Former Lover Reveals Wealth of Unseen Works by Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat's 'Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown)'
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown)’ painting estimated at 7-9 million GBP is displayed at Christie’s in February in London, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? More to the point, is a sound only a sound if someone hears it? Without delving too deeply into the metaphysics, this riddle offers an imperfect analogy for the philosophical conundrum more relevant here, namely – is art only art if someone sees it?  TheGrio interviewed Alexis Adler, a New York University embryologist and former romantic companion of iconic Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, these and other tacit questions about how we evaluate, share and make meaning of art played mysteriously in the background.

Adler, who lived with Basquiat before he was famous, recently revealed plans to share a previously unseen, thirty-year-old collection of art works and ephemera from the early career of the tragic and prolific creator. Produced during their relationship in an East Village apartment — some pieces on the apartment — these pieces have never been seen by the art world or the public.

“This is allowing the people who knew Jean to tell the world more about him, who he was, how I knew him, his warmth and interest as a person,” Adler told theGrio about her plans. “There is a range of work from that time, and it offers a pretty intense snapshot of his beginnings as an artist.”

How Basquiat broke through

Even in his beginnings, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s unique appropriation of American politics and poetics joined text and image in drawings and paintings to great commercial success. His murals and canvases challenged our way of seeing, often relying on figures and abstractions to make acute social criticisms about race, contemporary power structures, and identity. He began his brief and brilliant career spray-painting under the pseudonym SAMO in the late 1970s and in a few short years rose to ’80s art fame, collaborating with legends such as Andy Warhol, as a dynamic and often controversial newcomer to New York’s art scene.

Adler shared an apartment with the growing artist from 1979 to 1980, and while it’s widely reported that she was his girlfriend, she is less forthcoming on the subject, simply stating that, “It was a dynamic time, and that [they] lived together with other roommates initially.”

A visitor stands in front of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled ‘Five Fish Species,’ in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A visitor stands in front of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled ‘Five Fish Species,’ in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Whatever labels we yearn to stick on their relationship, during that period  Basquiat was already cultivating his unique style in their home as reported by artinfo.com, “covering one wall in a glyph-like mural that reads ‘Olive Oyl,’ painting crowns and ‘Famous Negro Athletes’ on a door, and the word ‘Milk’ on a radiator.” Graphic images incorporating text that exposed often unconscious cultural concepts would become a main motif of Basquiat’s style.

One of the most successful black artists in history

Like so many extraordinarily gifted artists before him, Basquiat’s life and death seemed to resound with the sound and fury so enigmatically captured in his work. He died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 in 1988. Basquiat has remained since then one of the most successful African-American artists in Western history, and his work has seen a resurgence of critical and commercial popularity. The 24th street location of the prestigious Gagosian Gallery in New York City has achieved record highs in attendance through featuring a mini-retrospective of the artist’s work. A Basquiat mural sold at Christie’s auction house in November for a whopping $26.4 million. Currently, The Whitney Museum of American Art also in New York features Basquiat’s work prominently in an exhibition called Blues for Smoke, which explores the aesthetics of blues music and its influence on a wide range of art forms.

Was the explosion of interest in Basquiat’s work part of Alder’s personal motivation in deciding, after so many years, to share her treasures with the world?

“People have come to me year after year asking if I might do something with the work, and I just haven’t had the time,” Adler told theGrio, going on to explain that she had a family in the interim, and has been focused on working as a supervisor at NYU’s embryology laboratory. Yes, she still lives in the space they shared decades ago, where Adler houses many drawings and other items left by the art star. But, between working full-time and raising her children, there never seemed to be time for promoting the art work.

“I’m not an artist, I don’t know the art world. I’m an embryologist,” she was quick to point out. “But I was asked again in the past year, and it just seemed like the right time, and the people who are involved are genuinely interested, and know the field,” the single mother said of her decision. Currently Ms. Adler’s team includes, among others, Basquiat’s former assistant Stephen Torton.

When asked what resemblance,  if any, these particular pieces (which include drawings on radiators,  painted sweatshirts, and postcards) bear to the more popularly understood lexicon of Basquiat’s work, she indicated that “they are very similar, but more raw.”

Living with a legend

What was it like living with a brilliant artist who indiscriminately painted on clothing, furniture and walls? Adler laughed in response to that question, explaining that she “always knew Jean was going to be big, and make an impact in the art world, but that didn’t make him any easier to live with.”

So far the buzz has been a bit overwhelming in response to the announcement that these artifacts might soon be available, Adler confessed. There are prospects for a book and movie deal in the works, and a potential gallery exhibit in Rio that would be slated for next year. Still, Adler is playing her cards close, and has not made any specific plans for an exhibition or sale. Despite the whirlwind, the attention, and what sounds like glamorous offers and opportunities, she remains steadfast in her intention.

“I’m sharing these pieces, because it meant a lot to me to do right by Jean, and share the work,” she said. “It was sitting in a lock box for years, what’s the point of that? What’s the point? They are meant to be seen. Now I’m getting the chance to show them.”

To “do right” by the artist in Adler’s assessment is to share these unseen works and pieces of Basquiat’s life with the world rather than leaving them sealed in the void of a proverbial lockbox. And surely these bits and pieces will reach thousands when the many ideas for Basquiat’s artifacts come to fruition.

An opportunity to honor Basquiat

Perhaps, then, bringing this previously secret cache of art work to the public has little do with our ability to see and appraise it in the literal sense, and more to do with honoring the legacy of its creator, the artist.

Returning to our original analogy, it would seem that some appreciation has nothing to do with hearing the fully-formed sound — but being able to honor those rebels who dare to make a sound.

article by Chase Quinn via thegrio.com

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