Annina Nosei’s memories of Basquiat
On March 31, 2006 Jeffrey Deitch, an american art dealer and curator, interviewed Annina Nosei, Basquiat’s first primary dealer. The interview is taken from the book Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, the Studio of the Street, catalog of the Basquiat exhibition held at Deitch Projects, May 4-May 27, 2006.
ANNINA NOSEI: I became aware of Jean-Michel in the show “New York/New Wave” at P.S.1 in Queens. I made an appointment to go and see the show when the space was closed to the public, so that I would be able to look at all the works alone. I went with the specific purpose of seeing which artists I would like. I saw some small paintings of Jean-Michel that I liked a lot, and asked Diego to give me Jean-Michel’s telephone number, which he didn’t give me.
I looked it up in the telephone book and left a message for him. It was his father’s number—his father’s house.
At least this is what I remember. Then I got a call from Jean-Michel saying that he was trying to reach me. I don’t know if he heard that I was trying to find him. I had been teaching at the School of Visual Arts, and I think Jean-Michel hung out with his friends there sometimes. I later met him at Brooke Alexander during an opening, so it must have been in the fall of 1981.
JEFFREY DEITCH: The John Ahearn opening?
AN: It might have been, but nevertheless we made an appointment. He asked me to come and see his work in the East Village. When I went, he was staying at the house of a girlfriend.
JD: At Suzanne Mallouk’s house?
AN: Maybe. He showed me some beautiful drawings, and we went for a coffee. He said that he wanted to show it immediately with me—you know, as soon as possible. I objected, telling him that those were only drawings and that I would have liked to show paintings, although I didn’t have a plan. I explained that the next show was a group show called “Public Address”. I told him that I thought the drawings were very lyrical, personal and intense, so how would his work fit in a show that was instead addressing the public? Jean-Michel declared that his work absolutely fit in the show called “Public Address.” What he said really interested me. (Talking with him, I understood that he had an aim to do more than demonstrate that he was a good craftsman or good artist.)
His purpose was to address sociopolitical issues, and that’s why his work, in his opinion, was perfect for my show “Public Address.” What interested me the most about Jean-Michel was that at such a young age, he was already aware of the fact that his talent and ability would have an impact on people. He would reflect and develop an interest in the rest of the world—or on me, anyway—because his interest was not personal. It was social.
NICOLA VASSELL: And did you see any of the sociopolitical elements evidenced in the drawings at all?
AN: At first I didn’t. But when he declared it, I believed him. Jean-Michel was convincing, even if he didn’t have any work. So I gave him some money to buy canvases. In only a few days he called me up to show me his work. One of them was a very large head that seemed to symbolize what he had going on in his own head. There were some other works as well, but I don’t remember which ones. Some were unfinished. He told me that he didn’t have a place to work. I told him O.K., he will be part of “Public Address,” but he would have to finish his paintings and maybe make some others.
I told him that in my gallery there was a basement space with a skylight and two windows, so Jean-Michel decided to work there. He was part of the “Public Address” show, and actually had the whole back room. In the front main room, there was a large wall by Keith Haring. There were also pieces by Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin. Bill Beckley was already there because he had done the previous show in June, and somehow the work was still up and it fit, but the main room in the back was Jean-Michel. Then in March—but that would place us in 1982—he did the one-man show. The “Public Address” show was from October 31 to November 19 of 1981.
JD: It is amazing how shows were shorter then. Now, you would never think to do a gallery show from October 31 to November 19. It’s not even a month.
JD: It’s interesting how different it was, because the art world was smaller then and in this three-week period, or even two weeks, everyone saw it.
AN: Yeah. Everyone saw it, and he made paintings that had social interest, as I said. Besides the one of the head, there was also an Indian, a policeman and a rabbi.
JD: Where are those paintings?
AN: I sold them.
JD: Were any of those in the Brooklyn show?
AN: The head, yes, it is in the Broad Collection, and this door [Annina points to a picture of a door from the Navarra catalogue] was later in a show called “The Door.”
JD: You did a show of all doors?
