Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

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The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat once took his lover Suzanne Mallouk on a trip to the MoMA. He knew the museum and its collection intimately and he challenged Mallouk to pick out a work by a black artist. She couldn’t find a single one.

Widow Basquiat: A Love Story is a biography of Suzanne Mallouk, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s long-time lover and muse, written by their friend Jennifer Clement. Widow Basquiat was first published in 2000 in the U.K. but is only being printed in its first American edition in 2014. Widow Basquiat is about the artist, about Mallouk, and about the indulgent, hedonistic ’80s art world

It ain’t hard to tell, I’m the new Jean-Michel

Surrounded by Warhols my whole team ball

–Jay Z, “Picasso Baby”

The world of contemporary art is shifting. The Art Basel art fairs, once the domain of ArtReview and Wallpaper*, are moving into E! Network territory. At this year’s Art Basel Miami, the luxury watchmaker Hublot was a major sponsor, Leonardo DiCaprio flew in to sniff out some supermodel pussy, and both Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus had artworks on display. The pop star and contemporary artist have a relationship the likes of which we haven’t seen since Debbie Harry was buying paintings from her friend, the emerging artist Basquiat.

Basquiat’s work is part of the contemporary art renaissance. In Miami the W Hotel hosted an ’80s inspired pop art exhibition including works from Warhol and Basquiat. In early 2015 the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) will mount a large-scale Basquiat exhibition with 100 works from public and private collections throughout the world. It will be the first such retrospective of the artist’s work. Art people are talking about Basquiat and regular people are talking about art.

Inspired by Basquiat my chariot’s on fire

Everybody took shots, hit my body up, I’m tired

Build me up, break me down to build me up again.

—Jay Z featuring Chris Martin, “Most Kingz”

Widow Basquiat deals with Basquiat’s process of creation in an intimate way. What do the words and images in his paintings mean? How did he paint them? Why? A Panel of Experts, a 1982 painting, was the first of Basquiat’s works installed at the AGO, as a teaser for the upcoming exhibition. In Widow Basquiat we learn it was painted after Mallouk and Madonna (yes, that Madonna) got into a catfight over the artist at the Roxy. Mallouk pulled Madonna’s hair, scratched her and punched her. The word ‘Madonna’ is crossed out because Mallouk won the fight. Armed with Clement’s book you can stroll into the AGO, lean back with a finger over your pursed lips and say “now this painting has an interesting history,” to your fellow gallery-goers.

In 2014 Jennifer Clement published a novel, Prayers for the Stolen. It’s about women in Mexico’s drug culture, and it was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. The renewed attention to Widow Basquiat may have less to do with Basquiat than with Clement herself. Her prose is as much a character in Widow Basquiat as Mallouk or Basquiat. Clement has published several books of poetry, a fact that is reflected in the cadence and lyricism of her writing. Consider the following (line breaks added for emphasis):

When the fever begins she thinks it is the coke.

When she starts to vomit she thinks it must be heroin.

She cannot stand up.

She cannot sit down.

The narrative is free from exposition or interpretation. Even when the story turns brutal, when Basquiat turns violent, Clement lays out a series of occurrences, and like in a poem the reader is left to decide what they mean.

Each short chapter begins with Clement’s writing as a third person narrator and is followed by text meant to be in Mallouk’s own words. It’s all drawn from Mallouk’s memories as she described them to Clement. The story introduces Mallouk during her abusive childhood, revisits her when she flees to New York, and stays with her through her love affair with Basquiat until his death. The title character is “Suzanne,” “she,” “the girl,” then “I.” When the point of view shifts, so does the tone.

He loved to shock, even shock with generosity. It was like punching someone.

Mallouk is darker and less lyrical. Sometimes it feels as though her account is at odds with Clement’s. The facts are the same but Clement’s point of view, imbued with less emotion than Mallouk’s, seems more reliable. Toward the end of the book Clement begins to appear as a character named Jennifer Clement who has drinks with her friend Suzanne and wanders the city with her until sunrise.

Come through the ‘Ye mask on

Spray everything like SAMO, I won’t scratch the Lambo.

–Jay Z, “Picasso Baby”

In August 2013, the rapper Jay Z released a performance art film. It’s a music video for the song “Picasso Baby” and an homage to the performance art piece “The Artist is Present” by Marina Abramovic. Abramovic appears in Jay Z’s video. “Picasso Baby” is not the first time the rapper has invoked Basquiat in song; he’s been coming up in Jay Z’s rhymes for years.

When I say it then you see it, ain’t only the music

Basquiats, Warhols serving as my muses

My house like a museum so I see ‘em when I’m peeing

Usually you have this much taste you European.

—Kanye West featuring Jay Z, “Illest Motherfucker Alive”

Both Jay Z and Basquiat came up from poverty and through their art propelled themselves to riches and legitimacy in the public opinion. Jay Z was a crack dealer, Basquiat a homeless high school dropout. Last month Jay Z met the future king of England and a Basquiat painting sold for $5.5 million. Even when they became rich at the top of their respective professions, both struggled to feel respected. Mallouk says early in the text that everything Basquiat does is because of race. Jay Z raps about being pulled over because he’s young and he’s black and his hat’s real low. Basquiat could never get a taxi, even later when he wore Armani suits.

Basquiat cared what people thought of him as a person, not just what they thought of his art. In one scene he enters a store and is followed by security and treated poorly by store staff because of his appearance. He purchases $2000 worth of caviar. Outside the store he laughs and says “boy did we fuck them.” The book is full of examples of Basquiat feeling compelled to buy respect when it is not freely given. His solution to dealing with racist assholes in the ’80s was to throw around his money. You disrespect me? I’ll pay for your dinner. That’ll show you. Basquiat bought dinners and Armani suits and caviar to say “you can’t minimize me” but also “I am one of you.”

Jay Z does the same thing. What does he buy? Basquiats.

Basquiat drives around in a limousine handing $100 bills to bums. Jay Z buys a yellow Basquiat and puts it in his kitchen corner for his baby daughter to lean on. Then he raps about it.

I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo, before the Basquiat show.

–Jay Z featuring Frank Ocean, “Oceans”

Mallouk says that everything Basquiat does is because of race. In a devastating section of Widow Basquiat, Clement tells the story of Michael Stewart. Stewart was a young graffiti artist who was arrested during a graffiti crackdown and beaten into a coma during his arrest, eventually dying in the hospital. Six white officers were charged. All were acquitted by an all-white jury. Stewart is a digression from the main narrative; Basquiat falls out of the story. Perhaps Clement allowed this digression because Stewart’s death is so shocking, so dramatic, so sad. Perhaps she thought the modern reader would be thoroughly shocked at the idea of police bearing no responsibility for the death of an unarmed man at their hands.

When Basquiat was painting in the ’80s he claimed he was giving black artists legitimacy, that he would be the one to get black artists into museums. Everything Basquiat did was because of race. In the years since he and Mallouk couldn’t find a single painting by a black artist, the museum has made progress. This year the MoMA hired a consulting curator to focus solely on the collection and presentation of art by black artists. It feels like a win. But the death of a young black man at the hands of police, the need for a young black artist to flash money to feel legitimate, and so much else in Clement’s book keeps that win from feeling like progress.

Eva Jurczyk is a writer and librarian living in Toronto. Her debut novel, The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, will be published in January 2021. You can find her on Twitter at @msevav. More from this author →