Aspen Times Weekly: ‘Basquiat Before Basquiat’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver
Before he had canvases to paint on, Jean-Michel Basquiat turned his genius eye and hand to sweatshirts, to a radiator and a television, to a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and on himself. Everything was a canvas for the kid, not yet 20, when he moved in with Alexis Adler at a sixth-floor walk-up on East 12th St. in the East Village of Manhattan in 1979. He’d drag in junk from the street and transform it.
Lucky for Basquiat’s legions of admirers, Adler saved just about everything. And this spring, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver curated it into “Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980.” The fascinating show, which drew road-trippers from here in the mountains and across the U.S., includes just about everything Basquiat made in the year he lived with Adler. The body of work gives us the artist as a young man, just before he broke out as a painter and became the giant of downtown New York’s legendary 1980s art scene.
“The derelict streets of the East Village provided his raw materials and he would bring his finds up the six flights of stairs to incorporate into his art,” Adler says in the exhibition.
These days, Basquiat — who died at age 27 in 1988 — is more myth than man, with paintings commanding prices in the tens of millions (and this month, a record-breaking $110 million). This show gives us Basquiat the kid, in thrall to his art but not yet committed to painting. Basqiuat before fame and fortune, before Warhol, just seven years but seemingly ages before the deadly overdose. The show offers a recreation of the apartment and of the building’s walls that Basquiat covered in graffiti (which was already bearing his “SAMO” tag).
It boasts reams of archival material — his notebooks, doodles, paintings and sculpture along with Adler’s photographs of in-home performance art: sequential shots of a young Basquiat in a football helmet fiddling with a television he’s installed in their refrigerator, goofing around in broken eyeglasses and Silly Putty mask, with half of his head shaved to the scalp, and playing the clarinet in the bathroom. He was making money for paint and rent by selling sweatshirts on the street, and many of those garments are on display here, as well.
With most artists, this kind of ephemera and juvenilia is left to scholars, boxed up and cloistered away in a university library somewhere and not displayed for the public. Many artists, of course, would rather keep it that way. Ernest Hemingway, when an editor sought to publish old short stories from his high school days, famously rebuffed him in a letter and declared, “It is like publishing the contents of a wastebasket.”
But with Basquiat, this work seems somehow key to what was to come. It’s the warmup before his breakout run of monumental painting — in that way, it’s reminiscent of another recent watershed Colorado show: the Denver Art Museum’s 2012 “Becoming Van Gogh.” Spotting Basquiat’s signature zig-zag lines in a sketch here, or one of his famed crowns in a notebook there, whisper of the Earth-shaking breakthrough that will come shortly after he left East 12th Street.
On a recent September Saturday morning, I awoke with an intense yearning to lose myself in the mountains, disconnect from cell service, and rediscover why I decided to call Aspen home in the first place. Standing there, at the Cathedral Lake trailhead, I knew I was right where I needed to be.