Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat: A Love Story is infused with the artistic electricity of a whole scene at a seminal time in the American arts: early ‘80’s New York City. Clement’s memoir is being published in America this month but arrives directly from the times it covers. It is a poetic conversation, literary document and oral history, an inspiring portrait of a city that is in the process of forever altering what’s considered American art, American literature and American music.
“Widow Basquiat” is the gloomy nickname given by the art critic and artist Rene Ricard to Suzanne Mallouk well before her lover, Jean-Michel Basquiat, died. In the early ‘80s, Clement, attempting to embark on her writing career, and a then-unknown Basquiat, both viewed Mallouk as a muse. From 1982 through 1984, Clement wrote a series of poems about Mallouk, which became the skeleton of Widow Basquiat. After Basquiat died in 1988, Clement, in collaboration with Mallouk, expanded the poems into a story-like form. Through sublime voice work Widow Basquiat oscillates between Clement’s third-person present tense narration and Mallouk’s first-person voice recounting her life lived with and without Basquiat. Mallouk’s voice (in italics) is a literary device, a “riff,” Clement says. In the vignette titled “Genealogy of Heroes,” she writes:
Jean-Michel loves boxers and musicians. His heroes are Hendrix, Joplin, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Joe Louis. He loves anyone who died from a drug overdose. He says he loves Suzanne also because she is the first woman he has ever met who is a living, walking, breathing cartoon.
Mallouk’s take is perhaps more intimate:
Jean had a pair of red boxing gloves. He said he liked to put his hands in them and just lie on the bed and watch television. He said he could feel thunderbolts in them. Sometimes he would bounce and box around the apartment hitting the refrigerator and the walls.
In addition to being a story primarily about Mallouk, “it’s a story about Basquiat and it’s a love story,” Clement says, “but it’s also a story about graffiti and it’s a story about AIDS and it’s a story about the gay movement in New York. When anybody died, they would be frightened if you’d slept with him: ‘Oh my god, did he die of AIDS?’ ” It’s a big part of the story of New York in the early ‘80s,” Clement says.
Clement’s ability to evoke the artistic sensibility of the time period it covers makes Widow Basquiat compelling. Its language is seductive and gives readers a vantage of unprecedented access to Mallouk and Basquiat’s lives in arguably the most prolific creative hotbed of the modern era. The docudrama Wild Style (1983) and documentary Style Wars (1983)cover hip-hop’s culture and the graffiti it was drenched in; Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk revealingly documents early ‘80s New York and the drug-fueled abandon its participants were promulgating. However, Clement’s work is something different altogether: You get to actually walk around in Mallouk and Basquiat’s shoes as they love, abuse themselves and each other and create with romantic abandon.
Evan Rodriguez is a freelance writer living in Central Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.