I’d seen Basquiat’s name in my art history books. I didn’t learn how to pronounce it. His work never spoke to me, then. I was looking for something more ephemeral, something more fitting to my adolescent pretentiousness. I forgot about him, somewhere in the next chapter.
I chose to read Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, by Jennifer Clement, because it looked more interesting than the other options.
Because of that, my perception of our world -shifted- just a little bit.
I flipped the book open when it came in the mail, and read a page. There was a big heading: LESSONS ON HOW TO BE A WOMAN. This is a two-page passage. It describes how art critic Rene Ricard hired Basquiat’s long-time lover, Suzanne Mallouk, to transcribe his poetry. During the employment, Ricard gave Mallouk advice on being a more glamorous woman. It’s all interesting advice that deserves its own review, but this is the key phrase: “he tells her to study the drag queens because only they know how to act like women.”
I’ll let you chew on that, because that isn’t what this book is about.
Technically, this book is about Suzanne Mallouk, focusing on her relationship with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Literally, this book is about two people, the 1980s art scene in New York City, and addiction. It’s a coming of age story for Suzanne, as much as it is a love story for them both. And even though the book is from Suzanne’s perspective (more on how the author uses that, later), Jean is the one who captures the reader, much as he captured the art world in life: by burning like a firecracker and laughing at our blinded eyes.
I read another review of this book, that ends with the phrase, “Unfortunately, Clement never interprets or judges, but the book still provides insightful clues for Basquiat enthusiasts to decipher this ’80s art legend.” The reviewer calls Basquiat a misogynist, and I can see why, but I disagree. On the other hand, I agree that Clement doesn’t interpret or judge, and disagree that this is an unfortunate thing. I always wonder, when reading biographies, what the real motives were for the subject. In Clements’ work on Basquiat, he is allowed to speak for himself. Of course, that means it’s the reader’s responsibility to get it right.
I could have this wrong, but I don’t think Basquiat was a misogynist. He seemed to treat all his lovers in about the same careless way, and they weren’t all women. Jean and Suzanne treat each other badly at times, like lovers sometimes do, but I suspect that even their worst moments had more to do with all the coke they were doing than anything else.
Perhaps it’s all about perspective. From a monogamist’s perspective, Jean’s constant infidelity might be reason enough to say he was a terrible person. For many, his nonchalance about non-familial relationships – be they sexual, romantic, or platonic – might be reason to call him insincere. I didn’t see it that way. His behavior was consistently non-committal; he was free of such fetters as social norms except in the ways he mocked them. But I don’t think he disliked people. I think he loved them – individually, that is, as opposed to in groups. I find him absolutely fascinating.
A note on the style of the text: it’s brusque and charming, it’s a tale told in snippets, and it speaks sometimes in the third person – this is Jennifer Clement, holding the spotlight to events, no photoshopping allowed – and sometimes in first person – this is Suzanne Mallouk herself, speaking from her journal. It’s not nearly so jarring as it sounds, reading these two perspectives side by side. In fact, I suspect Basquiat would have enjoyed the dancing way the two narratives engage each other. The reader is never bogged down by, well, anything. Each passage – I can’t call them chapters – is no more than two or three pages. Most are two or three paragraphs. Some are less. The story jumps along, just as Basquiat seemed to jump through life.
And along the way, I learned some things, about art, about love, about the wounds we think have healed, about racism, about humor, and about manliness.
I see his art with new eyes.
- “The Radiant Child” – an article by Rene Ricard, the first written about Jean-Michel Basquiat. During the interview, Basquiat was high and naked. Rene complimented the beauty of Jean’s penis.
An excerpt from Widow Basquiat, page 73; the regular font is Jennifer, the italics is Suzanne:
BLACK TAR SOAP
Jean-Michel’s favorite soap is Black Tar Soap. He uses is every day. It makes a gray lather. No one else can use it. It is his joke. Jean-Michel draws it on his paintings.
Everything was symbolic to him. How he dressed, how he spoke, how he thought, who he associated with. Everything had to be prolific or why do it and his attitude was always tongue-in-cheek. Jean was always watching himself from outside of himself and laughing.
I received a free copy of this book from bloggingforbooks.org, so that I could do a review.
I’m so glad I did.
This review is also posted on my primary blog.