Gagosian Looks Back at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Overlooked Days in Los Angeles

This year, instead of hosting his famous pre-Oscars party at his Los Angeles home, Larry Gagosian will be going back to his roots. Not as an entrepreneurial hustler selling framed posters on Broxton Avenue in Westwood, but rather as the dealer who first brought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work to collectors outside of New York. In March, Gagosian’s Los Angeles gallery will open “Made on Market Street,” the first exhibition comprised solely of work Basquiat made during his early 1980s stints in the sun-baked, palm tree-lined West Coast city. 

The show’s premise appears at odds with established history: Basquiat was born in Brooklyn and rose to fame as a graffiti artist on New York’s Lower East Side. After his death in 1988 of an overdose at 27 at his home and studio on Great Jones Street, Basquiat was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. He was always the epitome of New York cool. But the new show, and Gagosian, assert that Los Angeles, and specifically Venice Beach, was a critical turning point in Basquiat’s life and art.

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As Gagosian told ARTnews over the phone recently, he was new to New York and the art scene when he met Basquiat in the high-ceilinged basement studio of Annina Nosei’s SoHo gallery in 1981.

“I had a loft on West Broadway where I’d hang a couple paintings every now and then, but I wasn’t very far along in my career as an art dealer when I met Basquiat,” Gagosian said.. “I was an L.A. boy completely seduced by New York. Everything about it excited me.”

Basquiat too excited the young dealer. The artist was relatively unheard of when they met, but Gagosian, like Nosei, could tell that the artist had tapped into, or was creating, a new way of painting.

As he reminisced about the period, Gagosian recalled a quote from entertainment mogul and longtime client David Geffen, whose encyclopedic collection of post-war American art has been compared to the Frick’s collection of Old Masters. 

“Someone asked [Geffen] how to be successful in business,” Gagosian said. “David’s answer was ‘You keep your head down and hope you bump into a genius.’ Basquiat certainly was that genius for me. Besides his energy and talent, no one has made paintings like that before him or since. It was like Cubism. What he was doing just didn’t exist before.”

Shortly after meeting, Gagosian asked Basquiat if he would like a show in Los Angeles. Early the following year, just one month after Nosei’s New York gallery hosted the painter’s first exhibition, Gagosian opened a show of Basquiat’s work at his North Altamont Drive gallery. That November, Gagosian told the artist to come live with him in a new three-story home on Market Street in Venice Beach. The award-winning building, designed by Studio Works, came equipped with a gallery space and an extra studio apartment, the former of which became Basquiat’s workspace. 

Jean-Michael Basquiat [center], Keith Haring at the Whitney Museum of American Art Manhattan, New York

Larry Gagosian and Jean-Michel Basquiat c. 1982

Photofest

Over the next two years, during two extended stays, Basquiat made 70 to 80 paintings at Venice Beach, Gagosian said. During the first stint, the artist and the dealer lived together for about a year. On the second trip, in 1983, Basquiat worked in a studio just a few doors down from Gagosian’s home and lived at L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills.

“It didn’t take him long to get organized, to order canvases, paint,” Gagosian said. “He was such a driven artist…and a fun-loving guy to boot.”

As biographer Phoebe Hoban reccounts in Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, the party began before the artist even reached Los Angeles. Gagosian bought first-class tickets for Basquiat and his crew—Rammellzee, Toxic, A1, and Fab 5 Freddie. As soon as the plane took off, they began to pour out cocaine and light up spiffs. “I’d never seen anything like it on a plane …” Gagosian told Hoban, “The stewardess freaked. I was terrified. I thought, ‘Oh god, we’re going to jail.”When the flight attendant told the group that police would be waiting for them when they hit the tarmac, Basquiat apparently looked up and said, “Oh, I thought this was first class.”

“The attendant came up to us after to warn us about Jean-Michel and his friends and said if they didn’t get rid of the cocaine the police would be waiting for them at the airport,” Annina Nosei, Basquiat’s first art dealer, told ARTnews. “Larry looked at me and said ‘Annina, you are the mother, go and do something!’” 

As in New York, Basquiat quickly became a fixture in Los Angeles’ burgeoning club and music scene. Basquiat’s friend, occasional assistant, and Gagosian staffer Matt Dike was central to the city’s late-night scene and the two would spin records at the club Power Tools, go dancing with filmmaker Tamra Davis, who later directed Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, and rub elbows with rappers Tone Loc and Young M.C.. But, more than anything, Basquiat was in L.A. to work. 

“He was always working. There was always a pencil in his hand,” Gagosian said. He did stay out late, but often the events of the night before inspired the next day’s work.

The studio floor at Gagosian’s Venice Beach house was covered with paint splatter, books of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, and Cy Twombly catalogs. Basquiat would move excitedly from canvas to canvas, as Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie played on the stereo. There was a mattress in the corner to rest on or, just as often, for friends like Davis, painter Mike Kelley, or Gagosian himself, to sit and watch Basquiat paint into the small hours. Basquiat’s then-girlfriend Madonna was a frequent guest during the artist’s first stay in L.A., a veritable power couple at the time. Another guest, according to Gagosian, was Herbert Schorr, one of Basquiat’s earliest and most dedicated collectors.

