Doors, Shirts And Pepto Bottles: MCA Denver Will Show You Basquiat Before He was Basquiat

Listen Now
4min 55sec
Photo: Basquiat Exhibit MCA Denver 1 | Basquiat in apt - AAdler
Jean-Michel Basquiat painted on the floor, walls and doors of the New York City apartment he shared with Alexis Adler nearly 40 years ago.

Care to guess how much Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting “Untitled (1982)” fetched at an auction in 2016?

More than $57.2 million.

The late New York City artist rapidly rose to fame during his short life, and now he’s considered a heavyweight in the contemporary art world. Much has been made of Basquiat’s street graffiti and large paintings, but a new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver looks at a missing link.

Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980” shows how the artist used an apartment as his canvas.

More than 100 pieces are on public view for the first time. They belong to Alexis Adler, who shared a small, cheap apartment with Basquiat. She was a budding microbiologist fresh out of college. He was a promising artist at age 19.

“He would stay up all night working on different ideas,” she says. “We didn’t have canvases, but we had walls, floors, stuff that he’d bring up from the street, and paper.”

Photo: Basquiat Exhibit MCA Denver 2 | The NYC apt - AAdler
A look inside the apartment on East 12th street in New York City.

Adler and Basquiat were romantic while they lived together in New York City’s East Village. This collection captures a very intimate look at the artist during that brief time, with photographs Adler took and notebook pages on which Basquiat wrote and drew.

“It’s a dream come true for me because I really wanted to share this with people,” she says.

The show nods to Basquiat’s graffiti, which is how he got his start. He’d earned an underground following as part of the NYC street art collaborative SAMO. Basquiat often used black spray paint to write words and phrases in his signature, all-caps font.

The early anonymity Basquiat had with SAMO didn’t last long. He achieved superstardom just a few years later. That meteoric rise helped turn Basquiat into what MCA Denver curator Nora Burnett Abrams now calls a “mythic figure.”

“Making wildly large amounts of money, becoming an international art star, collaborating with Andy Warhol,” she says. “All of these markers of success he had achieved, and then his star burnt out.”

Photo: Basquiat Exhibit MCA Denver 3 | Nora Burnett Abrams - CJones
MCA Denver curator Nora Burnett Abrams inside the "Basquiat Before Basquiat" exhibition.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at age 27. The artist’s untimely death generated a mystique that’s enthralled many. Since then, more museums have displayed his work and films like 1996’s “Basquiat” have been made about him.

But this exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver goes back nearly 40 years to capture a period in between Basquiat’s creative teenage years and his celebrity status.

“It’s the artist kind of in a state of becoming, a state of formation,” Abrams says. “We don’t know that he’s going to become this amazing painter. We just know that he was always making, he was always curious.”

There are actual objects Basquiat painted on, like a Pepto-Bismol bottle. Then there are photos of other things he transformed into makeshift canvases, like a briefcase, a refrigerator and a television. Basquiat would also paint on pieces of clothing and sell them.

“The way he earned his share of the rent, which at the time was $80 a month, was by making these sweatshirts and t-shirts and postcards that he would then sell on the street,” Abrams says.

Photo: Basquiat Exhibit MCA Denver 4 | Basquiat Sweatshirts - CJones
Two of the sweatshirts on display. Basquiat would paint on clothing and then sell them to cover his monthly rent of $80.

The exhibition demonstrates how Basquiat played with different motifs, from words to symbols. Some of these later became signature elements in his work, like zigzag lines that depicted crowns, mouths and hair.

There’s an abstract quality to Basquiat’s art that many have described as “childlike.” But in reality, Abrams points out, he absorbed so much around him and often layered into his works.

“He was sifting and sorting through any material that he could find, whether it was pop culture, advertising, comic books, also both art history and science textbooks,” she says. “(Those) were really the few books that they had in the apartment.”

Remember that Alexis Adler studied science in college, and some of Basquiat’s art even takes the form of charts and graphs. Adler says this exhibition is a snapshot of their short time together.

Photo: Basquiat Exhibit MCA Denver 5 | Basquiat refrigerator - AAdler
The refrigerator inside the apartment shared by Alexis Adler and Jean-Michel Basquiat in NYC.

Her collection has earned headlines before, albeit for adverse reasons. In 2014, Adler tried to sell the pieces through Christie’s Auction House. That didn’t end well after the Basquiat Estate filed a lawsuit that questioned the authenticity of the works.

Adler, an art world novice, says the experience was off putting. “It was a harsh blessing in disguise,” she says.

So this time she’s gone the museum route after a few degrees of separation brought her and MCA Denver together. After the show ends in May, Adler hopes to see it travel nationally.

“It’s a strange and wonderful place to be in, but here I am,” she says. “I found myself sharing my world, my life and you know the life we shared together.”