Since learning of 27-year-old painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s accidental death by drug overdose last week, what I live over and over again are not so much the hideous and hideously stupid circumstances surrounding his premature demise, nor the fact that so much splendor has been left by someone so young. He was a vibrant painter, a complicated artist, who produced work that meant more to the viewer, to me, than met the eye. But what I missed immediately was the figure of Jean himself, one of the most beautiful young men — with one of the most original minds — I have ever met.
It began with his eyes. I saw them — and him — for the first time in Brooklyn, our hometown. Never before and never since have I felt someone’s eyes pierce my consciousness in such a direct and directly personal way. Looking across the room at him and he at me, I saw the largely white cocktail party in which we stood grow smaller; the sea of faces that did not look like ours became a force that made us recognize each other to a degree that made at least my side of the conversation halting, stilted, naked. Sometimes love at first sight is like that.
And it was at first sight, too, that you realized Jean lived his life as if he had nothing to lose. At that same party he replaced the tape being played — Debussy — with a scratched bootleg recording by the Sex Pistols. As he danced about alone, I saw him watch, from the corner of his eye, to see just how long the others would take to pretend they would not react to the spectacle of dreadlocks, paint-splattered khakis, and brown limbs. As it happened, the others didn’t react. But then again, he did not stop dancing.
That image was replaced, in later years, by the image of the artist as commodity, enfant terrible, bad black bitch, nasty lout, charming gadabout. Initially identified with a group of artists who reached “blue-chip” status through their efforts as graffiti guerrillas (Jean’s tagline: SAMO, as in Same Old Shit), he rapidly progressed to other forms of visual expression. His paintings, drawings, and sculptures challenged the European idea of the “primitive”; as a disciple of Dubuffet and Twombly, he wanted to give his heroes the black face of his history.
It became increasingly difficult then to see him across the crowded rooms where so many of his paintings — in such a short time — loomed. The images he created always resonated for me because they were the truest representation of the “Negro” from my generation. In his last show, paintings with words like Mississippi and South African diamonds appear repeatedly in reference to what was being bought, sold, and lived outside of the world of his canvases. I think the words were metaphors for his position in the world just then, too. But that degree of self-knowledge is not what many people saw. Mostly what they saw was a boy so anxious for his life to begin — accompanied by love, by trust — that sadly enough he wanted to buy it all.
Death not only happens once, but time and again to those of us who are left to speak of the dead. But sometimes we don’t. This has become a time in which we are more and more disinclined to speak of so frequent an event, essentially because, as Owen Dodson once said: “The dead have become the signs of our bury hour; our living crucifixion.” ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 29, 2020