On Saturday afternoon between 30 and 40 people sat at the pews in Green-Wood Cemetery‘s beautiful Gothic chapel for a special screening of Tamra Davis’s 2010 documentary about one of the cemetery’s most famous residents, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Among the attendees were two of the late painter’s closest friends: former girlfriend and fellow artist Suzanne Mallouk, and Gray co-founder and screenwriter Michael Holman. They took questions after the screening, and then all in attendance visited Basquiat’s grave.
As the screening began shortly after 1pm the small chapel’s half-dozen rows of seats were about half full, but within the film’s first fifteen minutes many more people arrived. The documentary, which combines archival footage, contemporary interviews and the filmmaker’s original interview with Basquiat in 1986—two years before his death following a heroine overdose in his Great Jones Street loft—offers an evocative view of the Downtown scene in the early-80s, the New York art world at mid-decade, and this peculiar young Brooklynite’s meteoric rise from the most obscure sector of the former to the pinnacle of the latter. It seemed appropriate to be watching this film about a man whose work became increasingly focused on death as his own demise approached in so solemn a space.
Taking questions after the screening, artist, psychiatrist and long-time girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk, and screenwriter, friend and Gray co-founder Michael Holman offered their takes on their late friend’s life and death.
“You sort of walked on eggshells,” Holman recalled, “trying to be as cool as him, which was not really possible… we were disciples of Basquiat. He was something more than human, but on the other hand he had a real frailty, a naïveté.”
When the conversation turned to the current value of Basquiat’s paintings and the foundation that owns about half of them, which the artist’s father runs, Holman and Mallouk were asked if they owned any pieces. Holman does not, but Mallouk—who shared a live-work loft with him on Corsby Street in Soho for years—offered this story.
“We were about 22 and we were having a fight,” she said, “so I opened a window and threw a bunch of his paintings out onto the roof below, and then I took a bag of smaller works and set it on fire.”
Asked about Basquiat’s relationship to graffiti, Holman lamented that he’s so often identified as a graffiti artist, even though his work bares little relation to conventional graffiti.
“He did help a lot of graffiti artists,” Mallouk said. “Helped them get shows, gave them money, paint, clothes. Even at 18 or 19 he had a very acute awareness of the politics of the white gallery world, and he knew that if he aligned himself with graffiti he would never make it as a legitimate artist.”
She continued: “He was first-generation from Brooklyn, his father is Haitian and his mother was Puerto Rican, so he wasn’t African-American, he was Caribbean. He was able to look at race and racism from outside the box because he didn’t belong to a specific social group.”
Asked about the Museum of Modern Art’s refusal of a group of Basquiat paintings that two collectors tried to donate to the institution during the artist’s lifetime, a subject briefly discussed in the documentary, Holman reiterated the film’s bewilderment. “The MoMA has no Basquiat paintings. There may be a drawing in storage. As you saw in the film, the curator admitted ‘We didn’t understand it then,’ but what’s stopping you now?” (For the record, MoMA has five Basquiat drawings in its permanent collection, but not a single painting.)
After the Q&A a trolley took us to nearly the opposite end of the immense cemetery, where Basquiat’s very inconspicuous grave sits on a shaded row under beautiful old trees. On the small stone were many mementos, some more apt than others (someone left their business card), like a piece of drawing charcoal, an empty picture frame, and a sticker from PS1—where one of the most important exhibitions in Basquiat’s career took place. As everyone shuffled back onto the bus I elected to walk back to the front gate of the beautiful historic cemetery, an appropriately calm and majestic resting place for a visionary artist whose work was so much about pain and the scars of injuries recent and distant.