Luckily I made the appoinment with Jean-Michael Basquiat in this bar on Great Jones St. The Artist was late, but at least the TV worked. Lady providence, concerned about my nerves, was broadcasting a basketball game.
At one point my table-mate, a bearded Yankee of medium caliber, left his chair to go to the restrooms.
Absorded in the game, I thought he’d left. And when Basquiat finally turned up, I offered him his chair. Bad idea. The bearded guy come back. Livid, he pounced on my interlocutor, nearly knocking him down and ruining my shot, my interview. Absorbed with finding a correct translation of “You snooze, you lose,” I stayed out of it. In the end we changed tables. Not without a certain amount of irony. The scene could have been taken from one of the paintings by Jean-Michael Basquiat, graffiti artist born in one of the most disreputable neighborhood’s of Brooklyn. And the coarse protagonist of this episode of New Yorke life could well have admired it while taking the subway, like the thousands of subway users familiar with this type of image, from when the artis signed his undergrown works with the enigmatic name SAMO.
That was when comics attracted him more than is reasonable for a painter; his favorite themes were Hitchcock, Nixon, cars, war, and weapons.
Famous from the age of twenty-two, at the time Basquiat indicated in a biography that he’d wanted to become a fireman. While interviewing him, I racked my brain for the correct translation of “Many are called, few are chosen.”
Demosthenes Davvetas : Was the graffiti on the buildings and streets of Brooklyn a rebellious reaction?
Jean-Michael Basquiat: My father was Haitian, mu mother Puerto Rican. I spent my whole childhood in Brooklyn. I left home at fiften. I went to Washington Square Park where I spent eight months getting stoned on acid. Then I went to a high school for a while. But I didn’t like it there. I had a lot of problems with the authority figures and I had to leave again. At school I made typical teenager things. Psychedelic images on star back grounds. I also sold postcards that I drew and sweatshirts painted by hand. In other words, I was all over the place, roaming the streets. A kind of survival.
During that period you were writing poems on sidewalks, drawing and painting on walls. You sought a kind of “communication” with Interview magazine. That’s when Andy Warhol asked you to draw on T-shirts. How did you go from “survival” to “recognition”?
At that time I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d died like dog. But the problem of money became imperative. I couldn’t even buy the necessary materials to finish a canvas. I thoughtabout togoing to see the Art Students’ League. I had enough curiosity, enough will to find a solution, a way of reching any goal. But in other respects, student work seemed so sad to me. . . . I preferred to continue wandering around until the day I decided to participate in the exhibition “New Yorke – New Wave,” organized by Diego Cortez. From then on, things strted to change.
In 1982 you had your first solo exhibition at Annina Nosei’s gallery, while also being invited to Documenta. A lot of people attribute your success to the fact that you knew how to gain Andy Warhol’s attention…
(angrily) I was the one who helped Andy Warhol paint ! It had been twenty years since he’d touched a brush. Thanks to our collaboration, he was able to rediscover his relationship to painting.
It seems like you don’t like to be treated like a graffity artist.
Labels don’t mean anything. My work has nothing to do with graffiti. It’s painting, it always has been. I’ve always painted. Well before painting was in fashion.
There are almost always totems, primitive sign, and fetishes in your images. Is that a search for your African roots?
I’ve never been to Africa. I’m an artist who has been influenced by his New Yorke environment. But I have a cultural memory. I don’t need to look it; it exixts. It’s over there, in Africa. That doesn’t mean that I have to go live there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live.
In your work, the magical element doesn’t seem like a cult. You use it with distance, like a child who plays with objects.
Magic doesn’t especially interest me. What I like is the intuition that tells me that a work is finished. I’m not an elitist, but an autodidact who would like to be part of the family artists.
Someone who could use his art as a weapon againts racism?
Making good art is revenge enough. That’s why I feel no nostalgia for the misery I lived in. All my energy scattered then, without following any particular path. Now I’m a lot happier.
What American artist do you like best?
Twombly, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Johns.
And among the Europeans?
Da Vinci’s and Titan’s drawings. More recently, work by Penck, Clemente, Cucchi.
Demosthenes Davvetas, in New Art International, Lugano, no.3, october-november 1988h