When Alexis Adler lived with New York painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in an East Village apartment, she never knew what she might wake up to.
Where most people saw walls, floors and even refrigerators, the emerging master of social commentary saw canvas. Basquiat often painted throughout the night, the ideas in his head spilling out onto almost every surface in the run-down space.
St. Louisans will soon have a rare glimpse into the life and early work of Basquiat, a one-time New York street artist whose paintings eventually sold for more than $100 million. “Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979–1980” opens Friday at the Contemporary Art Musem and runs through Dec. 30. It displays the nascent creations of the artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican roots, who died in 1988 at 27, reportedly of a heroin overdose.
Adler, a biologist, spoke to St. Louis Public Radio about her romantic but complicated relationship with Basquiat, and about his art. She said living with him was always interesting.
Nancy Fowler: Tell me about some of the work and some of the materials that he used during the period that you lived together, that he found around the apartment or perhaps even parts of the apartment itself.
Alexis Adler: You know the walls of the apartment, the floor of the apartment … You could wake up one morning and put your feet down and the floor would be painted … and you just stepped in it.
He was a challenging roommate. I must say so. I had this really special gold lamé coat. I mean, it was a secondhand, nothing fancy but it was nice … and I woke up one morning and it was painted and I was like, ‘Oh, damn, loved that,’ but now I won’t even let it go into the museum — I just won't even let it out of my hands.
Fowler: So tell me about how his work reflected the time and culture and period of our country in New York at that time.
Adler: Well, certainly New York. Coming down my block, you would have to duck into a doorway to avoid gunfire ... so his work was expressing that sense of just being on the edge.
We were really afraid of nuclear war and the buildup was happening between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and we just felt like at any point we could be annihilated. And Three Mile Island was around that too and ... we just felt it.
He painted a couple of American flags. There is a collage, and it is a painted American flag, and then in various materials — tape and paint— [he] placed on the flag some alphabet cereal [and] printed, "a nation of fools." And then he took that and color-Xeroxed it, and that color Xerox so speaks to me today.
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