Few had a closer look at the art-run social milieu of 1980s New York City than Paige Powell, then-girlfriend of Jean-Michel Basquiat and closest confidant of cultural impresario Andy Warhol. And with her Canon camera, she caught it all. Three decades later, Powell begins unspooling a comprehensive archive (save for cameras lost in the backseat of taxis and confiscated from after hours clubs) that intimately captures the lives of an underground era to which she was doyenne; and her first offering is nude, black-and-white candids of her ex-lover, Basquiat.
It’s a bold place to start, with a private tableau of one of the most sought after artists in the world, but Powell’s pictures aren’t about Basquiat’s state of undress; they’re about Basquiat. Taken five years before his death in ’88, they show a sensitivity of the artist from a time he didn’t live to retell—but willed by friends, Powell could. “I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Wow, what would Jean-Michel think of this?’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god, he would love it,’” she said. “And then I thought, ‘Well, what would Andy Warhol think?’—Oh god, he’d be so jealous.”
At New York City’s Suzanne Geiss Company, the portraits now hang in massive scale, and for the next month, the SoHo gallery lets us slip into an evening at Powell’s Upper West Side apartment—Basquiat lounging in the buff. “I wanted to make it feel like you were walking into the room with him, to have that immediacy and the intimacy of being in the room with Jean-Michel,” she said. And they do. But a generous Powell gives us even more: the backstory. “It was one moment in the relationship,” she said, but it was also a snapshot of the way Basquiat worked. His artworks from the ’80s are widely viewed as his most coveted—and these photographs let us witness how he made them.
At the time, Powell was associate publisher for Warhol’s Interview Magazine and moonlighting as an impromptu art dealer, showing and selling artists’ work out of the apartment where she was living—Basquiat, A-One, and Rammellzee included—but it was her boyfriend’s drawings that covered her walls. He had brought his paintings and supplies to her 81st street apartment and filled it with his inspirations. “He’d stay up all night drawing,” Powell said. On this particular night, after a typical day of walking down Columbus Avenue shopping for records (“he’d buy armfuls of them”) Powell and Basquiat went to dinner and a movie and came back to her apartment where, not inconceivably, he’d chosen to undress. “Sometimes he would just take his clothes off,” she said. “Sometimes he would paint in brand new Comme des Garçons suits. He wore whatever he felt like wearing.” But no matter, Powell was forever shooting; and Basquiat, tirelessly painting.
“Reclining Nude,” as Powell’s title suggests, catches Basquiat at ease, reposing on a futon, listening to the records he’d bought that day and watching—dare she reveal it—cartoons. “I remember him saying to me, ‘Now Paige, remember: you can’t tell anyone my secret, that I get my ideas from watching cartoons.’” And for 25 years, she never told. Less confessional, though, are his other influences pictured, like the repertoire of books he’d open up and leave strewn across the floor. “He looked at a lot of Picasso and Cy Twombly, and was obsessed with Andy,” she said. “He’d get Hi-Fi stereo books, electrician books, and anatomy books from second-hand stores.” And though they’re not all pictured, there are enough in frame to prove her point.
Most revealing of all, Powell’s pictures show a sensitive side of Basquiat—of the 22-year old who had once asked Warhol’s permission to marry her (“As long as she keeps working at Interview, it’s okay,” Warhol had replied), and who, in his greatest form, had showed up at her door in a suit, with a tray of dripping ice cream cones. “He had gone to this ice cream store nearby, and filled a big tray with cones and all different kinds of ice creams, layered on top of each other, some with two scoops, some with three. By the time he got to my house—it was warm out—they had all melted down and were dripping off his hands onto his suit. I said, ‘this is beautiful but why did you bring so many?’ and he goes, ‘Because I wanted you to have your pick.’”
It’s no wonder, then, when Powell’s close friend Thomas Lauderdale discovered the contact sheets of these rare shots of Basquiat—at the time, astray from their negatives in daunting heaps of boxes—that he was certain Basquiat was where she should begin. Never mind her shots of Basquiat in the back of a limousine, watching James Bond, or a videotape of Keith Haring, painting a huge, papier maché elephant; both will have their day in time (and most likely, she says, spliced together.) From her home in Portland, where Powell is a photographer, curator, and animal rights activist, light-years away from the day she first arrived in NYC (vying for a job at Interview or with Woody Allen and granted both), enough time has passed to debut her archives with an intimate, thoughtful perspective into the life of her once-beau—and a side of Basquiat we’d otherwise have never known.