Alexis Adler had just graduated from Barnard College in New York City with a degree in biology when she fell for a charming artist four years her junior. His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The two moved in together later that year, into a sixth-floor walk-up with about 400 square feet of living space located on East 12th Street in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. The rent, wildly, was $80 a month, affordable enough for Basquiat to support himself by selling sweatshirts on the street. The couple spent about a year in the apartment, a passionate and creatively fertile time that Adler chronicled meticulously with her camera.
A selection of Adler’s photographs from the East 12th Street days are now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, Colorado, in an exhibition titled “Basquiat Before Basquiat.” The show also features early works Basquiat made during this time, along with objects culled from their shared apartment. Yet the standout works on view are the casual and intimate snapshots of young Basquiat, not yet one of the most famous artists of his time, just a young man who made art out of everything he saw, felt and touched.
At age 19, Basquiat was still waffling between performance art, music, drawing and writing, and had yet to solidify the abstract-graffiti aesthetic that would become his signature. “Jean was just a young and wonderful person that had a lot to say,” Adler told Christie’s in 2014. “Everything around us was about art at that time, everything was about creativity, and whatever he could find became art.”
Adler’s photographs document Basquiat’s early experimentations, elements of which predict his later, iconic works. In one photo, Basquiat practices clarinet in the bathroom, rehearsing for his art-noise band while straddling the bathtub. In another, Basquiat has his head shaved to the middle of his scalp. When he directed Adler to take the photos, she told The New York Times, he instructed her to make it appear as though he was “coming and going at the same time.”
Clearly, Basquiat wasn’t a typical roommate. “We were punk pioneers homesteading in this ever-evolving remnant of the neighborhood,” Adler writes in MCA Denver’s exhibition catalog. “Art blossomed by feeding off the lawless decay.” While Adler spent her days working at a lab at Rockefeller University, Basquiat got to work making his every wall, floor and personal belonging his canvas. He would borrow Adler’s textbooks and mine them for interesting scientific diagrams and medical jargon that he’d incorporate into his imagery.
During this time, Adler recalls, Basquiat knew he was going to become a great artist. But it’s hard to imagine he could have predicted just how quickly he would rise to art superstardom, or the astronomical impact he would leave on the history of art before his death at age 27.
Adler’s photographs capture Basquiat just before he “made it” as an artist, when he was still incessantly, ravenously, ardently making art.
“Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979 – 1980” runs until May 7 at MCA Denver.