Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Revised Edition)

Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Revised Edition)

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by Phoebe Hoban

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Painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was the Jimi Hendrix of the art world: in less than a decade he went from being a teenage graffiti writer to an international art star; he was dead of a drug overdose at age twenty-seven. Phoebe Hoban's Basquiat, the first biography of this charismatic figure, charts the trajectory from the artist's troubled childhood to his


Painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was the Jimi Hendrix of the art world: in less than a decade he went from being a teenage graffiti writer to an international art star; he was dead of a drug overdose at age twenty-seven. Phoebe Hoban's Basquiat, the first biography of this charismatic figure, charts the trajectory from the artist's troubled childhood to his volatile passage through the white art world of dealers and nouveau-riche collectors, chronicling the meteoric success and overnight burnout that made him an instant art-world myth.

As much the portrait of an era as the portrait of an artist, Basquiat is an incisive expose of the eighties art market that paints a vivid picture of the rise and fall of the graffiti movement, the East Village art scene, and the out-of-control auction houses. Ten years after the artist's death, Basquiat resurrects both the painter and his time.

Editorial Reviews

Patricia Bosworth
The book [is] compulsively readable. There is enormous value in it, especially in Hoban's depiction of the glitzy 1980's art world, which is sharply etched and deadly accurate. She describes a place where sex, imagination and intelligence have been so brutalized by greed and celebrity the cumulative effect is numbing. -- NY Times Book Review
Margot Mifflin
Hoban probes Basquiat's fame-fixated psychology. . .and that of the crassly commercial, plainly racist art community that lionized and abandoned him. -- Entertainment Weekly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hoban's background as a journalist shows in the fast-paced, reportorial style with which she presents the life and times of the 1980s art world "phenom," painter Jean-Michael Basquiat. Half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican, Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn as the son of a middle-class accountant. At constant odds with a father friends described as "strict" and "self-absorbed," he became a drug-soaked denizen of the East Village, painting the city's walls with his graffiti tag, SAMO. How he turned his skills at wordplay and fragmented imagery into a career that captivated the international art scene before dying of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 becomes the focus of this accessible, frequently entertaining book. Those who peopled that scene, from gallery owner Mary Boone to Andy Warhol and Madonna, receive ample coverage here, as do the downtown New York clubs he frequented and the upscale European suites he trashed. Throughout, Hoban makes a strong case that racism marred the life of the dreadlocked artist in paint-spattered Armani suits. What's missing is any analysis of the degree to which Basquiat's enormous drug consumption (ca. 100 bags of heroin a day at the end) contributed to his imagery, especially the gap-toothed skulls he splayed across ragged expanses of bright colors. Basquiat died intestate, which ultimately meant that his father, Gerard, became executor. Although there are eight pages of photos (not seen by PW), Hoban could not get permission to reproduce works for her unauthorized biography and the lack is sorely felt. Editor: Paul Slovak. (Aug.) FYI: August 12 will be the 10th anniversary of Basquiat's death.
Library Journal
This first, unauthorized biography of the most monetarily successful black American artist--a master painter and wordsmith--is sorely needed. Jean-Michel Basquiat, initially known by the graffiti tag "SAMO," tragically lived a mere 27 years (1960-88). Son of a Haitian father and a mother of Puerto Rican extraction, he was recognized internationally as a young genius of the Eighties contemporary art scene. Hoban, a New York Times columnist, provides vivid material derived mostly from countless interviews conducted after the artist's death. Basquiat's mesmerizing charisma and sexuality accentuated a catastrophic lifestyle. Real creative talent overshadowed the fact that the enfant terrible was constantly high, fueled by massive quantities of drugs. Yet he remained able to produce dozens of masterpieces and hundreds of works with both strengths and weaknesses. A fine tale of a talented young man, this is also recommended for its commentary on the decade when art in New York was so wide-open a victim of commerce.--Mary Hamel-Schwulst, Towson Univ., MD
Alissa Lara Quart
In Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art, the paintings of the 1980s art star are mere set dressing for his overripe life. The book casts him as an unbearably charismatic coke-headed flâneur. Although he was defined by celebrity in his lifetime, Basquiat was clearly more than the sum of his own glitz. He was the first black American artist to achieve international art stardom. His large body of work skillfully conjoined expressionism and graffiti art -- found poems with erased words and quotes, icons of boxers and fathers and policemen, scatty anatomies, delicate if occasionally loosey-goosey markmaking. In this biography, however, writer Phoebe Hoban seems to forget that it was Basquiat's painting and not the hole that cocaine made through his nose that drew an audience to him.

