The call came one evening in November 1982: It was my friend and colleague Larry Gagosian telling me that Jean-Michel Basquiat was in Venice, painting for a new show and, more to the point, wanting to transform a 16-part work on paper into a silk-screen print.
Would I be interested in producing it?
I met with Jean-Michel for the first time that same evening and thus began an incomparable experience -- one I knew I was unlikely to repeat. I was seeing a rare talent at work, apart from the New York art world from which he usually drew his inspiration and now wide open to the tug and influence of his new environment. I was taken aback by the unique vision and conviction of this young man of just 21.
In Venice, Jean-Michel worked from the ground-floor display and studio space Larry had built below his home and quickly commenced what was to be an extraordinary series of paintings. They were for a March ’83 show, his second at Larry Gagosian Gallery, then in West Hollywood.
Jean-Michel usually worked from late afternoon until the following morning, and I would show up at the studio after dinner, confining myself to a bed set up in a corner of the room. I was mesmerized by his self-contained focus, his intensity and fluidity. He seemed to make time disappear, and evenings would pass quickly into the next day’s dawn. Overnight, paintings would undergo a transformation. New, seemingly more complex imagery would appear, and other imagery and surfaces that had seemed so perfect would be painted over and eliminated.
The more I came to know him, the more I understood why Jean-Michel was drawn to work in Los Angeles. Here was a truly gifted young man who was quickly having to meet the increasingly complex demands of newfound success. Remarkably, only about 18 months after his work had appeared in two important New York group exhibitions -- “The Times Square Show,” in 1980, and “New York/New Wave” at P.S.1 in Long Island City, in 1981 -- he had become a victim of his triumphs. Although he certainly expected and sought out the public’s attention, he was finding it increasingly difficult to deliver to the ever-demanding, even usurious, art world.
Jean-Michel lived and worked at a furious pace. No one I knew could keep up with him. Although this served his incredible capacity to process the world around him, it did not serve his stability or physical well being. In the removed environment of Venice, he seemed to find a security and solitude. Away from New York, this emergent talent was able to get on with his mission with significantly less distraction.
Los Angeles and environs also offered new source material and stimuli. Many of the works in his second show at Larry Gagosian referenced famous boxers, musicians and Hollywood films and the roles played in them by blacks. One painting, “Hollywood Africans,” produced in Venice, is most telling. It depicts the artist and two of his New York associates, Toxic and Rammellzee, essentially placing their black footprints into the history of Hollywood at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
That Hollywood was a focus for Jean-Michel was driven home to me when I was asked to accompany him and Madonna to lunch at the commissary at 20th Century Fox studios. At the time, neither of these future stars had received enough recognition to evoke any response from that sea of Hollywood talent. The lack only made both even more determined that one day the attention would be on them. For me, it was a revelation: I was witnessing the determination and conviction of two clearly destined talents.
After his ’83 opening at Larry Gagosian, Jean-Michel departed L.A. for a time. When he returned a few months later he wanted more privacy, and I found him a studio at the corner of Market Street and Speedway, a block from the Venice boardwalk. He worked there for about a year, through about the first half of ’84, producing a number of important works.
Out the back door of the studio was a small patio, separated from the alley by a wooden slat fence. Early on we noted that parts of the fence were deteriorating and that the patio was not secure from the transients ever present around the boardwalk.
After his usual routine of working all night, Jean-Michel stepped out onto his patio one morning, only to be startled by someone sleeping there beneath a blanket. He recounted the incident, and it was decided that, for safety’s sake, the fence should be removed. But rather than let the planks be thrown away, Jean-Michel wanted them brought inside. Within a day or two, they had been reassembled horizontally and attached to long vertical shafts of wood -- a new form of picture support born directly from the Venice studio experience. The first wood-slat picture support was painted bright gold and became the background for the now-acclaimed painting “Gold Griot,” depicting a large, enigmatic head and torso. The discovery had enabled him to push his work in yet another new, exciting direction.
A pivotal, and prolific, period
It was hardly the only visible result of the Venice residency. After he had produced his initial silk-screen print, which he titled “Tuxedo,” Jean-Michel produced an additional five silk-screen prints while in L.A. Because of his newfound interest in the medium, he recognized that he could substitute silk-screen-generated images for collaging photo copies of drawings into his paintings. With this, he quickly generated about 100 drawings that he directed be transferred to silk screens. He assembled a fresh supply of large canvases, and with an entire crew of trained printers on call, he proceeded to build up his pictorial surfaces by alternating between his own brush work and the silk-screen transfer of imagery. Having directed the screener to lay down an image, he would essentially consider the appropriate response. Back and forth he would go, until a rich, multilayered surface of interrelated images had been achieved.
During this time Jean-Michel took considerable interest in the work that Bob Rauschenberg was producing at Gemini G.E.L. in West Hollywood, visiting him on several occasions and clearly finding inspiration in the accomplishments of the senior painter.
Now, many years removed, the silk-screen-generated paintings created in Venice in 1984 have been acclaimed as some of the most accomplished works in the artist’s oeuvre. Moreover, Jean-Michel’s hands-on experience with the medium prepared him to work with the great silk-screen master, Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated when he returned to New York.
Venice was an interlude and an opportunity. For me, it was a chance to witness an incredible talent and offer guidance; for Jean-Michel, it was a place of remove as well as a point of contact -- for furthering his exploration into the human psyche, for developing as an artist.
The exhibition, which opened at the Brooklyn Museum on Friday, is on view there through June 5. It will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, July 17 through Oct. 10.
Fred Hoffman, a Los Angeles art dealer, lectures in the department of art at UCLA. He is Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and is co-curator, with Kellie Jones, Marc Mayer and Franklin Sirmans, of “Basquiat,” a retrospective organized by the Brooklyn Museum in New York.