Basquiat Nudes: "He Would Love These Photos," Says Paige Powell
Paige Powell at the opening of Jean-Michel Basquiat Reclining Nude. Photo by Patrick McMullan.
If you haven't yet taken in Paige Powell's photographs of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Suzanne Geiss Gallery, Jean-Michel Basquiat Reclining Nude, the time is now. The show's eight powerful, in-your-face images documenting the late artist relaxing nude at home comes to end this Saturday. With this show, Powell has raised eyebrows and taken some in the art world out of their comfort zone, with a few describing the work as exploitative.
Full disclosure: Powell has been a close friend of mine for over 20 years and I applaud her for putting herself out there in this risky way for her first show. This particular show, featuring eye-popping nudes of one of the art world's most mysterious superheroes taken way too early by addiction, is only the beginning of what is to come from Powell. The negatives for these photos, along with thousands of others, had been stuffed into boxes in Powell's Portland garage for the past 30 years. Recently, with the encouragement of friends and help from some local archivists, Powell has started pouring through her stockpile treasure trove of negatives. She's already lined up many more fascinating shows of her recently unearthed work to be released over the next few years. These images will undoubtedly emerge as a stong and deep body of work that is an important document of New York's art world and the pop culture surrounding the '80s and '90s. Here, she chats with me about Jean-Michel Basquiat Reclining Nude, her archives and what's next.
Perhaps in response to the controversy, Geiss and Powell have decided to wrap the show with a panel discussion addressing a different view of controversy. Simply called "Looking at Male Nudes," the panel will convene on the 22nd at 6 p.m. at Suzanne Geiss Gallery, and will feature Michaela Angela Davis, Nelson George, Kalup Linzy, and others discussing "the uneasiness of male objectification and the female gaze." (Press release below.)
Kim Hastreiter: How did your show at Suzanne Geiss come to light?
Paige Powell: A week after I started at Interview, in 1981, I was invited to go up to see Stefan Eins' artists space called Fashion Moda up in the South Bronx. That was when I decided I really needed to start documenting what was happening there -- it was this really raw space that attracted artists and people like Rammellzee, Kool Koor, Daze, Lady Pink and A1 had work there. I bought my first piece of art ever at Fashion Moda -- a train car door for $250 that A1 had painted. He was a terrific artist.
Those were the early hip-hop days.
Yeah. I was so excited, I went back to work and kept trying to get people to go back up there with me but nobody wanted to go to the South Bronx. There was so much amazing stuff up there, but I didn't think enough people were seeing it. I was staying in this empty apartment on the Upper West Side and had no furniture. I thought 'maybe I can just do a show of this work there.' The owners of my apartment lived in Switzerland. It was a pretty tony co-op. I sent them a letter asking for their permission to do a show for Rammellzee and they agreed. We wanted to put everything under black light and they said they'd even help pay for the lights to be installed.
So this is how you started showing in your apartment?
Yes. After that show, I started doing these little mini openings and cocktail parties at my apartment after work. I was more of a friend to the artists than a gallerist. I was trying to help them out and get them exposure -- I'd give them 90% on sales keep 10% commission to cover my expenses. I'd get the invitations for the openings done at Tiffany's. I had a fancy bartender from Texarkana come and do the hors d'oeuvres. Really, my 10% didn't even cover the party expenses but I didn't care! Who cared back then about making money then? It was about getting by and having a great time. And, hey, I was having a great time.
What was an ordinary day in your life like back then?
I'd get up really early. I was kind of a jock -- even if I'd only gotten a few hours of sleep the night before, I'd get up and run over to the reservoir. Jean Michel would go with me and smoke joints on a bench while I ran. He'd say, "I don't know why you have to do that to be a regular person." I'd get in to Interview around 10 a.m. Andy would come in later for lunch. We'd have Bianca Jagger or another socialite or celebrity over for lunch. Musicians, actors, all kinds of people came in. It would either be catered or we'd go out. We had a charge account at Le Cirque, and we had a charge account with a limousine company but we didn't even have hot water in the office. It was very high-low. Once Andy came into the office, he was there for the rest of the day til dinner. He always wore white New Balance tennis shoes. If he he had a nice dinner to go to after work, he'd just paint the tennis shoes black.
How did you start having shows by Jean-Michel your apartment?
