Over the years I’ve been asked many times how it came to be that Jean-Michel Basquiat painted a portrait of me? Rarely have I ever spoken about this experience to anyone. It was just the two of us one night in his studio. On that night, a snowstorm had been threatening. If memory serves me correct it was on a Sunday night. A few nights previously, Jean-Michel and I had been out on the town socializing when he asked if I wanted to come by his studio? he said he wanted to paint my portrait. When? I asked. Whenever’s good for you, I remember him saying. We were friends. This was not a big deal for either of us at the time. I held several jobs back then. Being an artist’s model was just one of them. We set a date.
On the scheduled night, I made a stop at Linda Yablonsky’s and bought some heroin first. Linda was in good spirits when I arrived at her place on 6th Avenue near Prince. Glenn O’Brien was sitting there when I arrived at Linda’s. I casually mentioned that I was on my way to have my portrait painted by Jean-Michel. Glenn said some disparaging remark about Jean-Michel and his unpopular developing relationship with Andy Warhol. Glenn O’Brien and Jean-Michel had once been fast friends. It now appeared that something had happened between the two of them that left this untrue. I got what I went there for, then I left.
The whole town was buzzing about the ongoing Warhol Basquiat affair, I was very intrigued by this. I intuited this as a historic meeting of two great artistic minds, there was no precedent. Here we had the most famous living painter in the world linked to a blindingly talented self styled ragamuffin from Brooklyn, also a painter. The arrangement was reciprocal, I imagined. It couldn’t get any better, I thought. In their collaborations, Jean-Michel’s manic scrawls and crowns clashed unbothered with Andy Warhol’s brazenly tight Pop style, though not everyone thought so.
I made my way over to Great Jones street to Jean-Michel’s studio. It started out this way, he asked me to remove my shoes and socks, standing with my barefoot propped up on one of his splinter laden wooden milk crates. He handed me a broomstick "hold this," he said. I accepted the stick nervously as he placed it in my hands. Nervously? Yes. I was intimidated by Jean-Michel’s voodoo. Most downtown artists were awed by him in those days. He was a star even then. I understood that. I marveled over his meteoric ascent from his Brooklyn beginnings. I envied him his easy access and close proximity to New York’s artistic nobility. Being born in what was then the undisputed capital of the art world. As a teenager, he was already on his way to being a star. Not even a star, but a comet. The radiant child.
I was three years older than Jean-Michel, both of African descent becoming known in the art world around the same time. By the time Robert Mapplethorpe had introduced us to one another on Greenwich Street in the West Village one spring day, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s trajectory was very much in motion. His stock was on the rise. The art world seemed to be expanding in it’s inclusion of black Americans and urban Hispanic life. Injecting a fresh new hipness into the staid air of the post 60s art world. Something that had gotten lost after Pop Art ran it’s course out of steam. Hip Hop music was the running soundtrack in the background of this scene. Artists of color were shaking up the art world. Now was the time art galleries and collectors were noticing and paying attention to what was going on in the East Village. Graffiti art was now a part of the fabric of the art world. The East Village and the Lower East Side became the other SoHo. Every other store front was a gallery it seemed at the time. The art world was vibrant and ripe and full of possibilities. I was young, and if you were young you felt as if the world was at your feet! But soon, the ominous specter of AIDS began to cast a long dark shadow over all these things.
Other forces where also at work, heroin use was rampant among the denizens of downtown New York City. Crack cocaine was on the horizon. The arrival of crack would decimate the city and the rest of America. The AIDS epidemic would place a heavy toll and play a dramatic roll in the destruction and dismantling of so many lives and artistic circles around the world. New York City’s art community would be especially hard hit.
He was very ambitious Jean-Michel, I think he knew he was destined to die young. He loved to be high on heroin. I got high on smack with Jean-Michel too. Which brings us back to the snowy night he painted the now famous portrait of me. We were both high on Linda Yablonsky’s heroin. She had the best, she was living with Pat Place on 6th Avenue. That was where all the cool downtown junkies like Rene Ricard, Edwige Belmore, and myself, went to buy drugs.
Jean-Michel was intrigued by homosexuality, I believe. He was sexually attracted to girls. He had many non straight male friends. I think he had some understanding of what it was like to be gay. He certainly had had sex with a few men before he became well known. Homosexual men played a big part throughout his short lifetime.
Robert Mapplethorpe had blown the art world doors wide open for me as a would be artist. I felt that art was a pretense for the bourgeoisie. I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a poet and an artist. I understand now what I didn’t understand then. That it does not mean much. I had always been an artist, I didn’t think I had anything to prove to anybody, especially the art world at large. Jean-Michel knew this about me and he liked this about me, as I recall.
I remember Jean-Michel standing paint brush in his right hand left hand on his hip in front of the tall vacant slats of wood assembled together in front of him where the portrait he started to paint of me began to take shape with lightening quickness. There stood I, stick in my hands acting as muse. I watched Jean-Michel as he began to paint the double life sized portrait of me that night. I was good at posing, I had had lots of experience, I was use to it from working with Robert Mapplethorpe and other artists. The painting done of me is easily recognizable today as me. Twenty years later I would receive a phone call from the photographer Ryan McGinley who was on business in Italy. Whatever had happened to that painting over all those years? I never knew. The last I had heard a collector in Japan had bought it. McGinley said that he was standing right in front of it. It was hanging in a museum or gallery show in Italy, he’d accidentally stumbled upon it. I had never told him that Basquiat had painted my portrait. In fact, I had mostly forgotten about that snowy long ago night. Ryan McGinley took a picture of the painting and sent it to me via email. The viewing of the print out brought back floods of old memories. When I saw it my world stopped. I was young and back in old New York once again.
I was with Jean-Michel a few days before he died, I remember our last adventure together. It was a hot August day in New York City. New York City was notoriously empty in August in those days. We purchased heroin on Avenue C and Houston a day or so before he was to tragically die. It’s a sad memory, our last time together we were buying drugs to ease our pain. He had just returned from a long stay in Hawaii in an effort to kick his addiction to heroin. Stopping in Los Angeles for a brief visit before coming home to New York. These were painful times. Andy Warhol had died. Robert Mapplethorpe was on his death bed.
As we made our way walking back through the alphabet towards Jean-Michel’s studio. We ran across a rough looking black girl selling syringes, ‘Works, works’ she said to us as we where walking on the opposite side of the street near B and 3rd Jean-Michel signaled to her with a nod of his head. She crossed 3rd, ‘How many?’ she asked whipping out a brand new bag containing dozens of syringes. ‘I’ll take all of them’ said Jean-Michel pressing a hudred dollar bill into the rough looking girls hands.The exchange was done quickly. The rough looking girl moved swiftly away. The hot oppressive afternoon sun beat down on us as we continued what would turn out to be our final journey.
I left Jean-Michel at his doorstep that day. Unaware that that would be the last time we would ever walk together or talk together. I did not get high with him on that day. I had other pressing issues. Robert Mapplethorpe was on his death bed. It was Robert that informed me that Basquiat was dead. I had stepped out to run an errand to the down the block delicatessen. Upon my arrival back home Robert was just placing the phone back on to the receiver when he looked at me and said 'Jean-Michel is dead.'
- Jack Walls