Jean Michel Basquiat was a Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist who was raised between Brooklyn and Puerto Rico. In the early 1980s, he quickly became a star in the New York downtown art scene that his motif gained him the recognition of being one of the youngest to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York. He passed away at 27 in 1988. Since, his works have sold for millions. Photo credit: Andy Warhol 192 photo redesigned by Kaia Shivers

Los Angeles sets Jean-Michel Basquiat Free

7 mins read

Los Angeles played an important destination in the short, but robust career of Brooklyn artist, Jean Michel Basquiat. This piece captures the 18 months that Basquiat spent in the city, and the amount of work produced while there.

If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be. Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become. Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all. I would be liberated from the painful duty of saying what I really do not think and acting in a way that betrays God’s truth and the integrity of my own soul.

— Thomas Merton

Off to the side, on a wall at the Jean-Michel Baquiat: King Pleasure exhibit in Los Angeles, there was a map of where Jean-Michel Basquiat worked and lived and hung out in Los Angeles. The L.A. part of his story isn’t often mentioned by New York journalists. It’s as if they don’t want to share him, or maybe they think it’s unimportant, but they would be wrong.

Jean-Michel started flying out to L.A. in the spring of 1982 for a big-time solo show at the Larry Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood, a small city in between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. Gagosian, who would later become a world-famous art dealer, invited him to L.A. after seeing Jean-Michel’s work at the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York City.

“In the last room in the gallery,” Gagosian said at a King Pleasure panel discussion in August 2023, “I saw five or six paintings [by Jean-Michel], and it just stopped me cold in my tracks. It was the kind of thing where my hair stood on end, literally. I was just transfixed by these paintings and how powerful and original they seemed to me.”

Gagosian was interesting at the panel discussion. His eyes seemed to well up at times when he talked about Jean-Michel. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it, but a woman sitting to my left, who knew Gagosian, whispered to me that she was surprised to see him become so emotional. So I figured I wasn’t imagining it. At one point, Gagosian said that he “really loved” Jean-Michel.

In short order, and as the story goes, Nosei introduced Gagosian to Jean-Michel, the two men shared a joint in her office, and then, a few days later, Gagosian asked Jean-Michel if he’d like to have a show in L.A.

“He was totally up for it,” Gagosian said, “and Annina was very gracious about it. She gave it the green light.”

The solo show was a raging success for Jean-Michel, completely selling out. In fact, Eli Broad, a wealthy L.A. businessman who would end up with one of the most impressive private contemporary-art collections in the United States, bought artwork at that show — Eli and his wife, Edythe, turned into one of Basquiat’s most loyal collectors.

Decades later, the couple built The Broad museum in Downtown L.A. as a kind of civic project, sharing their massive collection with the public — free of charge. Today, The Broad devotes two viewing areas for only Jean-Michel, showing the thirteen paintings that Eli and Edythe bought from him in the 1980s. Fred Hoffman told me, via email, that the artworks at The Broad are among Jean-Michel’s very best. Perhaps tellingly, The Broad, a Los Angeles museum, owns more Basquiat paintings than New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art — combined.

Then, in November 1982, Jean-Michel returned to L.A., and Gagosian introduced him to Hoffman, who had just started a print publishing business called New City Editions in Venice Beach. Soon after they met, Hoffman and Jean-Michel began work on an ambitious, large-scale silkscreen project, which produced one of Basquiat’s legendary artworks, Tuxedo.

“It took months to organize how to make this work,” Hoffman said at the King Pleasure panel in August. “But Jean-Michel and I really connected from the get-go.”

Hoffman looked after him, and they constantly talked about art.

“I have a background in the history of art,” said Hoffman. “So we shared a lot about art history together. I had a very engaged relationship with Jean-Michel around Leonardo da Vinci. I had a fairly extensive library of books on da Vinci, which I would bring over to the studio all the time and we would riffle through them.”

Hoffman also found Jean-Michel a studio on Market Street in Venice; took Jean-Michel and Madonna, his then girlfriend, to lunch at the commissary of 20th Century-Fox; and introduced him to the mighty Robert Rauschenberg — Jean-Michel and Rauschenberg met up one night at the Gemini G.E.L. workshop in L.A. on Melrose Avenue.

“He had such a great understanding of the history of art,” Hoffman said of Jean-Michel. “He understood exactly how he saw himself in the lineage of great artists.”

