Basquiat in Los Angeles
I don't think about art
when I'm working.
I try to think about life.
In April of 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat is invited to Los Angeles for his first solo West Coast exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s Gallery (April 8 - May 8, 1982), arranged as a collaboration between Gagosian and Basquiat’s New York Dealer Annina Nosei. He travels there with a small entourage that included Rammellzee, Toxic, A-1, and Fab 5 Freddy. Los Angeles collectors Eli and Edythe Broad, Douglas S. Cramer, and Stephanie Jansen were early supporters of his work. His first exhibition in Los Angeles completely sells out, and Los Angeles critic, Hunter Drohowska, paired a review of the show with one by Julian Schnabel. He writes of Basquiat’s display:
"Basquiat’s works are direct and furious reflections of a decadent, sadistic society.
Calligraphic markings, puerile stickfigures, symbols of angels and devils, black men and white men, teeth bared, wearing crowns, carrying scales of justice. Robotoid eyes roll back to show that the brains are fried, there is no hope. There seems to be almost no distillation or interpretation. It is as if the city itself crawled on these canvases and stomped around"
Two works included in this 1982 exhibition were Red Warrior and Tar and Feathers. This first trip to Los Angeles is the first of several long stays there, interrupted by trips back to New York or Zurich. In 1982 Jean-Michel splits his time in Los Angeles between the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood (in the Belushi Suite) and the houses of friends. Basquiat briefly returns to New York in the late spring of 1982, working in his Crosby Street Studio with an assistant, Steve Torton. It is during this period that the artist produces the characteristic canvases with exposed stretcher bars, frequently layering collaged papers onto the surface of the canvas and connecting multiple panels with hinges. Basquiat returns to Los Angeles briefly in October 1982, accompanied by Torton and the artist’s friend, rapper Rammellzee. In Los Angeles again in late December 1982, Basquiat passes his time in Beverly Hills at the L’Hermitage Hotel and Mr. Chow’s Restaurant. He even trades paintings with proprietors Michael and Tina Chow for his food and drink tab at their restaurant. He spends time with Madonna --a friend of his from the East Village scene in New York.
Basquiat was in Los Angeles to produce large canvas paintings for an upcoming exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s Gallery in West Hollywood (where he had also exhibited works on paper earlier in 1982); he travels back and forth between New York and Los Angeles between December 1982 and March 1983, when the exhibition of twenty-five works opened. He rents a studio on the first floor of Gagosian’s house on Market Street in Venice for $2500 a month; the artist lives there for several months in a spartanly furnished room. While there he begins a series of paintings on wood panels that his studio assistant Matt Dike salvaged from a broken picket fence behind Gagosian’s place. Basquiat’s second solo exhibition (“Jean-Michel Basquiat: New Paintings,” March 8 - April 2) opens at Larry Gagosian Gallery in March of 1983. He is joined by friends Toxic and Rammellzee right before the opening. The exhibition included twenty-five paintings, many of which centered on fame --that is, African American boxers, musicians, and the Hollywood film industry. Paintings in this exhibition included Eyes and Eggs, Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson), Jack Johnson, Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown), Hollywood Africans, Dos Cabezas II, Big Shoes, and All Colored Cast I and II.
Although he is in Los Angeles to work, Basquiat reportedly spends little of his time over the next few months painting. According to Matt Dike, “he didn’t even get started on the show until a couple of weeks before it happened.” Instead Basquiat frequently disappears to hang with friends, socialize at Chica Club, or do drugs. These extracurricular interests may have been why the artist “liked to be paid for works of art quickly in cash.” He could spend $5000 in just a weekend. Basquiat sometimes even paid for necessities (like doctor’s visits) with artworks. Whenever he did paint, however, Basquiat worked at an incredible speed. Fred Hoffman, a friend and collaborator who met the artist during his time in Los Angeles, once recalled seeing Jean-Michel finish ten large canvases (eight feet by six feet) in just a few hours.
Always interested in experimenting with new media, Basquiat works with Hoffman during this period on converting several of the artist’s drawings into silkscreens. Jean-Michel is also interested in Hoffman’s extensive library of art books, which included the sketchbooks of Leonardo. The resulting series of five screen-prints, inspired by Leonardo’s own drawings, was printed by Hoffman’s New City Editions. In total, Basquiat produces six limited-edition silkscreens produced between 1982 and 83. Working at a furious pace in his studio, making paintings, drawings and silkscreens Jean-Michel’s time in Venice became, in the words of Hoffman, “not only a prolific but pivotal period” in his career. - Dr Jordana Moore Saggese