Book Review: Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(I read an ARC of Widow Basquiat so a few details may have changed since publication.)

Widow Basquiat gives a very personal and poetic account of Basquiat’s journey through the beginnings of fame and all the way to his death, seen through the eyes of Suzanne Mallouk. In the introduction, Michael Holman calls Suzanne Jean-Michel’s “first great love.” She is not technically his widow: Rene Ricard gave her that nickname before Basquiat died.

Mallouk and Basquiat met very early in his career. They lived together on and off for the remainder of his life, and she was a frequent presence in the events which shaped his artistic development. The book is actually written by Suzanne’s close friend Jennifer, whose succinct style gives us little windows into various scenes of Mallouk’s life, with and without Basquiat. Very short chapters of only a page or two often contain two different voices: Clement’s spartan, lyrical prose and then Mallouk’s own memories written in italics. Suzanne’s first interjection appears after Clement has described her leaving her home in Canada, where her father could get violent and her mother claimed to be a witch. The scenes from Suzanne’s childhood are sometimes brutal, sometimes surreal like the paint fumes they breathe. In contrast to Clement’s somewhat dramatic portraits of the Mallouk parents, their daughter remembers them as more mundane, understandable people.

The balance between Clement’s storytelling and Mallouk’s frank memoirs reminded me that these wild people and dizzy experiences were very real. Taken alone, Clement’s narrative could read like a drug-painted (and then drug-sick) vision of artistic life: a short, experimental movie you can’t tear your eyes away from even though it leaves you feeling miserable. Mallouk’s memoirs, on their own, wouldn’t be so compelling either. Her writing is fine but not stunning, and the impressions of what went on around her need a narrative structure to keep from falling into a pile of paint and heroine. The collaborative style in Widow Basquiat creates a biography-memoir-story that instantly engages even readers who don’t know much at all about the art scene in which it takes place.

I read this little book only a few days after a friend showed me some of Basquiat’s paintings. I don’t know very much about the art world, and even less about the 80’s. The only real encounter I’d ever had with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings was in conjunction with Maya Angelou’s wonderful poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” in this picture book.

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After reading about Basquiat’s inspirations; his obsessions; his view of the world, I’ve had his paintings pulled up on my computer non-stop. Widow Basquiat reveals some of his motives for including certain words or phrases in his paintings, and it’s obvious from Clement’s and Mallouk’s memories of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a real knack for seeing how language and art intersect.

“On one painting he writes, ‘Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files,’ because he hears a hobo say this on television.” (quoted from ARC)

I still don’t know what that painting is about, exactly. But now I like it even more. These passages re-create the moments in which words caught Basquait’s attention – moments of watching silent films with Suzanne or after frustrating encounters with white art collectors in Obnoxious Liberals. They show that there was inspiration even in the mundane and unpleasant hours that measured their otherwise wild lives. Clements writes well about art, never getting overly critical, or snobby, or overwrought. Whenever she describes paintings or music, it is to conjure up the people more deeply. Jennifer herself is introduced more than halfway through the book. She remains an interesting side character in a portrait of her two subjects, with the only real physical descriptions of the blonde and Spanish-speaking woman coming from Suzanne’s own writing.

Aside from providing unreserved social context for the artist’s work, and a delirious parade of characters, Widow Basquiat recalls some of the appalling racism that Jean-Michel and his friends had to face in the art world (and of course the real world). In the chapter entitled “No Black Men In Museums,” Basquiat sprinkles water around the MoMA as a “voodoo trick,” explaining to Suzanne that there was no painting on the walls done by someone who looked like him. This was one of my favorite anecdotes, because while his actions might seem absurd at first, the point is completely undeniable.

“…his crazy behavior had nothing to do with being an enfant terrible. Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this.” (quoted from ARC)

The most affecting story, to me, is about Suzanne’s young boyfriend Michael Stewart. A quiet young man from a caring parent, Michael Stewart was a calming presence in Suzanne’s life while fights with Jean-Michel were on a repeating cycle. “I loved him as if he were my kid brother,” she writes. Michael gets murdered by six cops for allegedly writing graffiti. Enraged by the violent unfairness, Suzanne starts questioning the detectives, photographing Michael’s wounds, raising awareness and money for lawyers. This chapter in her life is all her. I like Suzanne best when she throws herself into her own cause, tapping into her own artistic energies to try and right a dreadful wrong. Of course, the police officers get off free for their crime. The Stewart family wins a civil suit, but the cops get to go on with their horrendous daily business. Suzanne stops working on the Michael Stewart case after she feels threatened at a radical meeting, but her work still raises awareness and points necessary fingers. These events, in which Basquiat features only marginally, broke the book’s narrative momentarily free from the artists’ lifestyles. It was an important edition to the book, and a good reminder that police brutality and a racist justice system have been raging, largely unchecked, for ages.

It was after Michael Stewart’s death that Jean-Michel Basquait painted “Defacement.” He may have acted jealously about Suzanne’s involvement with the case, but it obviously touched him deeply, as it should continue to do for anyone who hears the story or sees the art.

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At around the halfway point, the odd incidents of Jean-Michel bossing Suzanne around and their bad drug days are so frequent, the reading experience contracts an unhealthy pallor. I’ll admit to feeling uncomfortable with all the weird demands he made of his girlfriends, and the outbursts of anger that occasionally shook their relationship. The writing remains strong throughout, but it’s hard to read how everyone hurts. They split up, try to face the world, and end up together again in an unhappy and uncomfortable cycle. And because this is a true story about real people, they don’t all make it through the troubled times. Some of Suzanne’s friends manage to haul themselves together and put their dangerous vices away whenever they threaten to take over entirely. Some of them get devoured. We meet those who survive in the postscript; a show in 2010 when Basquiat would have been fifty years old. In staying true to Suzanne Mallouk’s memories, the miserable pieces of her story fit neatly with the colorful ones, and you must read about both to get a clear picture of what life was like for these people.

There’s this wonderful moment, in the postscript, when Mallouk sees the fridge she once shared with him on display. She sold it in the 80’s, when it was just one of the many scribbled-upon objects in their apartment. Now, it is marked, “DO NOT TOUCH.” So many of the memories dredged up in this book feel like that; flashes of shared experiences which seem like part of the daily roller coaster of routine, until time forces the riders to step back and see what other people have deemed irreplaceable.

This book’s title makes its subject matter clear. Basiquat’s name is the obvious one, he’s the figure we all recognize. But this particular tale belongs to his “widow” – his confidante and support system – told by her friend. There are almost certainly more complete biographies out there about Basquiat’s life, and more comprehensive studies of his art. After finishing Widow Basquiat in a few hours, it’s only clearer to me that I don’t understand art or money, and I likely never will. This book offers a transfixing glimpse of what it was like to live with Jean-Michel Basquiat throughout his influential but difficult artistic career. He’s almost always the center of attention, but Suzanne Mallouk channels that attention and turns it into something we can follow. Her memories and Clement’s prose turn the past into an additively readable trip through inspired visions and collapses. It’s the stuff of brooding novels and loopy films. Widow Basquiat is a short book; it packs a powerful punch and has left me curious to learn more about that churning cocktail of art/drugs/collaborations that produced so many enduring icons from that time.

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One thought on “Book Review: Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

  1. Pingback: Biography Reading: Pushkin, Basquiat, and Subjects I Don’t Understand | Bookshelf Pirate

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