The Handwriting on the (Bedroom) Wall

Mar 7, 2014 3:28PM

By Glenn O’Brien 


I forget. 

I forget what I thought I’d remember. You’ve got to remember to write it down, because you’ll need that memo later when your brain moves on. I never kept a diary because diaries didn’t pay. Well, maybe later, but what if you’re dead by then? Maybe write it where you’ll see it, like on the wall.


I remember Jean.  I can still hear his voice even if I don’t remember the words.  I remember how he danced and how he held a pencil. I remember his laugh, an explosion, or how he made a point: “Boom!”

I think I didn’t know Alexis Adler, although I like everything I know about her.   She was one of us.  And seeing all this work that few people have ever seen was like meeting an old friend.  Exactly.

I was talking with another old friend of Jean, just a few days ago and I asked him about Alexis and he said  “she was before my time.”  That seemed kind of funny coming from somebody who went back so far with pre-famous JMB.  But actually I’m not surprised I didn’t meet her because he never took me to his place of residence back then, and when he was out he was out, by himself or with the boys, doing the hunter gatherer thing.  

I think maybe he was a little vague about his residence, if he had one, because he had lived in Manhattan for a while by sleeping around.  He always relied on the kindness of strangers.  And frankly I think he was a little on the down low about his girlfriends or female roommates because he was always looking, always looking to the future for options.  He lived day-to-day, night-to-night.  On and off and back on again.   But I can imagine him in that apartment, his first apartment, wanting it just right—hanging pictures and moving furniture and totemic found objects from the street around.  I’m sure the place was actually elegant in that starved, reductio ad absurdum high style of his.  Before the Armani suits he looked like a million bucks in a two-dollar overcoat.

When I wasn’t sure where he lived I used to imagine him moving into girls’ places and making a painting on the new roommate’s refrigerator right off.  It was how he paid his way.  And the people who loved what he did would hold on to it, because they really got it.  Alexis really got it.  But in his late teens, Jean was a man on the move.  When we made Downtown 81 we made a place for him to live in our production office so we’d know where he was every morning.

Michael Holman (Jean’s partner in the band Gray) has a funny memory of Alexis putting up the PIL metal box—the Johnny Lydon LP record set that came in a film can, hanging it on the wall as if it were a piece art and Jean getting mad. “Why did you put that up there? Why don’t I just put a book up on the wall?!” and Jean then grabbing a hammer and nail and hammering his copy of Naked Lunch right through the pages, on to the wall.  “I think it’s still there.”

His eminent domain in décor seems to have been a recurring theme. I remember visiting the East Village apartment he shared with Suzanne Mallouk in 1981 and she had put little delicate cards of typed lines of poetry up on the wall and he hated them.  On my next visit Suzanne had thrown all of his paintings out the window.  I think they were on the sixth floor.  I looked out the window and there they were on the roof of a one-story garage where the band the Bush Tetras rehearsed.  

I met Jean (which is what everybody called him, I think, until he got famous—I never called him that while he was alive), toward the beginning of 1979 when he was 18.  (I was at the self-dramatic Jesus’s crucifixion age.)  But we treasured the same information and we spoke the same language and that put us on the level.  I never thought of him as a kid, but as a wise guy/wise man.  He was a rebel.  What are you rebelling against?  What have you got?  Hey, I found him by tracking down the words he wrote on walls on the street, and that was the beginning of a permanent friendship. 

I was writing a piece for High Times about graffiti, which I thought was getting really interesting, going far beyond what Norman Mailer had written about in “The Faith of Graffiti” five years earlier—evolving beyond the graphic territorial marking of tags into a world of actual art; I wanted to meet the artists who were making that happen. 

I talked to Lee Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, Ali, Futura 2000 and various other practitioners of the illegal art, but above all I wanted to meet SAMO©.  He was the first graffiti artist to have “content.”  It was done with a cool hand, like any graffiti worth a look, but leaner and meaner and it had a flip wit to it.  The Wild Style artists bombing the trains were showy, with big athletic technique, practicing a sort of ambitious street cubism.  But SAMO© was poetry—a sort of anarchist ad copy, and the tag SAMO© itself suggested that the writer or writers were an institution, a sort of mock corporation.  In a way it had more in common with Paris 1968 graffiti than New York, 1978. 