An accountant's son from Brooklyn, he got his start tagging SAMO ("Same old shit") on the Brooklyn Bridge. By age 20 his painting and his identity were embedded in a "natural genius" narrative, his handlers the likes of Henry Geldzahler, Annina Nosei, Larry Gagosian and Andy Warhol. The biography cites the condescension and subtle racism that imbued some of Basquiat's relationships with the gallerists; he simply wasn't one of them. Hoban quotes Larry Gagosian's memory of meeting Basquiat: "I was surprised to see a black artist and particularly one that was -- you know -- with the hair. I was taken aback by it, and kind of put off."

Hoban doesn't follow up on this crucial matter, however, contenting herself with ladling out La Dolce Vita anecdotes. There's Jean-Michel's sex life. As critic Rene Ricard says, "His life was sex. He was into everything. He was a whore. He had turned tricks." Basquiat had many neglected lovers and as many cases of gonorrhea. There's "big plush blonde" Tina Lhotsky, who remembers their ur-East Village courtship ritual. They were two strangers, Basquiat offering one of his bagful of hamburgers to the girl in operatic makeup and a spiky bouffant. Another lover, Madonna, was perhaps more fascinated with him than he was with her. She played the vixen despite her sentimental attachment. Even 1998's fop Vincent Gallo chimes in with his admiring memories of Basquiat's signature paint-splattered Armani suits.

Basquiat was painting in Armani while his paintings sold extraordinarily well. A chunk of these sales were spent on heroin, however. By the time he overdosed at age 27, he and his painting had become self-parodies. The book continues its gossipy, breathy tone as Basquiat decays. We read the unexpurgated story of his nightmarish $300-a-day habit, including the junk mirages and the scabs on his face. By this time, some readers might find that this biography's talking heads -- gabby big-ticket art dealers, Jim Jarmusch actors and self-lacerating ex-girlfriends -- have become annoying.

While these voices lard the page, Hoban avoids formulating some essential questions: What was Basquiat's project? What is his cultural position today? Was he a genius or a fraud, a natural or a cagey confector of the authentic? Instead, Hoban and the artist's former gang render Basquiat as a brilliant savage, transforming the artist from human to totem. By the end of the book, you can't help but feel that Basquiat has been talked away into a second death. -- Salon July 23, 1998

New York Times Book Review
Compulsively readable... Hoban's description of the 1980's art world... is sharply etched and deadly accurate.
Kirkus Reviews
As is only fitting, reporter and New York Times columnist Hoban's zippy biography of the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is less concerned with art than culture. Basquiat, iconic if nothing else, epitomized the flickering sort of fame that tended to typify celebrity in the 1980s, alighting anywhere on anyone at any moment; it was up to the beneficiary to make something of this. Basquiat made good on his own, or so Hoban would seem to believe.

Indeed, she even thinks he earned his good fortune, combining volatility, volubility, and "street" credibility into a concoction irresistible to the period's New York art-world star-makers. Hoban constructs a persuasively awful account of the ethical squalor that drove the commerce of art to excesses whose wretchedness was only eclipsed by that of Wall Street. As for the art that ostensibly played some part in Basquiat's sudden skid across our cultural radar, Hoban doesn't trouble herself much about it. Then again, convincing arguments could be madeþand Hoban straddles the fence here, that where Basquiat was concerned, art was always beside the point. Her preface, in fact, offers a chronological portrait of the artist's hair. Basquiat, despite the imposing swell of anecdote stirred up by Hoban, still comes across as little more than a colorful cipher.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Revised Edition
Product dimensions:
5.32(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.93(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

"If you had only twenty-four hours left to live, what would you do?" "I don't know. I'd go hang out with my mother and my girlfriend, I guess."
--video interview, Tamra Davis and Becky Johnston, 1986

    Friday, August 12, 1988. On the sidewalk outside 57 Great Jones Street, the usual sad lineup of crack addicts slept in the burning sun. Inside the two-story brick building, Jean-Michel Basquiat was asleep in his huge bed, bathed in blue television light. The air conditioner was broken and the room felt like a microwave oven. The bathroom door was ajar, revealing a glimpse of a black and tan Jacuzzi tub. On the ledge of the tub was a small pile of bloody syringes. There was a jagged hole punched in the bathroom window. Beneath it was scrawled the legend "Broken Heart," with Basquiat's favorite punctuation, a copyright sign.

