Widow Basquiat: A Love Story by Jennifer Clement
Reviewed by Ben
My introduction to Jean-Michel Basquiat was an unusual one. The famed avant-garde street artist and painter created some of the most recognizable and impactful art of the twentieth century, but I, of course, only became familiar with his work after spending time on the second floor of BookPeople. His books in the art section are big, demonstrative, and beautiful, making them easy to get lost in if you’re on lunch break with no lunch left to eat. However, it was only upon reading Hilton Als’s White Girls (which is phenomenal if I may say so) that I developed more than a casual interest in the work and life of this artist. It was then, with great luck, that I came across Widow Basquiat on BookPeople’s shelves.
As the title might suggest, Widow Basquiat is not solely about Jean-Michel himself, but instead focused on the life of his lover and muse, Suzanne Mallouk. This perspective creates an earnest and insightful look into the life of not only the artist, but the art scene in general that spawned in New York City during the 1980s. Written by Jennifer Clement, a friend of Suzanne and award-winning author, we are gifted a book that mixes both excerpts from interviews with Suzanne and poetic prose that deftly interprets her story in a way that could be perhaps more loyal to the emotion truth than what in truth transpired (if that makes any sense).
In Widow Basquiat, we are permitted to follow Suzanne from her home in Canada to the Lower East Side where she first meets Jean-Michel at the dawn of a decade. What follows is an intense and unbridled relationship that gives us the specific and intimate tale of an artist’s muse, addiction, and the artist himself. Through short sections and precise language, Clement constructs the memories of Suzanne in ways that we might not only conceive them, but feel them as if they were our own. There is a layering of emphasis. I not only latched to the anecdotes about the famous artist, but as the book progressed, also the intricacies that fostered this entire community of radicals, addicts, lovers, and revolutionaries. We see both crystalized moments that birthed some of Basquiat’s most iconic pieces, as well as the trajectory of Suzanne’s growth as a person and her relationship with Jean-Michel, all intertwined with the all-affecting nature of his career as an artist and his meteoric rise as such. But it is Suzanne herself who is the star. She, through her endurance and delightful honesty, casts the spells that bound me to this book.
From Jean-Michel’s friendship with Andy Warhol, to the fear that permeated during the AIDs epidemic, Suzanne and Jennifer recount the passion and energy of underground New York with the poetic clarity it deserves. Clement distills and delivers a unique and captivating book of love and history and art. This is a tale of becoming. Whether a hardcore or casual fan of Jean-Michel’s work, this is a book worth reading. Widow Basquiat is an engrossing account of genius before its collapse, a portrait of a couple in their place and time to spur our own imaginations on the value of art and how it is we all contribute to its creation and the formation of each other, especially those we love.