         Ennui est contre-révolutionnaire.


         Boredom is counter-revolutionary.


         Il est interdit d’interdire!


         It’s forbidden to forbid.


         Ici, bientôt, de charmantes ruines…


         Here, soon, charming ruins.


Henry Flynt, who photographed SAMO©’s street works, has written that initially he thought “SAMO© might speak for an artists group, which would eventually step forward and exhibit. “  Suddenly SAMO© was omnipresent in New York (and SAMO© announced his omnipresence).  SAMO© was here the way KILROY had been here.  It was an exercise in myth making.  SAMO© was almost as prolific as PRAY whose tag (message?) was scratched into every payphone in New York.  SAMO© was a hit overnight, a real mystery trend.  SAMO© as the next big thing. 

Graffiti then was really about the subway, but not SAMO©.  Keith Haring didn’t tag trains but he worked the stations, chalking the black paper the transit authority used to black out a billboard when its lease ran out.  But SAMO© was a street thing and with SAMO© it was all about location, location, location.  The hip thoroughfares of Soho and the East Village, with other strategic points around town.  SAMO© knew his audience and his tagging was, to put it in Mailer-ese, “advertisements for myself.”












Frederick Brathwaite, aka Fab Five Freddy, college student, graffiti artist, hip hop enthusiast and my new best friend in 1979, was able to hook up a meeting with SAMO@. The Village Voice had run a story on SAMO© in December 1978, a week before Jean’s 18th birthday—when it was a group effort with his friend Al Diaz.    By the time I met him, I think, he was breaking up the band and going solo.  He looked like a rock star on a budget.  He had a blond Mohawk and dressed in an olive drab military surplus jump suit and used pointy black lace-up shoes.  He was beautiful and daring, like a sort of super flyweight Muhammed Ali. 

It was love at first sight for me.  His spirit demanded it.  When you meet someone who seems to have limitless energy and intensity and a completely personal style of expression, a way of doing everything deliberately and consciously, well you have to give them the old unconditional love.  How many geniuses are you going to meet?

I asked him to come on my cable show, “Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party”, and on April 24th, 1979 as SAMO, or as he corrected me “Mister SAMO.”  The clip is up on Youtube.  You might think that he was a little angry, but he was being cool.  We were best friends from that moment on.  He became a regular on “TV Party”.  Sometimes he was on camera but often he preferred to sit in the control room and graffiti up the show on the character generator, writing SAMOish titles, like “BAD FOOLS” or repeating key words that someone said. 

Jean talked fast, words stepping on each other as they tumbled out, as if he had to get it out immediately and squeeze it all in.  He was simultaneously relaxed and urgent.  He was impeccably well spoken, and charming, although he could take a bit of a severe turn if he disapproved of something, a sort of polite but acidic diss like something Stokely Carmichael might have quipped, sparring with William Buckley on TV.   His anger was more funny than most people’s funny. 

I remember taking Jean and Fab Five to an art collector’s party.  Freddy was uncool and tagged a wall in our host’s apartment.  Jean was totally cool.  When somebody looked at him with his little dreads and paint covered shoes, said he looked interesting and asked him what he did he said “I’m the manager of a McDonalds.”  They walked away.  Boom!

Jean was bad.  A bad boy.  He pied his high school principal at graduation.  He ran away from home.  But he was bad with a program, a plan.  He was being bad to be good and he was good at it. 

SAMO was an ad campaign and it was the product.  SAMO seemed ready to be whatever you wanted it to be, but no really.  SAMO wanted to mock your pretentions, intentions and desires while suggesting it was fulfilling them. 

Jean explained to me “the everlasting tag,” one that is placed in a location that makes it so difficult to remove, it just stays there.  He had been writing SAMO© statements that put together were a manifesto.   There were also lines of pure poetry that radiated an aggressive, off-the-wall sanity. 














