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rare photos of a young basquiat in his east village home

An intimate exhibition explores Jean-Michel Basquiat’s time living with his former girlfriend Alexis Adler in downtown New York.

by Jo Rosenthal
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16 February 2017, 8:55am

Basquiat in the apartment, 1980. Photograph by Alexis Adler.

Based firmly in the late-70s downtown New York art scene, a new love letter of an exhibition explores Basquiat's time living with his former girlfriend Alexis Adler, from 1979 to 1980.

Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver on February 11th, and is the first museum show to focus on the work and life of the artist in the brief time he lived with Alexis in a sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village of Manhattan.

Basquiat in the apartment, 1980. Photograph by Alexis Adler.  

The Denver Museum has even built a partial recreation of the railroad-style apartment as it looked when Basquiat lived there, and a reproduction of the building's Basquiat-graffitied hallways and stairwells. The work on display centres on the period in Basquiat's life before painting came into play. Alexis has saved more than 100 photos, art objects and ephemera from the era that supplement Basquiat's own pieces - which include a sculpture he made of an old radiator he found on the street and photos of him exploring performance and sitting in the bathtub playing the clarinet.

Alexis met Basquiat in 1979 when he was just 19 years old. He was four years younger than her, and she and her friends had been admiring his graffiti and SAMO© tags all over downtown. Not long after, the two moved into a 400-square-foot squat on East 12th Street. During the months they lived together, Basquiat transformed the floors, walls, doors and furniture into raw materials for his creative explorations. The sketches on view in the exhibition feature diagrams of chemical compounds the artist borrowed from Alexis's science textbooks.

Read: Remembering when Basquiat took a stand against police brutality.

Refrigerator in the apartment, c. 1979-1980. Photograph by Alexis Adler.  

Basquiat had a long list of lovers in his short life, and while many of them have kept remnants of their time with him, this exhibition offers a more intimate look at the young artist's earliest moments exploring his craft.

Also on view is a series of personal photographs of the him taken by Alexis. They show Basquiat playing with broken eyeglasses found on the street, creating a horrormovie mask with Silly Putty, and goofing around with a football helmet on his head as he tunes a TV that the couple had placed inside their refrigerator.

Painted television in the apartment, c. 1979-1980. Photograph by Alexis Adler.

By late 1981, when Basquiat moved out, he had turned his artistic focus from the streets to a studio-based painting practice. Just seven years later, in 1988, the artist died of a heroin overdose, at 27. But we are forever excited to see his work shown in new ways.

Basquiat performing in the apartment, c. 1979-1980. Photograph by Alexis Adler. 

Basquiat performing in the apartment, c. 1979-1980. Photograph by Alexis Adler. 

Basquiat performing in the apartment, c. 1979-1980. Photograph by Alexis Adler. 

Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980 is on view at MCA Denver until May 7, 2017

Credits


Text Jo Rosenthal
Images courtesy of Kubany Judlow and The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver