Alibi V.23 No.51 • Dec 18-24, 2014 

Book Review

Boom For Real

Widow Basquiat: A Love Story

Jennifer Clement
Broadway Books
paperback
biography
$16

Jean-Michel Basquiat died while the influence of his work had yet to be established. Known as SAMO, a pioneering graffiti writer in Lower East Side Manhattan in the early 1980s, his success unfolded as an unlikely rags-to-riches story while he moved from scripting idiosyncratic messages on city streets to bold and confrontational paintings in high-end galleries. Basquiat combined crude images with text that commented on culture, race, history and often death.

Following Basquiat’s death in 1988 at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose, many critics, filmmakers, biographers and even other artists tried to own the narrative. They wanted to create the legacy of Basquiat in the image of the “Radiant Child,” as critic Rene Ricard famously dubbed him. But those stories were always too meager, often willfully omitting Basquiat’s insecurity, his violent and arrogant temperament and the complexities of race, sexuality and AIDS during the grab-all culture of the 1980s. By unraveling Basquiat’s romance with Suzanne Mallouk, the woman he affectionately referred to as “Venus,” Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat: A Love Story presents an indictment of the many narrow caricatures that exist of the artist.

With his paintings selling for handfuls of cash, the artist spends indiscriminately on drugs, fine dining and lavish clothes he’ll destroy while working. But none of this is what captures Mallouk. Her love for Basquiat remains unwavering even in the wake of his ego, infidelity and abuse.

Instead of mapping a sequential timeline, Clement presents the lovers’ history using poetic prose and augments it with Mallouk’s anecdotes. After a troubled and violent past, Mallouk flees her home for New York and is soon charmed by the burgeoning street artist. Their love affair is tumultuous, surrounded by all the excess New York has to offer. As Basquiat’s fame rises so do his insecurities, and his feelings toward Mallouk begin to run hot and cold. During one of their many breakups, Basquiat tells Mallouk he doesn’t love her anymore and calls her a “white Arab piece of shit.” Later, trying to woo her, he invites her to his loft, filled with flowers and pastries. With his paintings selling for handfuls of cash, the artist spends indiscriminately on drugs, fine dining and lavish clothes he’ll destroy while working. But none of this is what captures Mallouk. Her love for Basquiat remains unwavering even in the wake of his ego, infidelity and abuse.

Despite being surrounded by lovers and admirers, it’s clear Basquiat only trusted a few people very close to him. Art-world peers, gallery owners and tagalongs seeking authenticity clung to the young artist, boasting of his genius. Other narrators often got caught up in the myth-making, but Clement takes care to include detailed portraits of Basquiat’s true inner circle. His assistant Shenge Ka Pharaoh, graffiti artist Rammellzee and early No Wave art curator Diego Cortez are presented as bright portraits, their contributions and influence on the artist’s life included in full instead of being relegated to murky composites or completely discarded as they have been elsewhere.

Basquiat was terribly aware of the lore being constructed about his life and art career; Clement writes of his disdain for how others tried to own his story. “They don’t invent a childhood for white artists,” Basquiat lamented. Widow Basquiat is too bare and too raw to be the invention of imagination, too painful to be a fable written by spectators. Clement includes not just the “Radiant Child” but the scars and vicissitude of an extraordinary life. Widow Basquiat is as real a story about the man, not just the artist, as one could tell.