMO painted, Basquiat would circle a lowercase letter c next to it, indicated a copyright symbol. These artists barely had ten dollars between them, let alone a lawyer! This humor echoed the poverty around the city at the time as well as the battle for tagging space.
Looking to the right, I see a photograph of a girl who appears to be Lydia Lunch (but I could be wrong) standing on the street. Another photograph is of a handsome Jean-Michel wearing black-rimmed glasses, slightly tearing away the nerd tape that presumedly held the glasses together. It’s my favorite photograph of the young artist as his skin was clear and eyes were bright, before the dope brought down his spirit. An impressive-sized piece of graffitied wall lay in the middle of the gallery’s floor. It must have been placed there by a forklift.
Like many highly creative people, Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on the 22nd of the month in December of 1960 in Brooklyn. His father was Haitian and his mother was Puerto Rican. He ran away from home many times but in 1977 he finally made a permanent move to the Lower East Side where he slept on park benches in Tompkins Square Park.
When he was a boy, he was hit by a car. While his ruptured spleen and broken arm healed, he read the medical manual, Gray’s Anatomy, given to him by his mother to keep him occupied. Eventually, that experience not only inspired the name of his band, Gray, but the illustrations in the manual would reappear in his drawings and paintings. Even though Jean-Michel couldn’t really play the clarinet, Gray’s jazzy noise-rock project of amateur funkiness pleases the ears to this day. It’s thinking music. I feel like you could put Gray’s music on in the background and it would expand your grey (or gray) matter in the way that classical music does. Actor Vincent Gallo did a stint in the band but the main musicians were Nick Taylor and Michael Holman, who started Gray. Other members of Gray included Justin Thyme (aka Wayne Clifford) and Shannon Dawson.
His adoring mother also took him to museums as a boy, signed him up as a youth member of the Brooklyn Museum and encouraged him to draw. Unfortunately, she ended up in a mental hospital a few years after her divorce landed custody of her children with their father.
Panhandling for subway fare and searching the Mudd Club floor for dropped cash was Basquiat’s usual income source. Luckily, he was very attractive and a smooth dancer, so ladies would open their beds to him, giving him a nightly pad to crash in. Eventually, he collected cash by hawking sold postcards with his doodles on them in Washington Square Park. Andy Warhol famously bought three of them. A working relationship would end up blossoming years later.
Success brought with it a host of famous friends, including Warhol, and the romantic attention of the en vogue material girl herself, Madonna. To the outside world, he was a rags to riches success story. On the inside, he was tormented by his failed relationship with his longtime girlfriend and the five-hundred-pound monkey on his back, heroin.
Jean-Michel Basquiat joined the infamous 27 club when he died from a heroin overdose in his art studio on 57 Great Jones Street on August 12, 1988. His childlike demeanor, as well as the fact that he was a real child prodigy, prompted his close friend Fab 5 Freddy to read Langston Hughes’ poem “Child Genius” at his funeral. Friends David Shapiro, Arto Lindsay, writer Glenn O’ Brien and artist Keith Haring attended his memorial as well. Madonna lamented that Basquiat was one of the few people she genuinely envied but that he was far too fragile for this world. His sensitivity to his surroundings combined with his ability to intellectualize the corruption of the powers that be would cause him to self-medicate. With his addictive personality and a family history of mental illness, this was a recipe for disaster and tragedy.
To further celebrate the late street artist who made a splash with downtown kids and uptown art snobs alike, the lower Manhattan gallery Howl! Happening An Arturo Vega Project is featuring works by Basquiat as well as other artists from his era. These include a wide range of work from rock photographer Bob Gruen, Basquiat’s former roommate Alexis Adler, Charlie Ahearn, Ted Barron, Philippe Bordaz, Robert Carrithers, Henry Chalfant, Brett De Palma, Vivienne Dick, Jane Dickson, Al Diaz, Barbara Ess, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Robert Goldman aka Bobby G, Godlis, Nan Goldin, Richard Hambleton, Michael Holman, Becky Howland, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Jim Jarmusch, Justen, Ladda, Ann Messner, Mary-Ann Monforton, James Nares, Glenn O’Brien, Franc Palaia, Lee Quiñones, Walter Robinson, Christy Rupp, Luc Sante, Kenny Scharf, Paul Tschinkel, and Robin Winters.
Visit Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project through July 29 for a taste of Basquiat’s teenage years as well as some of the artists he associated with in late 1970s NYC. The show is free of charge and open to the public.