    Kelle Inman, Basquiat's twenty-two-year-old girlfriend, was downstairs writing in the journal that Basquiat had given her. He usually slept all day, but when he still hadn't come down for breakfast by midafternoon, Inman got worried. When she looked into the bedroom to check up on him, the heat hit her full in the face, like a wave. But Basquiat seemed to be sleeping peacefully, so she went back downstairs. She and the housekeeper heard what sounded like loud snores, but thought nothing of it.

    A few hours later, Basquiat's friend Kevin Bray called. He and Basquiat and another friend, Victor Littlejohn, were supposed to go to a Run-D.M.C. concert that evening, and he wanted to make plans with Jean-Michel. Kelle climbed back up the stair's to give Basquiat the message. This time, she found him stretched on the floor, his head Jean-Michael on his arm like a child's, a small pool of vomit forming near his chin.

    Inman panicked. She had never seen anyone die, although Basquiat's drug binges had made the scenario a constant fear. Now it seemed like the worst had happened. She ran to the phone and called Bray, Littlejohn, and Vrej Baghoomian, Basquiat's last art dealer.

    "When I got there," recalls Bray, "Kelle said she had called an ambulance. She took me upstairs. Jean-Michel looked like he was comfortably out cold. He was on the floor, lying against the wall, as if he had fallen down and didn't have the strength to get up, and was just taking a nap. There was a lot of clear liquid coming out of his mouth. We picked him up and turned him over. We shook him, and we just kept trying to revive him. It took a long time for the ambulance to arrive. But for a while, after the guys from the Emergency Medical Service came, we thought he was going to be okay. They were giving him shocks and IV treatment. Victor had to hold Jean-Michel up like this so the IV's would drain," says Bray, stretching his arms out in a cruciform.

    Bray couldn't take it anymore. He went downstairs, where Inman, and two assistants from the Baghoomian gallery, Vera Calloway and Helen Traversi, were trying to stay calm. "We tried to take his pulse. His skin was so hot," says Calloway. Baghoomian called the studio just as the paramedics arrived. He was in San Francisco and Helen was forced to act in his stead.

    "It was almost like it was some sort of business transaction," says Bray. "They put a tube in his throat and they brought him downstairs. They wouldn't tell us whether he was dead or alive and they took him outside. He had this beautiful bubbling red-white foam coming out of his mouth."

    "We all hoped some miracle would happen," recalls Helen, who begins to cry at the memory. Outside on the pavement, a small crowd had gathered in horror and fascination. "I was about to leave on vacation with my wife," says filmmaker Amos Poe, who was a friend of the artist. "We watched as they loaded his body into the ambulance. I saw his father pull up in a Saab. I kept saying to my wife. Jean-Michel is dead.' He really lived out that whole destructo legend: Die young, leave a beautiful corpse."

At Cabrini Medical Center, Basquiat was pronounced dead on arrival. The cause, according to the medical examiner's death certificate, would be determined "pending chemical examination." A later autopsy report stated that Basquiat had died from "acute mixed drug intoxication (opiates-cocaine)." In the months before his death, Basquiat claimed he was doing up to a hundred bags of heroin a day.

    Basquiat was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn five days later. His father invited only a few of the artist's friends to the closed-casket funeral at Frank Campbell's; they were outnumbered by the phalanx of art dealers. The heat wave had broken, and it rained on the group gathered at the cemetery to bid Jean-Michel goodbye. The eulogy was delivered by Citibank art consultant Jeffrey Deitch, lending the moment an unintentionally ironic tone.

    Blanca Martinez, Basquiat's housekeeper, was struck by the alienated attitude of the mourners. "They were all standing separately, as if it were an obligation," she says. "They didn't seem to care. Some looked ashamed." People began to leave the cemetery before the body was buried. Ignoring the objections of the gravediggers, Martinez tearfully threw a handful of dirt onto the coffin as they lowered it into the grave.

    Basquiat's mother, Matilde, looking dazed, approached Baghoomian to thank him for his help to her son during his last days. Gerard Basquiat later admonished his former wife not to talk to the art dealer. The scene was already being set for a bitter battle over the estate of the artist.