AN: Yes. It was June 7 to July 7 of 1985, and there was this door by Jean-Michel Basquiat. There was also Mike Bidlo, Sol LeWitt, Paladino, Rauschenberg, Schnabel and a few others.
AN: Here is the head [pointing out the image] that’s in the Broad collection.
JD: Oh, that’s the famous one.
NV: That’s my favorite.
AN: They call it Skull, but it’s not a skull, it’s a head.
JD: So that was in “Public Address”?
NV: So he executed that painting fairly quickly, then?
JD: That’s just amazing… So that’s right at the beginning.
NV: What was the immediate response to his work when people came in?
AN: They liked it, but truthfully, I don’t really remember. I do remember that one of the first things Jean-Michel wanted was to show the work to his father. He called his father, and Gerard came with Nora to see it. I think that the sisters also came, because Paolina, my daughter, was friends with Jeannine, one of the sisters of Jean-Michel. He gave a painting to Jeannine, and Paolina was impressed that he would be so generous to his sister.
JD: So then, the timing when you gave him the studio was fall 1981, you think?
AN: It must’ve been fall because during the summer I was in Italy. Diego Cortez and Jean-Michel went to Italy, to Mazzoli for Jean-Michel’s first solo show. He made many works for the show there.
JD: Now, let me ask you a little bit about the name SAMO versus Jean-Michel, because the announcement card for his first solo exhibition, the 1981 show at Mazzoli, did not say “Jean-Michel Basquiat”; it said “SAMO.” It was billed as a SAMO show. I’m wondering if there was any discussion with you about the name.
AN: He introduced himself as Jean-Michel. It could be because I’m Italian, you know, and some French words or Spanish words would come out easier. He never said SAMO to me. It was always Jean-Michel.
JD: So it was never any issue of deciding, “Am I going to be SAMO for this show or am I going to be Jean-Michel?”
AN: No, he said Jean-Michel. “Hi, how are you? I’m Jean-Michel.” “I’m Annina.” “Hi Jean-Michel.” I never called him SAMO and he never called himself SAMO with me. He spoke some words of Italian, some words in Spanish and French. I always thought of Jean-Michel as a New York artist, but I was always aware that he was from the Caribbean.
JD: What music did you hear playing from the studio?
AN: Ah! He drove me crazy with the Bolero of Ravel. Bolero drove me crazy because he had it downstairs, underneath me, this record—not a record player—a boom box. I would say, “Please, Jean-Michel, change the music!”
NV: You’ve spoken of his awareness of the world around him and how the work has a strong sociological aspect. Do you think he was always cognizant of that, or was it something that you saw develop later?
AN: Always. Actually, he lost a little bit of that later on, because he was confused by the amount of money and attention. He had a better sense of purpose at the very beginning. His revolutionary aspect was much stronger at the begin-ning than the end. He had very clear thoughts that were not very flattering about certain people in the art world. But then later, he would accept their money.
I would let it be. I think he was upset and felt as though he had betrayed himself sometimes, and I think that some of the reasons for the drugs had to do with the fact that he was too deeply offended by the stupidity of the art world. When he first entered the art world he had great enthusiasm, and as he started to make money, he said that he wanted to create jobs for other people. I remember he wanted to have a record company. He liked that idea.
NV: What did he expect, then, of the art world with this youthful enthusiasm?
AN: I think that he expected to be understood more than he was. I think he expected people to read a painting like the 1982 Gran Espectáculo (History of Black People) and understand that the art world—the world for that matter—is a grand spectacle and not a literal story of black people, and that Peso New is to be called Peso Neto, not anything else. He expected the work to be understood a little bit more.
JD: When he uses the words peso neto, what’s your interpretation? What is that about?
AN: Okay, you can make a comparison to the Duchamp ready-made Standard Stoppages, but it’s also an ironic comment on the conventions of weights and measures. So peso neto (net weight) is a convention, like salt is a convention that society has. Jean-Michel was declaring that much of society’s conventions are just artificial decisions.
Peso neto, in principle, wouldn’t hurt anybody, but there are other societal conventions that hurt people. He was presenting the conventionality and banality of society, and in some cases, society’s puzzling aspects.
