Black and White and Widow Basquiat

Jean Michel-Basquiat became internationally famous at an incredibly young age for his unforgettably vital and original art. Then in 1988, at the age of just 27, he died of a heroin overdose. Jennifer Clement is the author of Widow Basquiat, which follows Basquiat's relationship with his muse (and Clement's friend) Suzanne Mallouk.

As a new large-scale exhibition of Basquiat's work opens at the Barbican, Clement writes about her memories of the now cult classic memoir.

When I think back on New York City in the early 1980’s everything is in black and white. My memory has washed my life of all color and those days appear like the television reruns we watched as children – The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Flying Nun and, of course, The Little Rascals – Jean-Michel Basquiat’s favourite show of all. It was from this last one that he took inspiration for his now famous emblem of a crown with three spikes.

Seeing the past or memories in black and white is the reason I wrote Widow Basquiat as if it were a silent movie. The heart of the book –- literally the midpoint of the text – is the scene where I place Suzanne (Widow Basquiat) and Jean-Michel Basquiat in bed watching D.W. Griffith’s movie Broken Blossoms. Every chapter in the book is a short scene – as in silents – and the introduction of Suzanne’s voice in the book creates the title cards or what were known as intertitles to the action. Generally, there were two types of cards: there was one conceived as dialogue and the other presented as expository text, which provided extra information in case the visual couldn’t convey the scene in full.

As with most writers, my deepest interest is form. It took me a long time and several drafts to find my way to this silent movie style as the way to cover a short-lived, broken love affair, my personal black and white experience of New York City and, above all, honour my friendship with Suzanne. I’d already written many poems on Suzanne in the early 1980’s. This form, along with the fact that I decided to write Widow Basquiat in the present tense, allowed the work to be of the time instead of about the time.

I also believe that there is a silent film aesthetic to Basquiat’s work – the looking and reading – and this created a syncretic dialogue in my mind.

In 2000, a few years after writing the book, I published the memoir with Canongate Books in the UK. And the truth is no other publisher was interested because, well, who the hell was Basquiat?

A year later Canongate hosted a launch party for the book in New York City for the USA market and, only two days later, came 9/11. Everything that made its debut that Fall disappeared in the sorrow and shock of the terrorist attacks. Because of this, my book quickly disappeared from bookstores and became a kind of cult classic on the 1980’s. Over the following years, every now and again, people would ask me to sign a Xeroxed copy.

That New York world is also in black and white to me because of racism, which is described in Widow Basquiat and, of course, in Jean-Michel’s paintings. Skin as the white and black and black and white New York City chess board. Skin is a police club and the night sky. Skin is Michael Stewart killed by white cops when he was caught spray painting on a wall of the First Avenue subway station – the L train – at 2:50 AM on September 15, 1983.

Today some of the important records on this world have now literally gone dark. In those days we all had a fascination for Polaroid photographs. Polaroid photography worked by peeling the negative off, which always had a strong poisonous odor, and throwing that part away. Most of these photos have faded completely. Jean-Michel’s sense of humor and his way of revering the absurd would have loved this just as he loved to scratch out meaning on his canvas and the fun he had with the first commercial Xerox machines.

I have a small set of Jean-Michel’s Polaroid photographs. Who knows what image is there in the black-sky square of nothing: cops in a subway car, a Guardian Angel in a subway car, a painting from the Terminal New York show, my red shoes, Suzanne’s mouth, his fingers in her mouth?

—Jennifer Clement is the author of Widow Basquiat