From the time of SAMO© on, everything Jean did was a challenge to the art world.  He was throwing down. He wasn’t just a wannabe or pretender, he challenged the values, standards and practices of the art world, holding out for something stronger, tougher and more precious and more human.  That’s why he used to talk about having a boxing match with Julian Schnabel who had a hundred pounds on him easy.  He saw art as a battle, filled with contenders and with the champions, like Picasso and Warhol, emerging at the top.  And as much as he earned in the art world as he became a heavyweight contender, he was always on guard because he knew about the treachery.  He knew they built you up to tear you down; that’s how it works.  You couldn’t let your guard down for a minute.  But he challenged the art world to the very end.  It was smaller then and we were bigger, or at least thought we were.

Basquiat’s art practice in 1979-1980 was peripatetic; like Socrates, it involved a lot of walking around and talking.  Obviously when he was working on the street he travelled by shoe, shuffling pigeon toed, sometimes like a sleepwalker, but he was also an inveterate visitor of friends and potential friends.  That’s what people did then.  Everybody had more time—maybe because they didn’t carry phones, they didn’t text.  They didn’t have jobs.  It was a quarter in the payphone or face-to-face, person-to-person. People visited one another, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, talked about music and art, borrowed and lent money, smoked pot…

Sometimes Jean would be waiting for me when I got home.   He liked loitering, but he’d get restless and need to do something.   Jean did a nice painting on a window in the stairwell in my old tenement.  Then Fab Five tagged another window.  Then I got a warning note under the door: “Glenn O’Brien we know who you are.”  The super took the drawings off with a razor blade.  Not much of his work on windows survived.  Only if you lifted the whole frame, and people did that. Once he showed at Annina Nosei Gallery no tagged door or window in town was safe.  I know another stairwell in another building where I used to live where there is a great poem, under 34 years of paint.  Someday I’ll go up there with an x-ray machine and a chisel.

I was always glad to see him show up.  He was always up for perpetrating some fun.  He would tell you something interesting, ask you a question you couldn’t answer, give you a gift you didn’t expect, play your records, look through your books and in the refrigerator, and leave you a drawing.  Thanks!

I remember one day he showed up at my sixth floor walkup tenement with Danny Rosen. Amazingly they were both dressed in tuxedos and carrying squeegees.  They had been washing car windows at Bowery and Houston, where you’d usually find junkies and crackheads aggressively washing windows until the cops chased them away.  Jean and Danny put a nice touch of grace to that work.  Everything Jean did he elevated with his graceful touch.  It was a prank, a stunt, but today it would be a performance.

People ask dumb questions, but they must be important because I’ve heard the same ones over and over.  When did you know he was great?  Maybe before I met him.  SAMO© certainly caught my attention.  But I have always said that I knew he was a genius as soon as I saw him put a pencil to paper.  You kind of suspected it from the way he talked, but the work of his hand was undeniable. 



Oh, I think not.  It is kind of astonishing to look at what Basquiat was doing at 19, but it wasn’t just him.  He was the first famous one of his wild generation, but their youth was a different kind from today.  They didn’t engage in some kind of subsidized demographic-seeking corporate fake youth culture; they knew that there was only culture.  There were no boy bands, no Biebers, just the culture of the street and the culture of the uptown top-ranking.  Basquiat, 19, reads Burroughs and Kerouac, listens to Bird and Miles, dances to P-Funk.


Alexis’s collection is far more than memorabilia.  This is the pure pro-bono production of an artist on fire with ideas.  These are the roots and the seeds of the thing to come.

You could call this early work, or late teen work, but it’s already mature.  No more high school comic books here.  By this time he was way into it.  Sometimes a new drawing style would come up for a week or two, a new way to distort a head or skew an image, and then it would turn into something else.  Someday they’ll be saying “warp drive period Basquiat” or “melt shift period.”  In ten years he went through many periods, but you can see here developments that would occur and some that were abandoned experiments. 

Already in 1979 he was developing his own vocabulary of words, characters (Popeye and Olive Oyl) and signs.  Here’s the crown and the wheel, the dotted line, the spilled ink.  He’s trying things out.  With the postcards he’s doing Warhol and Rauschenberg, pop art, and with the clothes he’s doing Franz Kline and Pollock. 

The humble materials make the work even more valuable.  In stainless steel this would be nothing, but cobbled together out of whatever is free, this is genuine “less is more stuff.”  This is his Arte Povera period.  Whereas certain pieces have a masterpiece attitude and execution, this is modest work.  Little gems.  One step at a time. Practice makes perfect.  Perfect makes jealous.