NV: Were you ever there when he was trying to decide titles for his paintings?
AN: No, I wasn’t. I would come down and I would see them. Either he would tell me or it was written on the top. I mean, the one, Red Man, the words “red man” are mine. Just saying, “Go and get the red man.” But I never meant to call it “The Red Man.” [laughter]
JD: Why the obsession with the salt?
AN: The salt was a measure—it was money. It was money that people used in the past. People paid with salt.
JD: So it’s sort of like a dollar sign.
JD: I want to ask you a bit about the theme of that first show, about the relationship between his work on the street and in the studio. I think that it’s very interesting that he asked you to give him a pair of panels that looked like doors.
AN: Right. I didn’t see him working on the street. I saw that he needed canvases, and somewhere to make them. I knew that he had worked on the street and on doors of friends’ apartments, but I didn’t think that actual doors were the work. More interesting is, after I came back from Italy that summer, he felt a certain heavy obligation to the canvases on stretchers. That’s why he thought about making paintings where the stretchers would be unconventional, even though at first the paintings and drawings were on canvas in a regular way.
When he made those paintings, they looked like they were done by someone who had never seen paintings before. The corners were tied together. He did that because he didn’t want the conventionality of painting.
The passage from door to canvas, for me, in a way, is less interesting than those paintings with the exposed corners crossing each other. It’s more of a deliberate aesthetic decision. In the previous canvases, there was never an issue of whether something was finished or not finished. So when-ever somebody says, “This is an unfinished painting of Jean-Michel…” I think they are making a major mistake. The paintings of Jean-Michel did not have an end or a beginning. If the artist has a pressing sentiment about what he wants to express, everything is there—it can be seen on the surface.
JD: Can I ask you about some of the major themes that you saw develop-ing in 1981? From the head with everything in it to other later pieces. Of course, there was a lot of work… there are also the cars, which maybe related to his car accident?
AN: The people. I showed the people. You know, all those people, like in Arroz con Pollo.
And then he did a fantastic painting which was a baptismal scene—a baptism underneath the water. There were others that I don’t remember the title of. So from the general interest in the people to these more specific things was the moment that interested me the most. Afterward, the show that he did with Mary Boone was not as interesting for me. I didn’t clearly see themes in the work.
JD: No, no. That was a very weak moment.
AN: He suddenly had the necessity of money. But the works that he did before, each of them had specific themes.
JD: Can I ask you about Philistines? Because that’s a painting I handled—and recently sold to a very good collection.
AN: I thought I had sold it to Beyeler.
JD: You did. Yes. And I bought it from the dealer who had bought it from Beyeler. So, can you tell us a little bit about that painting? When he has the three figures, like this trinity, how do you read that?
AN: I don’t remember that so well, but I remember The Prophets, which were destroyed. You know, the figure of The Prophets. I had them, but they’re not here. I had the photographs, of course, of some paintings that were destroyed.
JD: I didn’t know they were destroyed.
AN: Yeah, he destroyed them. Don’t you know that story?
JD: No, I don’t know- anything about it.
AN: Okay. When I came back in the summer of 1982, before he went to Mary Boone, he was taking drugs. I confronted him and said, “Jean-Michel…” He said, “Don’t tell my father. Don’t tell my father.” And I said, “Jean-Michel, it’s not a question of not telling your father, this is serious.” On top of it, he had that hideous friend Steve Torton. I was horrified by it all. So Jean-Michel said, “No, I’m taking vitamins. I’m taking vitamins.” I said that was a joke, and he got very upset. I traveled again, came back from Europe, and my assistant told me that he had gone downstairs and found Jean-Michel in front of these very oblong figures, maybe three, on canvas, which were called The Prophets. He had a knife and was cutting them. So I said, “Couldn’t you stop him? They were beautiful.” And he said, “No, no, no. I couldn’t stop him because he had a knife.”
