Stepping foot back in New York today feels like a warp-speed implosion back into the girl I was, and in some ways will always be. Even though I am officially a child of the midwest, The City, and the 1980s, hold the nucleus of my deepest truths, the integration of all of the disparate pieces of who I am. And dotted throughout the grid of concrete and cobblestone are the morsels of memories, and the souls of those who still inhabit me, rent-free.
One of those souls is the cute boy with the mischievous smile and soulful eyes that danced across me on my first trip into the kaleidoscope hub of our night-world — The Mudd Club. He was an artist. I was a girl escaping the midwest, just learning and discovering Art, capital A. In that way that happens when you are young and free and open to the world, our crossing paths night after night set the stage for the start of a friendship that would last until he left this life.
“Just Jean,” he said, as we finally exchanged names one night. I introduced myself as Cyd, a moniker cemented by his idol and then friend, Andy Warhol, when he was amused by my precocious use of my favorite screen idol to explain my (then) unusual given name…“Charise, like Cyd Charisse.” He soon invited me to see his work.
Over the next few years, Just Jean would change my world, though I didn’t know that then. When I eventually went to his studio, I was mesmerized by the freedom with which he moved. His shoes kicked off, music blaring, he was there, present in a way that felt calming and exhilarating all at once — painting what his soul and mind’s eye saw, and his ears heard. On one of my visits, I noted that he used a lot of primary colors.
He looked around at the canvases leaning against the walls and asked, “What should there be? What would you add?”
“Pink,” I answered. “But just the right shade. Sort of a blue-ish pink–”
“Like a sunset!” we both said, laughing at the vibing going on over a color.
And so we mixed hues of pink, side by side. He then directed me to add it to this canvas, and then another. At first, I was nervous, afraid I’d ruin what he’d already done. But he told me that wasn’t possible.
“Just fucking paint,” he said, nodding towards the canvas.
With that, I felt freed to simply follow my own inner muse, with this loaned sense of abandon that he granted me. And then he added more of his own colors on top of and around what I’d done. When he was done, he turned to me.
“Is that better? Do you like it now? Are you finally pleased?” he asked, feigning exasperation, before cracking that same grin as when we’d first met. That same grin that melted my heart a bit each time he shined it upon me.
“Much better,” I answered, giggling.
In between travels and our love affairs with others, we were simply a boy and a girl who held deep affection for one another. There were funny stories we shared. Some sad ones, too. Our scars on our bodies, his from a missing spleen, mine from a curved spine, were our matching metaphors that bonded us by what could be seen, and what stayed encased within. For each of us, it was the parts that stayed within that served as a shorthand in bonding us and our love and understanding of one another as fellow humans.
Now, nearly four decades later, I went to see the exhibit his family curated in his honor. Upon stepping into the first room, tears filled my eyes. It was instantly clear the overflow of love that went into this show. One of the things that we often spoke about was the frustration of being “othered” usually based upon race and/or being of multi-ethnic heritage. Since he died, I have often been angered by the way the [art] world has spoken of him and his work. Primitive…only a street artist…un-learned…accidental wunderkind of the art world. Missed with these errant broad strokes was his unique brilliance, keen intelligence, and mastery as an artist and scholar. Overlooked was his all-encompassing beauty, ironic humor, sweetness, and depth as a human and as a man. But now, standing in the @BasquiatKingPleasure exhibit, all of that was smoothed away. And in its place was installed a truer and fuller version of both artist and man.
When I stepped into the re-creation of his studio, it took my breath away. It was the place I came to know him best. The place where he first demanded I put brush to canvas, and name myself an artist. The place where he painted my body as his canvas. Where he memorialized something dear to me that I lost. And when I saw his shoes and an empty pack of cigarettes on the floor, while a celluloid version of him painted off in the corner, I wept. For just a few moments, I was back there. Everything else around me receded. And he was still within reach, firmly in this world.
“Ma’am, please don’t lean against the fencing.” — Reality was back. My friend who I loved was gone again.
He died on my birthday as I was embarking on my senior year of university studies. I didn’t ever get to say goodbye. But as my homage to him the day I heard the news, I walked to the store across the street from my apartment and bought several flavors of ice cream. Back home, I sat on my kitchen counter as he and I had once done. I brought a spoon of frozen goodness to my lips, and closed my eyes to taste the colors of each flavor, just as he’d urged me to do. The tears streaming down my cheeks were salty, as the memories of him remained forever sweet.
This time, standing amidst the crowd of art enthusiasts, it finally felt as though I could say goodbye. I’m not convinced closure ever really happens when people we love die.
I’ve often joked that the painting he made for me (destroyed by my boyfriend who didn’t appreciate being cast as the devil to my angel in its imagery—like I said, Just Jean had an ironic sense of humor), would have been worth a bit more these days than the cost of free he charged me.
“Take the money,” I said to him, holding out the wad of hundreds.
“I won’t take your money,” he said, standing firm.
I went to put it on top of the television set.
“I’ll throw it out the window,” he said, looking me in the eyes.
We stood there in an eye to eye stand-off…1…2…3… And then we both laughed. He had won.
I was a year too late on being able to take him up on his offer to paint another one for me once I had my own first grown-up apartment. Each place I’ve lived in since then has held one empty wall. Without realizing it, I’ve instinctively left a place for him in my world for all of these years. But being back in The City, surrounded by his work, some of his favorite music, and so much of his energy, has gifted me with a feeling as close to closure as I can imagine. Perhaps it is time for me to paint something myself to fill the space. The love forever remains. The gratitude only grows. Viva Just Jean. Siempre.
(Basquiat King Pleasure exhibition, 601 W 26th St., New York, NY 10001, USA)