Portrait of an artist as a young man: Former lover reveals wealth of unseen works by Basquiat

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If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? More to the point, is a sound only a sound if someone hears it? Without delving too deeply into the metaphysics, this riddle offers an imperfect analogy for the philosophical conundrum more relevant here, namely – is art only art if someone sees it? As theGrio interviewed Alexis Adler, a New York University embryologist and former romantic companion of iconic Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, these and other tacit questions about how we evaluate, share and make meaning of art played mysteriously in the background.

Adler, who lived with Basquiat before he was famous, recently revealed plans to share a previously unseen, thirty-year-old collection of art works and ephemera from the early career of the tragic and prolific creator. Produced during their relationship in an East Village apartment — some pieces on the apartment — these pieces have never been seen by the art world or the public.

“This is allowing the people who knew Jean to tell the world more about him, who he was, how I knew him, his warmth and interest as a person,” Adler told theGrio about her plans. “There is a range of work from that time, and it offers a pretty intense snapshot of his beginnings as an artist.”

How Basquiat broke through

Even in his beginnings, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s unique appropriation of American politics and poetics joined text and image in drawings and paintings to great commercial success. His murals and canvases challenged our way of seeing, often relying on figures and abstractions to make acute social criticisms about race, contemporary power structures, and identity. He began his brief and brilliant career spray-painting under the pseudonym SAMO in the late 1970s and in a few short years rose to ’80s art fame, collaborating with legends such as Andy Warhol, as a dynamic and often controversial newcomer to New York’s art scene.

Adler shared an apartment with the growing artist from 1979 to 1980, and while it’s widely reported that she was his girlfriend, she is less forthcoming on the subject, simply stating  that, “It was a dynamic time, and that [they] lived together with other roommates initially.”

Whatever labels we yearn to stick on their relationship, during that period  Basquiat was already cultivating his unique style in their home as reported by artinfo.com, “covering one wall in a glyph-like mural that reads ‘Olive Oyl,’ painting crowns and ‘Famous Negro Athletes’ on a door, and the word ‘Milk’ on a radiator.” Graphic images incorporating text that exposed often unconscious cultural concepts would become a main motif of Basquiat’s style.

One of the most successful black artists in history

Like so many extraordinarily gifted artists before him, Basquiat’s life and death seemed to resound with the sound and fury so enigmatically captured in his work. He died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 in 1988.

Basquiat has remained since then one of the most successful African-American artists in Western history, and his work has seen a resurgence of critical and commercial popularity. The 24th street location of the prestigious Gagosian Gallery in New York City has achieved record highs in attendance through featuring a mini-retrospective of the artist’s work. A Basquiat mural sold at Christie’s auction house in November for a whopping $26.4 million. Currently, The Whitney Museum of American Art also in New York features Basquiat’s work prominently in an exhibition called Blues for Smoke, which explores the aesthetics of blues music and its influence on a wide range of art forms.

Was the explosion of interest in Basquiat’s work part of Alder’s personal motivation in deciding, after so many years, to share her treasures with the world?