Later I said to Jean-Michel, “What are you doing? You know, why are you doing these things? What is the story? Why did you destroy the paintings? In the past, whenever you didn’t like something, you covered it up. You would have saved the canvas by rework-ing the imagery.” And he said, “It had the ghosts. There were ghosts that were coming through.” But people said that he had done that because of me, and I wasn’t even there. The point is that he was not in a good state. I asked John Weber, my ex-husband, to have a meeting with Jean-Michel because I thought maybe he would listen to a man. So we had a meeting, and instead of coming by himself, he came with Steve Torton. I also had asked Leo Castelli if he could help me. And Leo said, “At my age, I’m not going to get involved.”
NV: And that was what year?
AN: I guess 1982. I think he did go to rehab soon after, and did a show that wasn’t so good at Mary Boone.
NV: What was he like then?
AN: Things slowly went down the drain from there. He was very unhappy and very hurt. He wanted to be enthusiastic about things but he wasn’t able to. He would be very upset, and had a self-deprecating attitude. Sometimes he would like life a lot, and other times he would go against himself.
NV: What would he talk to you about?
AN: He would talk about how disappointed he was by various things. He understood that people wanted to take advantage of him. Around the time of the Fun Gallery show, I said to him, “Let me be the person that loans the pieces to the Fun Gallery because you’ll never see the money.” And he said, “No.” So I bought one painting from the show, from Patti Astor, and I paid the full amount. I said to her, “I’m paying you whatever it is. Please give 50 percent to Jean-Michel.” She never did. So he came over to the gallery furious, and I said, “But Jean-Michel, I did pay her.” He was so angry. I said, “What can I do? I could have paid you, but you said that…” He was very upset about that, and I didn’t want to give the impression that I wanted to get something else. I didn’t want to take advantage of him—and people fantasize about dealers taking advantage – so I purposely didn’t call him ever. I never even asked him to sell me anything.
When Andy Warhol died, I thought to call him, because I knew he would be upset. And he was. He was crying and asked me to come over, so I went. And he said, “You see, I am taking vitamins.” And, he showed me some paintings that I really liked, and he expressed a few compliments. He said,”Oh, you’re the only one that understands my paintings.” He gave me a present, which was a small cube sculpture that said, “Thank you, Annina.” Anyway, he said, “I don’t have anybody to talk to now.” I said, “For these things you want, I can give you the telephone number of Twombly. You can talk to Twombly.” I said, “You know, he’s in Rome.” He didn’t though. He was very upset.
JD: Jean-Michel and Andy related to each other a lot. And just about the daily routine of being an artist. They painted together.
AN: Yeah. Some strange paintings. Which I don’t like.
JD: Yes. Most of them don’t work. A few of them do.
AN: To me, the best paintings are the ones where the message was accomplished in a very clear way. Some others are less clear because he got absent-minded. But when I was there in the studio at the time of Andy’s death, he did a fantastic drawing, which he worked on while we talked. He was actually working the top of it. It’s a beautiful black and white drawing. Then he got bored and filled up the black at the end.
AN: Yes. It’s the most beautiful drawing ever. It’s very full and it’s very large. It was in the show at the Brooklyn Museum.
NV: So you didn’t see him every day, then?
AN: You know what he would do, Jean-Michel? He would come to the gallery after it opened at ten. He’d come at about 10:30 and say, “Sorry I’m late.”
AN: I’d say, “Jean-Michel, you know, you don’t have to be on time. You are not working for the gallery.” But it was like he wanted to have a job.
JD: Any comments about key people in the circle in 1981 ? The circle around him?
AN: I only knew Suzanne Mallouk and Keith Haring.
NV: He was dating Suzanne Mallouk at that time.
JD: Yes, they were living together.
AN: Yes. She is very intelligent. She later studied medicine. Suzanne was nice, but then things didn’t work out, I don’t think. I would say that he was in love with her, but at a certain point, she wasn’t there anymore.
NV: Did you keep track of Jean-Michel, you know, follow his work and exhibitions up to the end?
AN: Well, Baghoomian got in touch with Jean-Michel somehow, and later, in 1988, Baghoomian had a beautiful show. There were some incredible works, and in that exhibition he showed paintings that were very aware very strongly aware of his situation, particularly one, which was called Riding with Death. He made a big party and invited all kinds of old friends. Then I left for Italy, and that summer he died.
March 31, 2006