Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, by Jennifer Clement. New York: Broadway Books, 2014. 208 pages.
THE SHOW OF EARLY NOTEBOOKS and drawings by Jean-Michel Basquiat opening this month at the Brooklyn Museum in New York places a focus on the artist’s formative works, which might provide a clearer and more profound understanding of his artistic intentions and methods than do larger exhibitions of later pieces. Eight marble notebooks, with their archetypal sketches and long lists of found phrasesdating from 1980 to 1987, and published in conjunction with the exhibition as a single facsimile volumereveal the essence of his process. We see Basquiat’s radical openness to his environment and his awareness of the power in random phenomenathe derivation of signs and symbols by seemingly arbitrary and instinctive means.
Here are lists of fragments and figments, found objects, ready-made memes. Notes but also art and poetry and memos. What does it all mean? Could it be a self-made grimoire, conjured out of thin air and the electromagnetic signals flowing through it?
The artist Brion Gysin wrote in his own sketchbook in 1939:
I believe that no one can be sincerely interested or more than amused by anyone doing nothing in two dimensions. Nor can any but fools be interested by a lack of emotional intelligence as expressed by worn out symbols representing nothing but their own lack of intellectual adventure. Pictures are made to live with. I am made to make pictures. The magician’s role.
At the beginning of his public career, Basquiat was less fluent and sophisticated in his painting, and he worked on a smaller scale. But his methodology seems fully developed from the very start. He was a medium, a magician. His mission was nothing less than the restoration of a powerful spiritual function to arta channeling of the eternal through the ephemeral.
While much has been made of his relationship to artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Twombly, and Warhol, there seems to be relatively little understanding of the place of African art in Basquiat’s philosophy and work. It wasn’t simply a matter of emulating the style of “primitive” art, or a citation of anthropological artifacts, but the creation of artworks as magical tools, as things given a spiritual life.
The epiphany that befell Picasso in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris on encountering a collection of African masksa realization that changed the way he saw artwas something inherent (but still practiced) in Basquiat’s work: that art was a form of divination, a strategy of control, a weapon. In Picasso’s Mask (1974) by André Malraux, Picasso is quoted as saying:
The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. . . . The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators; ever since then I’ve known the word in French. . . . Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting.
Basquiat saw the artist’s role pretty much the way Ezra Pound had described it: “Artists are the antennae of the race, but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists.”
Artists, poets, and writers have always tapped into the zeitgeist, and often they have noted (Duchamp perhaps most famously) that the idea was already therethey simply functioned as its receiver and mouthpiece. The ancient art of augury was codified more than two millennia ago, signs taken and omens read in the flight of birds and in the entrails of sacrificial victims, or the movements of the planets and interactions with the stars. Horoscopes are as popular today as they were thousands of years ago.
The 1960s and its much-heralded Age of Aquarius were seen by Marshall McLuhan as the beginning of a new era of tribal consciousness. Timothy Leary counseled us to “turn on and tune in,” as if higher states of awareness were simply a matter of adjusting the dials of perception. But a more modern form of soothsaying was proposed by William S. Burroughs in his use of found text and the cut-up method to spontaneously create new meanings by sampling words and manipulating them. The artist operates through a sort of field theory of ideas, articulating whatever is abuzz in the air, or what we used to call the ether.
Basquiat understood such a theory, and from the beginning operated as a kind of secret-agent shaman, cracking the ambient codes of the all-pervasive electronic media. The words in his paintings are snatchedoften in real timefrom the TV, the radio, a song on the stereo, a film or video, a sign on the avenue. He is data-mining the noise that surrounds us all in the city, on the grid.
As a member of the first generation to grow up in front of the TV and plugged into the radio, I understood the process instinctively. I remember drawing in front of the TV as a child and my mother saying, “How can you do two things at once?” The answer, which I didn’t know yet, was “How can you not?” Even if your eyes are on the road ahead, your ears are set on scan and messages pop out. They are recorded throughout the pages of Basquiat’s Notebooks, a lost and found of linesappropriated, played on, riffing:
THERE IS A RACE ON
SOMEHOW RECOVER, ADAPT, SHIFT MONITOR
THREE MISSING LINKS
I FEEL LIKE A CITIZEN IT’S TIME TO GO AND COME BACK A DRIFTER
A BIT TOO BITTER
NEW CLOTHES ON ALL THE TIME
VICTIMS OF EMBELLISHED HISTORY
SUZANE [sic] EXPLAINED THE FILM TO ME
There is a great deal of critical and scholarly literature on Basquiat, but, oddly, the most profound insights into his methods and work may be contained in a novel, Widow Basquiat, written by Jennifer Clement, based on the memories of her friend Suzanne Mallouk, the most muse-like of the artist’s girlfriends. The book is written almost like an elementary-school primera Dick-and-Jane bookmade of simple declarative sentences, but it also resembles an “as-told-to” book in that Suzanne, like an athlete or celebrity, tells her stories to the writer, who puts them into formulaic reportage (although in this case, the formula is a magical one):
Jean-Michel never reads. He picks up books on mythology, history, and anatomy, comic books or newspapers. He looks for the words that attack him and puts them on the canvas. He listens for things Suzanne says and writes them on his drawings. He listens to the television.
