I was walking down Great Jones Street the other night, and was amazed to see yet another of my adolescent temples profaned by the forces of modern commerce. The beautiful arch-fronted carriage house that was once the studio and home of Jean-Michel Basquiat is now an upscale Japanese restaurant. I was living around the corner, on the still-skanky Bowery in the early 1990s, and would walk by the place everyday: its story revealed itself in stages as I passed with various art-oriented friends. We all knew excerpts from the life of Basquiat: An early version of our story had him locked up in the building, the prisoner of Mary Boone, everyone’s favorite love-to-hate art dealer.
Then I heard that the building belonged to Andy Warhol, that he had perhaps given it to Jean-Michel, in an attempt to buy, or keep, his friendship. In reality, Basquiat rented the studio from Warhol beginning in 1983: After chasing Warhol through the streets as an unknown graffiti artist and trying (unsuccessfully) to gain admission to the Factory, moving into the carriage house must have felt like an assurance of acceptance. Through the mid-eighties the two collaborated on a couple of series of paintings; their friendship was for a time intense, with Warhol playing a pseudo-paternal role.
It was after Warhol’s death that Basquiat began sinking deeper into self-loathing and what he claimed was a 100-bag-a-day heroin habit. He died at 57 Great Jones in the summer of 1988, was seen by his neighbors being put into an ambulance in the middle of a hot afternoon, and a dumpster filled with his belongings appeared outside not long after.
The tragedy of it all was, to me, so profound, that I always imagined the building left as it had been. Sure, the vultures came and stripped the place of art, but the splashes of paint were surely still on the walls and floor, dirty paintbrushes and paint-spattered suits collecting dust in the corners. I always imagined it eventually a Basquiat museum, a fitting downtown space for a downtown artist, scaled not to his talent, but to the brevity of his career, a small monument to the brief time when the same old shit was the king of the world. Amanda Park Taylor