I first met Jean Michel at his loft in '82. I was going out with someone named Jay Shriver at the time, who was Andy Warhol's technical assistant, and he took me over to Jean's loft. I remember getting off of the elevator and he literally walked his body right into mine. He wanted to go out with me and he didn't know I was going out with Jay. I asked him if he wanted to do a show at my apartment and he agreed right away, before he even knew any of the details. Jean Michel didn't have a gallery at the time -- it was after he had left the Annina Nosei. He had Larry Gagosian doing a show for him in LA and Bruno Bischofberger in Switzerland wanted to work with him, but he wasn't doing anything at that time in New York. And so I went on to show his work in my apartment after that for a year.
For a whole year?
Yes. Then we were together, we were a couple. He kept bringing in more paintings. He'd do paintings and drawings.
And did you sell a lot?
Everything we showed sold. The most important painting he ever did, the most epic painting of his entire life, is called "the Mitchell Crew." We sold that in April 1983. It's a huge triptych about the housing projects in the South Bronx.
Who bought it?
A couple of art collectors in their mid-80s named Mort and Rose Newman. They were amazing. They were from Chicago.
How much was it?
I think it was $9,000 or $10,000. I still have the receipt.
$10,000 was a lot for those days.
Yeah. It's probably worth way over $50 million now. And the couple never even showed it. They died and their son inherited the paintings. He keeps it in their townhouse in Chicago. People haven't seen it. It's epic. I have this really interesting recorded conversation I did back then with Rammellzee sitting in front of the painting, talking about it. The Mitchell Crew kids -- that was A1, Toxic, Kool Koor and some of their friends, these kids from the Mitchell projects -- would come over to the apartment and hang out. Rammellzee was really angry about the painting. He didn't like that Jean Michel came from a nice middle class background growing up in a town house in Brooklyn and was lifting from these kids who lived in the projects. He just went off the deep end about it. Rammellzee had a very close love with Jean Michel but they would have huge fights. They would get really angry with each other and they were both jealous. Jean-Michel brought him out to Los Angeles once with him and Rammellzee got all of the attention because he was so charismatic. They had this rivalry that went on for a long time. And it was very extreme and up and down -- one second they were screaming at each other, the next they were laughing and smoking a joint together.
Installation View: Paige Powell, Jean-Michel Basquiat Reclining Nude, The Suzanne Geiss Company, NY. Photography by Adam Reich
So how did these particular photos of Jean come to light?
Jean-Michel was my boyfriend, but we lived apart. I lived on the Upper West Side and Jean-Michel lived on Crosby Street. Andy Warhol had offered Jean an enormous studio in a building he owned on Great Jones Street that was $4,000 a month. Jean-Michel was panicked about it and didn't think he could afford it, and although he eventually moved there he would still come up and stay with me. He would stay up all night painting and then go downstairs and smoke joints and just kind of hang out. I eventually got kicked out of the apartment because of that. The photos were just about that -- he's just hanging out. He's not posing for a magazine or asking someone to film. He's showing another side to him. It's more personal.
Was it normal for him to just be hanging out naked?
Yeah. Sometimes he'd paint naked. He'd also paint wearing nice suits. These photos in particular were taken after we'd gone to a movie and had dinner. We were just hanging out in the apartment. It was a Saturday or Sunday evening -- you can see a Sunday New York Times on the futon in the background. We were just having fun -- he always had a joint. I kept thinking about these photos and I was talking to Suzanne Geiss. She agreed right away to do the show without even seeing them.
Is it true he watched cartoons?
Yeah. He made me promise that I wouldn't tell. He repeated this so many times, "Paige, don't ever tell people I get my ideas from cartoons." I never said a word to anyone about it. I felt like it had to be a secret until a couple of years ago. I was talking to someone about him and it just sort of slipped out. I bottled up a lot of my past. It's been cathartic, to go back and talk about it. But it also feels awkward -- almost like learning to ride a bicycle, because up until now I never really articulated or had to explain or discuss this past. It's been almost 30 years.
I think you were a little traumatized, too. You lost Andy and you lost Jean-Michel. And so many people were taken by AIDS at that time.
It was like a war had hit New York City and taken the best people from us.
Paige Powell with Basquiat's Dos Cabezas, 1982.
