Yesterday I finished reading Widow Basquiat, by Jennifer Clement in a day, and despite it being 140 pages written in a simplistic, poetry format, it was one of the most informative, puzzling and interesting memoirs I’ve ever read. The book is about realistically the relationship between deceased artist and legend Jean-Michel Basquiat and his muse, and lover Suzanne. The story is told from her perspective detailing different aspects of their relationship as well as parts of her upbringing.
Suzanne grew up in a dark way to Palestinian Refugee parents—an abusive father and a mother who was pretty kooky in her own right. In the very beginning we see that Suzanne’s father would beat up on her and her siblings for a pretty extensive part of her early life. She explains how the abuse of her father allowed her to know her skeleton, as well as how to cover up the abuse to people in the public.
“A chair feels like a slap. A table feels like a kick. A lamp feels like a punch. A door feels like a shove, but it can’t be open. ‘I fell down the stairs.’ ‘My brother punched me.’ ‘I crashed into a tree on my bike.’ ‘The door slammed in my face.’ ‘I slipped on the ice.’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘My doll’s hand scratched me.’ ‘The rain fell hard.’ (16-17)
Eventually, Suzanne was able to leave home and went to New York as fast as she could. She worked as a bartender in a bar and that’s how she met Basquiat. He’d come to the bar everyday and put coins on the counter to get a cup of Remy and eventually they started to date. Basquiat moved into Suzanne’s apartment bringing only a broken radio and a tin full of coloring crayons.
The first aspect of Basquiat that is covered is his sexuality. Once I found about Basquiat, I started to read things about how he was bisexual and etc but I thought it was a lie, however this book confronts that idea.
“Jean-Michel brushes Suzanne’s hair for hours. He paints or draws. He snorts some coke. He picks up boys or girls at Mudd Club and disappears for days. He looks at girlie magazines and masturbates. Jean-Michel likes to spit into Suzanne’s mouth.” (29)
In Suzanne’s commentary she says,
“It was clear that his sexual interest was not monochromatic. It did not rely on visual stimulation, such as a pretty girl. It was a very rich multi-chromatic sexuality. He was attracted to people for all different reasons. They could be boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly. It was, I think, driven by intelligence. He was attracted to intelligence more than anything and to pain. He was attracted to people who silently bore some sort of inner pain as he did, and he loved people who were one-of-a-kind, people who had a unique vision of things.”
It details how Basquiat’s sexual appetite was so rampant that whenever the couple got into a fight, he’d leave for days and go have sexual relations with other people which inevitably led to Suzanne contracting Pelvic Inflammatory Disease making her unable to ever have children—as well as making Basquiat believe he will die of Aids eventually.
The second aspect of Basquiat that is covered is racism. After seeing Tamara Davis’ “Radiant Child” documentary, and reading this book, it became clear that racism was something that ate Basquiat up. I think inevitably, his always trying to prove something while exposing that racism was present caused him to be a little paranoid. One line that stuck out to me in the book was when they were in the Modern Arts Museum; he says the reason why he paints is because there is not one single piece of art in the gallery from a black man.
The last aspect of Basquiat that is really shown is his drug addiction. I think one of the sad but interesting aspects of his drug addiction came from who he considered his heroes.
“Jean-Michel loves boxers and musicians. His heroes are Hendrix, Joplin, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Joe Louis. He loves anyone who died from a drug overdose.” (65)
We see throughout the book how vital of a role drugs—cocaine and heroin played in Basquiat and Suzanne’s lives—they’d do cocaine, and turn right around to do heroin so the high from the cocaine wouldn’t be bad. Or they’d do cocaine after a fight and lay in bed shivering with each other when the cocaine high was falling. Eventually, a drug overdose is what kills Basquiat on August 12th, 1988. He died of a heroin overdose, choked on his vomit while being hunched over a fan.
I found two other things that the book confronted to be interesting as well. First, was Michael Stewart. For some reason, I don’t know if it’s because I’m from Oakland—the birthplace of the Black Panthers, or some radicalism in my DNA but I always found that I am fascinated by racial profiling. Not fascinated by the fact of its occurrence, but felt that it was my obligation to expose it and write about it. I remember writing about incidents, and the name Michael Stewart stood out to me. I tried to find research about him but never could find too much, however Stewart was a friend of Suzanne and the book talked about his murder at the hands of the NYC police department. She explains how Stewart was such a sweet guy. When she was in the hospital, he’d come visit her everyday. One day he leaves the bar and heads to Brooklyn on the LL subway and the police said he was writing graffiti (however there is no proof of this) and the police said he resisted arrest (which has not been proven—he was such a gentle guy) and calls five other cops, and Stewart ends up in a coma. She goes to visit him and there are cops in front of the door because he’s “under arrest” and she takes pictures. The account is detailed as,
“The room smells of rotten meat. Suzanne throws the coat over the camera and pulls back Michael’s sheets and photographs every single mark on his body. His face is covered in small cuts and bits of glass are visible in his flesh. (Later she learns that the police broke the window of the police car with his face). His face is huge and swollen. His eyes are bloated, closed pieces of red and black meat. He has cuts and bruises all over his chest and legs. His head is wrapped in a gauze bandage. Tubes are coming out of his nose and there is a respirator tube in his mouth. There are welts on his ankles and wrists. There is no place on his body that has not been hurt.” (99) “The lawyers later discovered that someone had Michael’s eyes removed. This was not a standard procedure and he should have secured permission from the lawyers and the family. It appeared someone had also secretly placed Michael’s eyes in a bleaching formula that would bleach out the hemorrhaging that could have been proof of strangulation.” (100)
Stewart was murdered the same day as the five girls from Birmingham, Alabama were killed by the KKK—September 15th. Stewart’s death also added to Basquiat’s paranoia about racism.
The last interesting aspect of this memoir was the relationship between Basquiat and Andy Warhol. After watching Radiant Child I became very interested in the relationship and friendship between the two men, and Suzanne explains how realistically, their relationship was built on the idea and aspect of fame. (Which makes sense because one of the quotes I remember best from Andy Warhol is, “Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.) She explains that she believes Basquiat loved Warhol because he was famous and had famous friends, despite believing he himself was a better artist. She also explains how Warhol was in love with Basquiat and would get fuel by making them fight.
“Andy was very much in love with jean and so he was jealous of me. I was always on guard with Andy. In front of me he would describe how beautiful other women were to Jean. They were usually very famous women or models. Andy would go on and on and say, ‘She wants to me you. She told me so.’ Jean would act as if I weren’t even there and say, ‘Really?’ like he couldn’t believe it. If I got upset or looked angry, Jean would get furious and we would fight for days. Andy knew this and delighted in it.” (113)
Overall, this book was very interesting, a fast and easy read yet so informative and beautifully written. I suggest, you read this book the only downfall is its print on demand, meaning you have to go to a retailer and get them to order it then the publisher will print it. If you go to Barnes & Nobles, its $19.29 and you get it in 3-4 days, not bad.