Basquiat is, at this point, experimenting, but he’s also homing in on his own zone.  Later, as Rene Ricard pointed out in the catalog for Basquiat’s posthumous Whitney retrospective, dealers would try to influence his compositions, particularly in suggesting that he leave all those words out.  Of course, they came tumbling back eventually, but here, before there was more than street money, it’s exactly the balance he wanted to strike between word and image. 

Rene Ricard wrote of the time “This earliest period consisted of images reduced to symbols, reduced in the sense of concentrated to an essence, similar to the way Jean had used words.  In his notebooks he can be seen paring phrases to the bone until they became a readymade with the authority of an advertising slogan or jingle, an ominous hook pitching enigmas.  The images were practiced with Zen-like precision.”

Basquiat was a poet.  But he loved the ready made, he pulled words from the radio, from movies, from the TV across the room, from broken down tire repair shops in Alphabet City.  It was almost as if he was pulling a text out of the air, or what we used to call the firmament, when there was one.

He is a poet of recombinant slogans. He believed a good line bears repeating and the usual suspects show up on scraps of paper, on SAMO©fied walls, on Xeroxes, postcards, and then paintings.

One of Ezra Pound’s slogans was “artists are the antennae of the race,” and in the electronic age Basquiat was the prototype of receive-edit-create; he was a keen and sensitive receiver, tuned to frequencies unavailable to others, and finding cryptic meaning between the lines. He read the world like a book, reading billboards, street signs and snatches of TV and radio like an augur studying how the birds settle on the temple.  Assembling his sacred text from billboards, matchbooks, tabloid headlines, and old textbooks from the Strand’s dollar pile. 

The whole livery line bow like this with the big money all crushed into these feet.  Where did the words come from?

Funny, I was talking to Michael Holman and I asked him about a part of the multiple choice SAMO© Jean had executed at Stan Peskett’s loft on the day they met. 







It had come up in a conversation and my transcriber had rendered it General Mallory, but then I looked it up and saw in the photo that it was indeed General Melonry.  Was that a mistake.  His spelling wasn’t always 100%.   Well, a melonry is a place where they grow melons.  Michael Holman says, “I can just see Jean seeing a sign ‘general melonry’ and thinking “Wow, that’s great—like an army general and melons.”

Ignorant Easter Suit.  Braille Teeth.  Boom for real.  Origin of Cotton.  Peso Neto.  Some things were pulled from books.  From storefront signs on Avenue C.   The hobo code from Henry Dreyfuss, Symbol Sourcebook: “NOTHING TO BE GAINED HERE.”  “MAN DIES”

GAMMA RAYED PROSTITUTES?  Oh, I’ve got one of those.  Where do you suppose that came from?  Queen of Outer Space with Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The Test Pattern band flyer shows off a bunch of techniques in progress—the zigzag, the cross out (he crossed out words to emphasize them, not make them go away), the arrow, the parenthesis, the drip. 

What’s with the Anti-Baseball Cards?  To friends his age he was Willie Mays.  But he wasn’t a jock and would never be a Famous Negro Athlete, except in bed or on the dance floor.  He was a great dancer and had many satisfied partners.  But he wanted to do for art what Willy Mays did for baseball.  Do it the way it had never been done before.

Man Made was Basquiat’s clothing line—he had once had a job painting t-shirts for Canal Jeans but he wound up storming out, that was a chump change job destined to end badly.  When he decided to try to make his own things to sell on the street there were the postcards, but also the hand-painted tees, sweatshirts and jumpsuits.  MAN MADE was sort of a post-SAMO© identity.  It sounded institutional.  It was SAMO© as a brand.   He had a moment with it at Patricia Field’s boutique.  MAN MADE was his Abstract Expressionist moment—a one-man movement.   That was, of course, at the precise moment when designers’ names began to make the difference.   Here was couture taken down to the roots—couture povera.

The line “Do I have to fill out a form to get my liquor and cigarettes too?”  written here, also found it’s way into a Gray recording that was released recently.   Basquiat took the juvenile delinquent art of the crank phone call and made it into art.

