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Basquiat performing in the apartment
Photography Alexis Adler

See Jean-Michel Basquiat through the eyes of an ex-lover

A new exhibition focuses on the work and life of the prolific artist when he lived with Alexis Adler in Manhattan’s East Village

Before the Warhol-owned loft on Great Jones Street and the scrawling canvas works, before the lens of the art world shifted onto the most prolific painter of the 80s, Jean-Michel Basquiat lived in the mostly derelict East Village, on East 12th Street. Living with then-girlfriend Alexis Adler, Basquiat left his graffiti project SAMO© tags around the neighbourhood and used scavenged materials to make early works.

In a new exhibition opening in MCA Denver, Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, sees archival material including paintings, sculpture, notebooks and Adler’s own photographs of their time there to explore how this period of their life influenced the famed artist and his style.

At 60-years-old, Adler still lives in the apartment they both shared. In an interview with the New York Times, she said she saved over 100 art pieces, memorabilia and photos from their days together. Adler first met Basquiat when he was 19-years-old, getting together and moving into the small apartment for four months. She’s now an embryologist in a fertility lab. It’s a period of his life that’s less documented that others, where he was experimenting with his practice before zoning in on painting.

As Adler says in a statement: “From mid-1979 to mid-1980, I lived with Jean in three different apartments, but for most of that time in an apartment that we moved into and shared on East 12th St. This was a time before Jean had canvases to work with, so he used whatever he could get his hands on, as he was constantly creating.” 

“The derelict streets of the East Village provided his raw materials and he would bring his finds up the six flights of stairs to incorporate into his art. Jean was able to make money for paint and his share of the rent, which was $80 a month, by selling sweatshirts on the street. He knew that he was a great artist."

A book will accompany the exhibition with essays illustrating the era and how it informed his artistic practice. The curator at MCA Denver, Nora Burnett Abrams, writes about the art historical context as well as the distinctive scene that emerged from the East Village. Malu Halasa, a writer who lived there during the same period, unpacks the words and texts Basquiat harnesses in his work. Other contributors include writers, musicians, historians and filmmakers.

Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980 is on from February 11 until May 7 2017