Widow Basquiat picks you up and dusts you off and sends you on your way, with a real sense of the life that informed the art. It knows what to think about the art without any references or footnotes. Subtitled A Love Story, Widow Basquiat conjures real characters, a real time and real place. It’s not theoryit’s representation.
From a chapter titled “NO BLACK MEN IN MUSEUMS”:
One Thursday in 1982, Jean-Michel tells Suzanne to stand up and walk, they are going to the MoMA. He tells Suzanne to wear his clothes. She ties his pants around her waist with a rope. His sweater hangs down to her knees. At the museum Jean-Michel takes a bottle of water out of his coat and walks through the halls sprinkling the water here and there around him.
“I’d piss like a dog if I could,” he says as they wander past paintings by Pollock, Picasso, Kline and Braque. Suzanne does not even ask what he is doing. She knows this is one of his voodoo tricks.
“There are no black men in museums,” he says. “Try counting . . . ”
Suzanne cannot find even one.
Basquiat, a scion of Haiti by way of Brooklyn, learned voodoo from his mother. He knows the loasthe Haitian godsand he knows what they sound like on a jazz record. He can hear Erzulie when she’s speaking through a clarinet and he understands the relationship between possession and the dance floorthat the gods are in the music. He loves to dance to “(Not Just) Knee Deep” by Funkadelic. He understands Charlie Parker in the cosmic senseas stated by Ishmael Reed in his novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972)“the houngan . . . for whom there was no master adept enough to award him the Asson” (the rattle of the high priest). There is no master adept enough to award Basquiat the Asson. He is the handwriting on the wall:
THE LAW SITS DOWN FOR FREE SLICE OF PIE.
IT ALL DEPENDS WHO YOU ARE ON WHAT STREET.
PODIUM SCALING HIS WAY TO A BED
STATIC IS HARD ON VOICES BUT BLOCKS OUT CHAOS ON THE RUNWAY
A LOT OF BOWERY BUMS USED TO BE EXECUTIVES
A STEP DOWN SOON. NO JOKE
She thinks that Jean-Michel has become like a shaman. He is so thin that there are no muscles left in his body. The dope has turned him into a ghost. His eyes are luminous and huge. He says he knows he is going to die from AIDS, so what does anything matter.
Basquiat doesn’t need to be explained as much as simply paid close attention to, directly and by any means necessary, through reproductions or, if possible, by the radiations of the real deal. The literature tends to show the futility of summing up all the arguments it presentsanswering questions that needn’t be asked. That way lies chaos and tired misunderstanding. Better to just have a direct talk with the work. And the life of Basquiat, as sad as it may seem in the prevalent body of media testimony, is a joyous lightning bolt when it is described in true detail, as it is in Clement’s extraordinary as-told-to poem. The sportswriter’s existential amanuensis approach mastered here captures the profound range of Basquiat, from joy to despair, from oblivion to illumination.
In one passage, the artist takes Suzanne to a Burroughs reading. (Burroughs, of course, killed his wife when trying to shoot an apple off her head after they had been drinking.)
When they get home Jean-Michel tells Suzanne to stand against the wall . . . places her arms at her side and lifts her head. With his fingers he closes her eyelids.
“Don’t talk to me, Venus,” he says. “I don’t want to hear your voice.”
He places a tin can on her head. He places a jar of paint on her head. He laughs. He tells her to open her hand and spits into her palm.
Take notes and play them:
A CRUCIFIX ON THE TOWER TRANSMITTING INTO 20,000 TELEVISIONS (CIRCA 1938)
GET TO THIS FORK IN THE ROAD.
NO ONE IS CLEAN
UNABLE TO STING HER OR FLY AWAY
Glenn O’Brien is a writer based in New York.