Jennifer Clement – Widow Basquiat (2000)
From 1977 to 1980 one might find graffiti on the streets of New York City bearing the mark of SAMO. The duo behind this slogan were shrouded in mystery for some time but one of them – Jean-Michel Basquiat – later emerged in the 1980s to become one of the most significant artists of the late 20th century. A neo-expressionist, Basquiat used social commentary in his works and addressed such matters as race relations and the gulf between the wealthy and the poor. He went from living on the streets, relying on the kindness of others, to being significantly wealthy in a matter of a few years. By 1988 Basquiat was gone, dead at 27 from a heroin overdose, but his legacy lives on. Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat is a biopic of sorts, giving us an up close and personal account of Basquiat through the eyes of Suzanne Mallouk, the artist’s lover and muse for many years.
Widow Basquiat has two perspectives running through its pages. The bulk is from Jennifer Clement whose third person account tells us the story of Suzanne Mallouk who leaves her home in Canada, including an abusive father, and heads for the US and to New York. It’s here that she meets Jean-Michel Basquiat and they become lovers – he calls her Venus – and she is with him for the next few years as his life changes. Clement tells us the story of Suzanne and her relationship with Basquiat but we are privy to digressions in the form of first person perspectives, reminiscences and anecdotes from Mallouk herself that helps to flesh out some of the scenes. Primarily, focusing on Basquiat, the book is also Mallouk’s own story and the impact her relationship with the artist had on her, the highs and lows that came with it, and the fallout after Basquiat’s death and how she came to be known as the “widow” of the title.
Widow Basquiat is a short read but there is not a single dull page. Clement’s sumptuous writing is a delight while Mallouk’s own interjections give the overall narrative even greater substance. On the surface one might think this is a simple love story but it is anything but. Clement and Mallouk each shed light on Basquiat as an artist who was extremely gifted, very generous to friends and associates, but he had many flaws such as infidelity and the drug abuse that ultimately killed him is not glossed over here. The impact it had on him physically and mentally is devastating. There were times when I found Basquiat very disagreeable when being party to his behaviour through these pages. He was far from a saint but he and Mallouk had a strong connection for many years, a brutally real love story played out on the streets of New York, and one destined to not end well for either party. The book is not a condemnation of Basquiat though, more a celebration of a man who achieved a great deal in a short time, one who was greatly flaws, but who was also blessed with unquestionable talent.
Verdict: Irresistibly hard to put down, beautifully written, moving and poignant account of Basquiat and Mallouk’s relationship.