The following week, appraisers from Christie's set to work taking inventory of the contents of the Great Jones Street loft: finished and unfinished paintings, other artists' works (including several dozen Warhols and a piece by William Burroughs), a vintage collection of Mission furniture, a closet full of Armani and Comme des Garcons suits, a library of over a thousand videotapes, hundreds of audiocassettes, art books, a carton of the Charlie Parker biography Bird Lives!, several bicycles, a number of antique toys, an Everlast punching bag, six music synthesizers, some African instruments, an Erector set, and a pair of handcuffs.

    There were also a number of paintings in warehouses: following Andy Warhol's advice, Basquiat had tried to squirrel some of his work away from his ever-eager art dealers. According to Christie's, Basquiat had left 917 drawings, 25 sketchbooks, 85 prints, and 171 paintings.

    Artist Dan Asher walked by his old friend's loft and was astonished to see a number of Basquiat's favorite things in a Dumpster: his shoes, his jazz collection, a peculiar lamp made out of driftwood, Sam Peckinpah's director's chair. Asher salvaged a few items; he sold the chair to a collector.

    It would be another year before Gerard Basquiat ordered a tombstone for his son. But for several weeks after the artist's death, he was commemorated by a small shrine some anonymous fan had placed by his door. Shrouded in lace, it held flowers, votive candles, a picture of Basquiat, some carefully copied prayers, and a Xerox of a David Levine caricature of the artist, complete with a caption: "In an age of limitless options and limiting fears, he still makes poems and paintings to evoke his world."

    A formal memorial service was finally held at Saint Peter's Church in Citicorp Center, on a stormy Saturday in November. Despite the rain, wind, and bleak gray sky, several hundred people crowded into the church. Behind the pulpit hung a portrait of the artist as a young man, superimposed on one of his faux-primitive paintings. One by one, his former friends and lovers remembered Basquiat.

    Gray, the band with which Jean-Michel had played at the Mudd Club, performed several songs. John Lurie played a saxophone solo. Ingrid Sischy, editor of Interview magazine, read a eulogy. Ex-girlfriends Jennifer Goode and Suzanne Mallouk tearfully read poems. And Keith Haring, AIDS-thin, reminisced about his friend. "He disrupted the politics of the art world and insisted that if he had to play their games, he would make the rules. His images entered the dreams and museums of the exploiters, and the world can never be the same."

    Fab 5 Freddy, who knew Basquiat from his old graffiti days, "interpolated" a poem by Langston Hughes. "This is a song for the genius child. Sing it softly, for the song is wild. Sing it softly as ever you can--lest the song get out of hand. Nobody loves a genius child. Can you love an eagle, tame or wild? Wild or tame, can you love a monster, of frightening name? Nobody loves a genius child. Free [sic] him and let his soul run wild."

    After the service, everyone went to M.K., the bank-turned-nightclub on lower Fifth Avenue. Owned by Jennifer Goode's brother, it was one of Jean-Michel's favorite places. In fact, it was his last destination the night before he died. He had come to the club looking for Jennifer. Now people stood around the big television set, sipping champagne and watching a flickering black-and-white video of Basquiat. A photographer from Fame magazine snapped pictures of the known and not-so-known: the jewelry designer Tina Chow, and her sister, Adele Lutz, David Byrne's wife. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. It was the perfect send-off for the eighties art star; part opening, part wake.

Meet the Author

Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper's Bazaar, and the New York Times. She has written regularly for both New York magazine and the New York Times. She lives in New York City.

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Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Karl_Hungus More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly researched and organized, this book is at times clinical in it's assessment of Basquiat's quick rise and fall in the 80's art world. An unflinching portrait of the people who used JMB and of JMB using many, many people. Filled with details from insiders and assistants, it gives a view of JMB's life that is inspiring and also a great tragedy. Provides a balanced picture, with both praise and damnation from critics, colleagues and friends. SAMO lives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this to be a somewhat credible account of the 80's art world. I wasnt there so I dont really know. Im not a reader & find myself rereading this book on the subway. As someone who was graduated art school in 95 I am interested in the way things were then & find it facinating to walk by the places Basquiat frequented. Some of the discriptions lost my interest. Does the reader really care what the father of one of Basquiat's lovers does for a living? And whatever you think of the movie Im also addicted to the movie soundtrack.