Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reclining Nude

Paige Powell, the late artist's former lover, shares intimate images from her photo archive

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reclining Nude
Paige Powell, Courtesy of The Suzanne Geiss Company

Artist and photojournalist Paige Powell was a key presence in the artistic hotbed that was 1980s New York. Landing a job at Interview magazine as soon as she arrived in the city, Powell went on to become a regular at Warhol's Factory whilst working as a writer and photographer. Now she is sharing rare and intimate snapshots from a deeply personal period in her life: her relationship with iconic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reclining Nude, which launched earlier this month at Suzanne Geiss Company marks the beginning of a re-organisation of Powell's extensive photography archive – a project which promises to unearth many hidden gems. Exposing the private, erotically charged moments the couple shared over their two-year relationship, these languid nudes of Basquiat, often sprawled amongst his own artworks, give us a glimpse of him at his most uninhibited. 

Dazed spoke to Paige about the show and what her former lover would make of it.

Dazed Digital: What made you decide to share these photographs?

Paige Powell: It was through my dear friend, sponsor, archivist and adviser Thomas Lauderdale, founder of Pink Martini, composer and pianist. All of my archival materials would still be boxed up in the garage, under beds, cabinets and closets, if it weren't for him strongly and constantly urging me to organize and start showing them. He felt there would be enormous interest in the work, especially the work from the 80s. 

DD: What memories of that time do the photographs evoke for you?

Paige Powell: They were taken before all of the contemporary technology available today existed (even before the fax machine). It was a time when people only wrote handwritten letters or used a typewriter. This lent itself to a greater freedom to create, making new things happen for the sake of just that. For me, they evoke a time of optimism and vibrant artistic energy in New York City.

DD: Which of the collection speaks most to you?

Paige Powell: Hard to say, there are still a couple more years of work needed to sort through/organize my archive. I'm really drawn to a vast amount of images and videos that I had made of Harlem in the 1980's, but again I am slowly rediscovering the series – like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reclining Nudes – I forgot that I had taken, so it is very exciting.

DD: Was your relationship with Jean-Michel a creative one as well as a romantic one? 

Paige Powell: Yes, in some ways. We enjoyed cooking together; we created pasta dishes and ice cream sundaes often. In terms of his work, he once had me fill in colours on a series of watercolour drawings before he put them in the dryer. He would often ask my advice on his work. He posed for some of my photographs in a little column I had in Interview magazine and I posed for him in a portrait he made of me as a black woman. 

DD: Did you have any inkling of just how important he was going to become to future generations?

Paige Powell: Of course – I loved his work and there was such a high interest in Jean-Michel then and now. I did a show on April 14, 1983, with Jean-Michel as the main artist, and Rammellzee, AOne, Lady Pink, Koor and Toxic in the dining room. That was the first show. Because I worked full-time at Interview and was also a photojournalist for a Japanese pop-culture design magazine Brutus, I did multiple showings of the same show and brought in a different group of people every time. And then as the work went out, I just showed Jean-Michel’s work. Again, these weren’t public shows, they were private showings. I did it as a friend and because I believed in the art.

DD: What do you think Jean-Michel would make of this collection of photos?

Paige Powell: He would have loved it. He loved his body. He wanted to be an actor and wanted to do film.

DD: You’ve documented such an interesting group of people. Who else have you found photographs of in your archives?

Paige Powell: While I was working as a photojournalist for Brutus. The editor-in-chief, Kyoichi Tsuzuki, brought me to Japan and took me to some rare places. I took many photographs of exquisitely beautiful transgender/transsexuals in amazing costumes at some private house clubs in Roppongi. These performers would wear little maid-like outfits and drop fresh cubes of ice into our glasses, while bringing us delicacies to eat. They then performed in a plush living room environment. I took many photos of them performing. One act was called Around the World in 80 Days; the performers lip-synced to songs from various countries they 'travelled' to, wearing natty sailor suits in Paris, lederhosen in Germany and saris in India, ending up with an enormous silver atlas on stage, in which they draped themselves. I’ve also photographed the 'girls' (drag queens) in their dressing room preparing for shows on Whispers night at the Pyramid on Avenue A in New York.

DD: As a politically minded person, do your politics intertwine with your art at all?

Paige Powell: Not necessarily, but the work I do for my community and animal rights gives me a level of enlightenment that certainly plays into my work. 

DD: What's the next step for you artistically?

Paige Powell: I have continued to take photographs throughout the years and have several ideas for other shows. I'd like to show another series from my archive in the near future. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Reclining Nude runs until February 22 at The Suzanne Geiss Company, Manhattan

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