Portrait of the Artist’s Girlfriend

Suzanne Mallouk first met painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1980; she served drinks in a smoky Manhattan dive named Night Birds while he played Eartha Kitt's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" over and over on a jukebox. Basquiat moved in with her weeks later, his only possessions including a broken radio and a tin can full of crayons. Four years later, he was famous. Four more and he was dead, of a heroin overdose. Author Jennifer Clement (a friend of both Suzanne and Jean-Michel) writes Widow Basquiat in a spare, poetic style with interspersed italicized commentary from Suzanne herself. The resulting biography is a quick, enjoyable read, but never really reveals Mallouk as a character with drives and interests of her own. It's mainly another contribution to the literature of the hanger-on—someone proving they were there, a biographical footnote to the Basquiat legacy.

From their first meeting at Night Birds to the day, two weeks before his death, when Basquiat rings her buzzer and disappears ("I know he came to say goodbye because he knew his death was imminent but then he must have suddenly changed his mind. He didn't want me to see him in such a terrible state, ravaged by heroin"), their tempestuous union seems fated. Serendipity abounds. Suzanne grew up surrounded by the smell of thinner and paint: Her abusive Palestinian father ran a house-painting company from their home in Ontario, Canada. Her British mother claimed to be a witch; vodun rituals preoccupied the Haitian-born Basquiat. Both Jean-Michel and Suzanne left home at 15. And both had links with Rene Ricard. As a teen, Suzanne relished Ricard's first book of poetry, The Blue Book, and developed an anonymous telephone relationship with him upon her arrival in Manhattan. ("I found Rene Ricard's number in the phone book and I used to call him and we would discuss philosophical things and I would tell him how brilliant I thought he was and read him my own poetry.") Later, Ricard was a very influential, early art-world supporter of Basquiat, writing the first major piece on the artist in Artforum, and he became a friend to both Suzanne and Jean-Michel.

Aside from living with Basquiat, Mallouk traveled down a few other interesting paths before settling on medical school, with a specialty in pediatrics. She showed her own artwork at the Vox Populi Gallery, and led a brief career as singer Ruby Desire. On the outs with Jean-Michel in 1983, Suzanne ironically became involved in another ill-fated romance with Michael Stewart, a rudimentary graf writer, weeks before he was beaten to death by NYC transit police that September. ("The doctor . . . said he had a massive hemorrhage at the base of his brain that appeared to have been caused by strangulation from an illegal choke hold with a billy club.") This is all documented in Widow Basquiat, but particulars relating to the artist are, of course, central here.

The book doesn't flinch in describing the depths of Basquiat's drug abuse and his misogynistic mistreatment of Suzanne as he rose from street ragamuffin to nouveau-riche star. "They do coke six or seven times a day," Clement details. "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. . . . 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.' " Unfortunately, Clement never interprets or judges, but the book still provides insightful clues for Basquiat enthusiasts to decipher this '80s art legend.

 
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