“Such a smart collector, smarter than me,” Gagosian said, noting that Schorr bought, and has held on to some of Basquiat’s best paintings. “While I’m showing the paintings to Herb, Basquiat was just lounging under the covers with Madonna. It was hilarious.”

(Incidentally, Madonna, currently on tour, is performing at L.A.’s Kia Forum the day “Made on Market Street” opens.) 

It was also during the first stay in Los Angeles that Basquiat met Fred Hoffman, who co-organized “Made on Market Street.” Like most Angelenos, Hoffman met Basquiat through Gagosian, who proposed the two work together on a series of silk-screen works through Hoffman’s printing company New City Editions. Among those is the monumental work Tuxedo, which was made in an edition of ten and is among the cornerstones of the new exhibition.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT Tuxedo, 1983. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio. Courtesy Gagosian

Fredrik Nilsen

Tuxedo consists of a combined 15 separate drawings and one collage, originally done on white paper with black images. According to Hoffman, Basquiat wanted to reverse the colors for the final piece. They achieved this by using a photographic process and then turning the sixteen works into one large silkscreen. At just over 102 × 59 inches, the stark black-and-white Tuxedo, topped with Basquiat’s signature crown motif, stood as a consciously sharp contrast to the colorful works Basquiat regularly made. Hoffman, in a piece for Gagosian Quarterly about Tuxedo’s creation, said Basquiat’s wish to turn “everything white into black was not merely a look he desired to achieve. [His] aesthetic decisions were his means of questioning certain social and cultural assumptions, with identity most important among them.”

Another highlight of the exhibition is Hollywood Africans, which documents Basquiat’s L.A. sojourn in a way. “It’s basically a history painting that depicts Jean-Michel and Rammellzee and Toxic in their journey through Hollywood,” Hoffman told ARTnews. “You know, going to Grauman’s Chinese Theater as tourists. Jean-Michel’s takeaway is to turn himself and his buddies into the new Black Hollywood celebrities.”

That work is one of many loans Gagosian and Hoffman were able to secure to put the show on. Hollywood Africans was purchased by television mogul Doug Cramer during Basquiat’s second show in Los Angeles, in 1983, and then later donated to the Whitney Museum in New York. Loans also came from the Broad Art Foundation in Los Angeles, the Museum Brandhorst in Munich, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a handful of private collections that Gagosian was unsurprisingly tight-lipped about.

The work Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown) stands out, not only because it’s one of the earliest works to comment on the high prices Basquiat was able to command, but also because it references one of his favorite movies, Black Orpheus (1959). In the show’s catalog, Hoffman writes that it’s possible that the painting is also a veiled reference to Basquiat and Madonna’s doomed relationship, as the film is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. 

“With Madonna’s sudden departure,” just weeks after she arrived, Hoffman writes, “and Black Orpheus on his mind, Basquiat undertook Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown), with its multiple texts and single image referring to [Orpheus’s] tragic relationship with Eurydice, as his means of imprinting on an artwork this seminal moment in his private life.”

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown), 1983. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Courtesy Gagosian

Robert McKeever

At the time, Basquiat’s L.A. shows at Gagosian were quite the success. In a 2012 conversation with billionaire collector Peter Brant published in Interview Magazine, Gagosian said the exhibitions were a testament to Basquiat’s talent. “It’s one thing to have a successful show in New York with the local people, but then to move that type of work to Los Angeles and have it resonate—I mean, this was emphatically New York, urban work. Gives you a real sense of the power of the art that he was making.”

For art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, a longtime friend of Gagosian who was at both of Basquiat’s L.A. shows in the early ‘80s, the period is both “relatively little-known” and one of the “most important” of the artist’s career. 

“They are brighter,” Deitch told ARTnews of Basquiat’s pieces made in Venice Beach. “They have a little more pop, and the iconography is so strong. The distinctive quality of some of those L.A. works is a part of contemporary art history that still needs to be studied.”

Nosei agrees. She told ARTnews that the group of paintings done in Los Angeles were among the best Basquiat had done, and were far superior to the paintings Basquiat made for a solo show organized by Mary Boone and Bruno Bischofberger at Boone’s gallery in 1984.

That chapter, Deitch added, was highly important for Gagosian’s career too. “I’m not sure he ever had that kind of close relationship with an artist, sharing a house, and all the amazing work created there, it’s so significant,” he said.

For Gagosian and Hoffman, a show of Basquiat’s L.A. works, which includes works from a second stint during which he lived at West Hollywood’s L’Ermitage hotel, has been a long time in the making.

“I’d been thinking about a show like this for a while,” said Gagosian, whose gallery has put on at least five Basquiat shows since his death in 1988, “But I called Fred and said, ‘let’s just do it, let’s commit to it.’ I just felt the time was right.”

Like the recent King Pleasure, a Basquiat exhibition organized by his sisters that places the artist in the context of his family instead of the more glamorous parts of his career, “Made on Market Street” attempts to give life to an artist that many simply think about in terms of branding and hammer prices.

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