Did you feel like you had to get out of New York right away, because of everything you'd been through?
I was here for a few more years. At that time I got really into animal rights activism and animal rescue. I started a show with the writer Tama Janowitz on Manhattan Cable Access called It's a Dog's Life. Cats' Too. And Sometimes Birds. It was like a cross between Grey Gardens and QVC.
And then you moved to Portland, where you are originally from.
Yeah. I was the only continuing thread from Andy's Interview magazine. I was the only person left from when he had been there and [publisher] Sandy Brandt didn't want me to leave. When I told her I was going to Portland I said I'd give her six weeks, because I had arranged to have my apartment subletted to someone then. She said six weeks wasn't enough time, and that she'd need six months for me to transition out. She offered to put me up in a hotel and I'd always wanted to stay at the Chelsea. So I moved all of my stuff into storage units, moved to the Chelsea, went to Portland and stuffed all of my photos, ephemera and negatives into this house. There were things in the garage, under the bed, in cabinets, in closets. Wherever I could.
I've known you for more than a few decades now and have rarely seen you without a camera in your hand, snapping away. I know these photos of Jean-Michel are just the tip of the iceberg. You've had thousands of negatives in Portland sitting in your garage this whole time.
There are a lot of photos left over from that time. But I also had a lot of negatives stolen. I lost a lot from camera stores stealing them. I would take the film to get developed, they'd see photos of Andy Warhol or Keith Haring in the photos, and they'd be gone. I'd get a bunch of random negatives of furniture stores sent back to me.
How did these images of Jean make it from your garage to a gallery wall?
I met the musician [Pink Martini founder and leader] Thomas Lauderdale a year after I moved back to Portland and we became really good friends. He'd come over and see everything I had and kept telling me I needed to do something with all of these boxes. He's been after me for like 15 years to get this done. Finally, he came and got them and hired 11 library scientists to come in begin archiving them. I have boxes and boxes of negatives that aren't even attached to the contact sheets. I couldn't have done this without him.
Has Thomas gone through everything?
Oh no -- we're only about 2% into what I've amassed. I have a massive amount of negatives and videos.
You've met so many brilliant artists over your career. A lot of your work was taken in social situations -- parties and dinners. If you've only mined 2% of the photos in your archive so far, I assume there will be many many more shows to come. I hear you're thinking that your next show will be photos of artists eating, right?
Yes. You see, I was never a formal photographer. I was always sort of a fly on the wall. I have lots of personal photos of people eating. People like Stephen Sprouse, the Clemente family, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol. So many people. I also want to do a show of just photos of artists laughing. Both Andy and Jean had these amazing laughs. Jean-Michel had a really crazy, deep infectious laugh.
What about doing a show of pictures of celebrities with animals? You must have a lot of those.
I do. We had dinner at Judith Leiber's house once and I have a photo of Andy holding her little Westie. They both have the same face in the picture. And Andy had dachshunds, Amos and Archie. But they were a little crabby.
I also heard you have tons of photos you took of Andy with his eyes closed. Why did he always close his eyes when you photographed him?
I took hundreds of photos of him like that. He used to take a black magic marker and use it as a photo shop and fill in around his neck. And I have lots of photos of cute boys, too. And cubs. Area. After-hours places. Brownie's. I loved Brownie's. It was a Hell's Angel's club on Avenue A. They'd open on Thursdays at 10 at night and go until Monday morning. I'd go in the afternoon. You'd knock on the door to enter.
What about the people who have said this show is exploitative or disrespectful to Jean? Were you surprise by people's reactions to this show?
I'm really open to conversation and dialogue about it. I wasn't surprised at all and I feel secure in my choice to do it. The reason I can stand up for this show no matter what, in the face of any animosity, is because I asked myself what Jean-Michel would think. And I believe he would love it. He was very proud of his body and he'd been photographed nude before. I just know he would love these photos. And then I thought about what Andy would think. And I knew he'd be rocking in his grave over this, he'd be so jealous. It was more important to think about what Jean's opinion and Andy's opinions would be than anyone elses. It felt right and I felt strongly about it. I wanted to go super big with the images so people could experience, when they walked in, the immediacy and intimacy of being with Jean-Michel. Thanks to Suzanne Geiss, the gallery did a beautiful job. It's exactly how I envisioned it.