'IT'S CULTURE OR IT'S NOT CULTURE’: An Interview with Annina Nosei

Senior Editor Kathleen Massara spoke to Annina Nosei over the phone one snowy day in February, in advance of our online-only sale, entitled, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works from the Collection of Alexis Adler. Adler lived with Basquiat in the East Village from 1979-80, when the artist was only 19 years old.

From 1981 to 2005, Annina Nosei Gallery represented or exhibited work by artists like Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo, Ghada Amer, Shirin Neshat, and others. But Nosei is perhaps best known for being Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first art dealer, providing him with studio space in the basement of her gallery, along with materials for his first show there. In the book, Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, the Studio of the Street, published by Charta/Deitch Projects, 1981 is described as a key year for Basquiat; it’s where he makes the leap from the streets to the studio.

That year, Nosei first saw Basquiat’s work at MoMA PS1, in a groundbreaking group exhibition entitled “New York/New Wave”, which featured work by 119 artists, including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Nan Goldin. Nosei says she asked the curator, Diego Cortez, if she could come by and view the works privately, since she wanted to include more New York-based artists into her roster. He agreed. Soon after the show, Basquiat invited her over to his then-girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk’s apartment, where he showed Nosei his work. She says, “There were mostly drawings, numerous drawings. Beautiful.”

After they met for coffee, he wanted to join her gallery, but Nosei, ever practical, “told him that I really liked the work, but there were no paintings,” she says. Instead, she included him in a group show with Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Since he still needed works on canvas to display, she let him use the basement of the gallery as his studio. In her space on Wooster Street, Nosei let visiting international artists like Julio Galán and Massimo Kaufmann use studio space when they were in New York. “It was always occupied by an artist,” she says.

She gives an example of how many light years Basquiat was ahead of his contemporaries. Before her birthday, he gave her a book she still has today. “Generally a 20-year-old American boy does not know well enough to give me a book on Duchamp,” she drily notes.

Around that time, she gave him Cy Twombly’s catalogue raisonné, she says, “because I felt there was a connection between his work and Twomby’s work.” When asked about the connection, she says, “The visual language in which what is on the canvas is written on it, and not quoted.” Basquiat was a master of words, noting stereotypes in works like Hollywood Africans (1983), or reveling in absurdity in his early repurposed readymade works like Untitled (Milk) (1979-80), in which a radiator is painted with “MILK” in caps across the middle.

Nosei likened Basquiat’s work to “jazz music”, and when asked about Pierre Restany’s claim that “Basquiat made low culture become high art” she replies, “He was just interested in life and people and history and science,” continuing, “There is no difference between low and high culture. It’s culture or it’s not culture.”

We think Jean-Michel would agree.

Christie’s is selling Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work in an online-only auction, running from March 3-17, 2014. (Click here for more details.) For more on this and other online-only auctions at Christie’s, see www.christies.com/onlineonly.

Image courtesy Annina Nosei.