Whenever Hoffman writes or talks about Jean-Michel, you quickly sense a man who cared a lot about his friend and would do anything for him. You also realize that Hoffman has a darn good handle on things, coming up with big-picture connections that others cannot.

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Hollywood Africans. 1983. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas. Overall: 84 1/16 × 84in. (213.5 × 213.4 cm). Gift of Douglas S. Cramer. Inv. N.: 84.23

At the King Pleasure panel, Hoffman had a particularly thoughtful take on Jean-Michel’s time in Los Angeles. By around 1984, Hoffman said, he was “already conflicted about how he was being received in New York. I think there were certain people in the New York art world that just weren’t willing to engage Jean-Michel’s work. I think that hurt him a lot, and he became even more introspective, and I think that L.A. provided a relief valve, where he didn’t have to be under that intense pressure of making it in New York. He could just come out here and enjoy himself — and he could also come out here and get a lot of work done.”

If you read about the L.A. art scene of the 1960s, such as the book Rebels in Paradise by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, artists were always talking about how Los Angeles gave them a freedom to create whatever they wanted to create. That they wouldn’t have had the same freedom in New York City, and that they didn’t want to deal with the rules and theories set down by New York’s art-world establishment. There’s a reason Andy Warhol first showed his Campbell soup cans in L.A., not New York.

So, in L.A., African American and white artists started up their own scenes with their own galleries. The Brockman Gallery and Gallery 32, for example, featured Black artists that included David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Betye Saar. Around the same time, Ferus Gallery showed white artists such as Ed Keinholz, Billy Al Bengston, and Ed Ruscha. And they rocked it, creating inspiring, eye-grabbing art without rules hemming them in. In the 1980s, that vibe was still there in Los Angeles — and so was the art-world establishment in New York City

It didn’t matter if you were a young artist, like Jean-Michel, living off the beaten path in a tattered, five-story walk-up on a drug-ridden block in the East Village. Once you started getting known, you still had to deal with a confusing, nerve-rattling mix of art critics, museum directors, art dealers, old collectors, new collectors, younger artists who were highly competitive, older artists who were still competitive, and all types of con men and whack jobs looking to make a quick buck. Not only that, they were always on top of you — on that little, 22-square-mile island called Manhattan. By going to L.A., nearly 3,000 miles away, Jean-Michel could take a break from the New York art-world establishment — and all its soul-sucking weirdness.

But Jean-Michel didn’t go to L.A. to take a vacation — he went there to work… and to have some fun, too. He’d stay at a classy hotel (the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip or the more low-profile L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills); work only yards away from the Pacific Ocean at his studio in Venice; work with Hoffman on projects; get driven around town by one of his friends, such as Tamra Davis or Matt Dike (Jean-Michel didn’t have a driver’s license); shop for designer suits at Maxfield in West Hollywood; watch old movies and art-house films at the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles; probably make the one-two visit to Book Soup and Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard that artists, musicians, and writers always made when visiting L.A.; party at Power Tools and the Rhythm Lounge; and buy a ten-gallon cowboy hat to wear while he kept coming up with one fantastic painting after another. Boom, boom, boom.

“It’s just hard to imagine how much work Jean-Michel produced here in Los Angeles,” Hoffman said at King Pleasure. “At least a hundred canvases in eighteen months. It’s an extraordinary amount of work.”

The freedom thing in L.A. was something that not only artists felt. Over the years, I’ve interviewed people who were born and bred New Yorkers, but ended up living in L.A. They all said that Los Angeles was very different compared to New York. In fact, they all rolled out the same reasons: they didn’t feel tied down by tradition in L.A.; they didn’t worry about having the “right” connections to start a new business in L.A.; and they could take chances with their work and not be called a nut. In short, they felt freeeeee.

Knowing all that, it comes as no surprise that Jean-Michel, a free-thinking rebel who always demanded freedom in his life and work, enjoyed L.A. — and flourished in it.

That includes working with L.A.’s unique light, which makes the sky and hills and beaches spectacularly vivid, especially after a rainstorm. “It is Southern California light,” Carey McWilliams wrote in his book Southern California: An Island on the Land, “and it has no counterpart in the world.” For the powerful work that Jean-Michel was creating, the L.A. light could inject even more spark into his paintings… I’ve always thought that the brilliant blue that Jean-Michel often used in his paintings — a brilliant blue that instantly grabs both your soul and your eyeballs — was the exact blue of the L.A. sky.

So Los Angeles was good for Jean-Michel. He was nurtured and respected, and he was freeeeee.

 

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