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Jane Diaz, an art student and waitress at the Bini Bon in the East Village in the late 1970s, struck up a conversation with Jean-Michel Basquiat one day while he was spray-painting stencils on a lower Broadway sidewalk. He followed her home, and, as she wrote, “What started off a casual chat bloomed into about a week of marathon nights, listening to music, endless conversation about art, about our futures, smoking pot, dancing to West Side Story, sleeping together, drawing together and making art.” When he moved on she “gathered up” most of the drawings he abandoned and threw them away, but held onto a self-portrait, “Little Monkey,” (1979) drawn with crayon and pasted with magazine cutouts, and a color Xerox of four small collages.
For many of his friends and acquaintances, Basquiat remains suspended in time, still the teenage or early-twenty-something enfant terrible, the couch-surfing habitué of downtown Manhattan, Club 57, the Bowery, by turns magnetically charming and detached, but irrepressibly talented. A show at Bishop Gallery in Bedford Stuyvesant called Our Friend, Jean, of drawings, color Xeroxes, and ephemera left behind, given to, or swapped with a few of the people who knew him then, offers a tiny but intimate window into Basquiat’s life prior to his extraordinary fame.
The rudiments of the visual language he invented are in the two simple works loaned by Diaz — his familiar raw, jagged line, the split-second connections he made, the humor. They are also evident in pieces owned by another girlfriend from the late ‘70s, Alexis Adler. The two of them had squatted together in an East 12th Street tenement that Adler refers to as a “laboratory” for his artistic experiments — painting on anything and everything, playing with the layering of words and images. And when he eventually left, she boxed the paintings, sculpture, drawings, painted clothing, and hid them away. (The MCA Denver showed much of this work in 2017.) You get a sense of Basquiat’s frenetic creative outpouring from her collection: notebooks, a hand-written page from a screenplay (“Andy: … I retired at an early age to avoid embarrassment …”), cartoons and especially a drawing of a head made of fire. An early collage in the show belonging to the writer Luc Sante called “Number One,” (1979) as well as a postcard he bought from Basquiat for $2 on Astor Place in the late 1970s, similar to one Andy Warhol paid Basquiat for in a SoHo restaurant around the same time, are clearly the first expressions of the inspired mishmash of the artist’s fully realized paintings of a few years later.
It’s remarkable these works remain with their original owners since most friends sold Basquiat’s work once he became famous or soon after he overdosed. (There has always been talk that some of the best of his drawings and paintings in the public domain came to the market from his dealers, that is, drug dealers.) I loaned his gift to me, from 1982, for the show. My portrait, drawn in pencil and oil stick, tagged “Always Drunk, Handsome young Robert Becker,” was finished off with a half dozen of his scrawled signatures and a most ironic caption along the bottom, “Trial Drawing No Value.” I’d met Jean-Michel in the late ‘70s in the East Village, and saw a lot of him when I worked at the Strand Bookstore and Interview Magazine. His impulse to give me a drawing wasn’t purely altruistic; I’d loaned him a shirt one Friday night and he’d decided to keep it. I remember his pleasure in making the portrait — we were at the Warhol Factory and both very hungover — and his quick, clean facility, complete focus, his glee in poking fun, and how he nailed my appearance. In 1982 he was loaded up with ideas and confidence. His studios and the people around him were about to get much fancier, but the tremendous production, the one-man art mill churning out work night and day, wouldn’t fall silent until his death in 1988.
Our Friend, Jean, with drawings, collages and ephemera by Jean-Michel Basquiat, continues at the Bishop Gallery (916 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn) through February 29th. The exhibition was curated by Stevenson Dunn, Jr., Erwin John, and Alexis Adler.