 “Coke adds life”—in which he demos a distortion mode that only lasted a little while.  He was experimenting with styles of fucking up the image.  Here’s a kind of exploded form of rendering.  Come back a few weeks later and he’s distorting the head a whole different way.


You have to be fairly old to have any idea what New York was like when this work was made.  It wasn’t long after the Daily News headline “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” And not long before the New York Post headline “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.” New York was dangerous, part deserted and depopulated, dirty, multi-ethnic, all broke down—but very alive with young people who came here to get away from where they were from and become who they would be. 

I remember 1979 very well.  New York was the capital of the art world then, a bit more on the production side maybe since abandoned rooms were free and lofts cheap, but it wasn’t hogwild business like today.  Gallery art was discreet and institutional.  It had theorists to back it up.   If you walked through Soho, where the galleries were then, you saw a lot of stacked lumber and steel plates on the floor, neon tubes, words in elegant type on the wall.  It was the time of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner.  Painting was dead—except what Sol LeWitt did on the wall.  Beauty was playing dead. Art was dry, unemotional and theoretical—it needed text to explain and justify it.  It didn’t knock your socks off.   Even on paper.  And we had grown up thinking artists painted nude girls, drank absinthe and smoked opium.  What were romantic art students to do?

On the other hand, things were wildly lively outside the art world and along the edges.  If you walked down to Rivington Street on the Lower East Side, where Freeman’s restaurant is now, and the Salon 94 art gallery, you might see an all-male line stretching all the way down the block and around the corner.  Bigger than a soup line, more like Star Wars had just opened, but these guys were lined up to buy heroin.  In retrospective, I think they were trying to kill us!  And they did.

The heroin brand was Dr. Nova, which was ironic because William Burroughs lived just across the Bowery.  Farther up the Bowery you had to step over the old alcoholics there and youngsters fresh out of Rikers preyed on the bums around the men’s shelter.  If you’re curious about that period check out C.H.U.D., a 1984 movie about Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, a breed of bum eating monsters based under the Broadway Lafayette subway station. 

Farther up the Bowery a whole new wave of bands was making a whole new music world, beneath the radar of the music industry.  A whole new art world was, at this point, inevitable.  But it wouldn’t be easy.  Navigating New York was like canoeing at Niagara Falls.  It was a wild frontier.  Alphabet City looked like Dresden in 1946.  At the after hours joint The Nursery you could check your gun or knife at the door.

The alternative art world finally arrived when Diego Cortez mounted “New York/New Wave” at PS1 in Queens in early 1981, featuring a whole room of Basquiat, the professional critics were horrified and the nocturnal public was thrilled.  I wrote one of the only positive notices the show got in Interview:

 "This is a tidal wave of art, about to reduce the entire art world to limp rubble, particularly the stuff that floats." Here I believe I was casting a jibe at the then popular gallery installations of lumber piles. I continued: "Here`s a whole new art world ready to replace the old one. Of course the old one is not going to just pack up and move to Chicago because of an art show in Long Island City. But I can tell they`re scared. And why? I think because here is art based on life, not on art. The public might like it."

In World Crown©: Bodhisattva with Clenched Mudra (1993), Rene Ricard wrote:

 “The sensation of artistic heroism, so characteristic of the revolution of 1981, resulted from the cheers of a grateful public that had been rescued, Andromeda-like, from the misanthropic bondage of Conceptualism. Remember, these young painters had been exhibiting in friends’ apartments and in nightclubs…Traditional galleries had been largely abandoned as legitimate cultural venue by the majority of young artists and the connoisseurs who collected their word.  “Unseen, an enormous new are world had been accumulating.” 

So here, out of the drawers and the safety deposit box and off the wall are the first ripples of what would be a tidal wave, a revolution that has its best days ahead of it, even though the magician who summoned it has left the building.  

Still, there is contagion here and it can’t be contained.  He’s gone but this shit is alive.  Check your tricorder readings!  It’s like an old discarded test tube of smallpox or the Black Death, but with better intentions.  The work is still working 35 years later.  It will continue to spread. 


Christie’s is selling Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 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


Photo courtesy Alexis Adler.