Arts and Design

What really killed Basquiat? Playwright Ishmael Reed has a theory

Annina Nosei is upset. A new play by Ishmael Reed, a leading Black literary figure in America, makes out the dealer who gave Jean-Michel Basquiat his first show in New York as a rapacious profiteer. It also has a lot of dark things to say about Basquiat’s relationship with his sometime collaborator, Andy Warhol.

The Slave Who Loved Caviar—structured as a CSI episode and promoted as satire—investigates wonders if what “really” killed Basquiat wasn’t just a drug overdose but “foul play” at the hands of the corrupting New York art world.

Nosei, ever alert to depictions of the role she played in Basquiat’s life, attended a performance last December during the play’s three-week run at Theater for the New City, an East Village Institution. She walked out at intermission.

“I don’t hear very well,” the octogenarian dealer told me. “And I couldn’t understand what the actors were saying, so I left.” Crystal Field, who founded the Off-off Broadway theater in 1970, happens to be Nosei’s neighbor and sent her the script. Conceding that she read only “the parts that mentioned my name,” Nosei refuted them, point by point.

L-R: Robert Turner as Abstractionist artist Jack Brooks, Raul Diaz as the vampire Baron De Whit, Roslyn Fox as Chief of Detectives Mary Van Helsing. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

However, I discovered while watching a live-streamed performance—not the best way to experience a stage play, but Covid paranoia kept me home—Reed’s drubbing doesn’t come up till Act Two. Characters describe Nosei as a “slavedriver” who in 1981 locked the young Basquiat in her SoHo gallery’s basement (a “dungeon” in the play), and either paid for drugs to make him work harder or turned a blind eye to his use of them, while forcing sales of purportedly unfinished paintings to invasive collectors whom she brought downstairs.

All of this has been said so many times before that it’s practically folklore. Such is the power of myth, particularly in the age of social media, but Nosei would like the record corrected once and for all.

First, that “basement.” Though located below the gallery, it was a 2000 sq.ft-studio that had a skylight at the back and windows on the sidewalk that allowed passersby to see in. In other words, no dungeon. “I was never locked anywhere,” Basquiat told Marc Miller in a videotaped 1982 interview. “Christ! If I had been white, they would just say artist-in-residence.”

According to Nosei, the only collectors who went down there were Lenore and Herbert Schorr, early champions and friends of the artist who came at his invitation.

It was disappointing to hear Warhol demonised in the play as a vampiric artist who exploited other talents, and conceptual art as “the longest running con game in art history”—coals that burned out long ago. Reed, the author of nine other plays, as well as 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, consulted a number of published sources about both Warhol and Basquiat (he sent a bibliography). Perhaps owing to his characteristic, sometimes dazzling, mashup of historical and current newsmakers, including Richard Pryor, Jeffrey Epstein and Maurizio Cattelan, some of it came out equal parts fiction and fact.

For example, one character quotes Basquiat’s reference to his experience in Nosei’s basement as a “sick factory” that he hated. Only that’s what he said about a warehouse in Modena that the Italian dealer Emilio Mazzoli rented for his use. Also, it was Mazzoli, not Nosei, who paid him thousands of dollars in cash that he subsequently spent partly on drugs, limos, and caviar. “I am against drugs,” Nosei said. “I don’t even like medicine.”

L-R: Ishmael Reed, Annina Nosei and Crystal Fields

If so, Reed asks, why didn’t she intervene? (As if anyone could.) Nosei says Basquiat’s drug use was the reason that she kicked him out of the basement and rented him a nearby loft where he could do as he pleased without interference from her. “After that,” she insisted, “I didn’t have anything to do with him.” In the published version of the play, and subsequent productions, Reed promises to add lines indicating that, “Ms. Nosei disputes claims made by others.”

Reed says that he wrote the play to counter a “false narrative” about Basquiat foisted on Black people by the white art establishment, and by the artistic licence that Julian Schnabel took in his 1996 biographical film, Basquiat. He threads the plot with quotes from such archly conservative critics as Robert Hughes, who famously hated Basquiat’s work and was among the several white critics to disparage the artist as a wild savage, an uneducated street urchin, a monkey, and a primitive who merely “scribbled.”

To give such bigoted takedowns a different perspective is a legitimate and welcome pursuit. As one character in the play puts it, “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” All the same, to bring additional falsehoods to bear on the story doesn’t clarify anything, especially when it involves two of the most highly valued contemporary artists in the world.

Like Basquiat, fame found Reed early, with the publication of his first novel, Mumbo Jumbo. “I’d come to New York in 1962 with all of my belongings in a laundry bag,” he told me. “By 1967 I was a star. I left New York [for Berkeley, CA]. If I had remained, I would have perished from an overdose of affection. Maybe,” he added, “an older Black man could have given [Basquiat] direction. Instead, he admired degenerates like William Burroughs and anti-Semites like Kerouac. My play succeeded in challenging the nasty, anti-Basquiat attitude promoted by whites, a lot of it racist, and points to influences on Basquiat that [white critics] could not identify.

For my money, Reed’s play succeeds best at dramatising the construction of truth as dependent on whoever controls the narrative, which is always up for grabs.


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