Rediscovering Basquiat On Great Jones Street

Where artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s former studio famously sits on 57 Great Jones Street, disparate facets of New York City culture are on constant collision courses with one another.

A few art galleries still exist on Great Jones Street, including Aicon and La MaMa. But around the corner is Zero Bond, the members-only club paparazzi regularly stake out for glimpses of Taylor Swift and friends of Taylor Swift. The Bowery Hotel, another playground for the seers and the be-seeners, is down the street. There’s also your antipasto of Italian eateries—Sorbillo, Il Buco, Vic’s, Gemma—and the obligatory Sweetgreen along with an equally obligatory DIG, your friendly FDNY outpost (Engine 33/Ladder 9), sundry vacant storefronts and an NYU office that caters to foreign students.

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A plaque surrounded by graffiti
Basquiat worked at 87 Great Jones Street from 1983 to 1988. Photo by Bill Tompkins/Getty Images)

It’s an amalgamation of the modern Big Apple in a neighborhood that has changed dramatically since Jean-Michel Basquiat lived, worked and died in the converted stable his friend and mentor Andy Warhol owned. Yet life in the vicinity still provides a curious thru-line to the art he created here.

“He clearly absorbed so much of what was going on around him and contributed back even more so with the language he created and his amazing body of work,” Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, told Observer. “But when he lived here, this was a marginal, gritty neighborhood, and his studio was just a rundown building.”

SEE ALSO: Collector Francesco Pellizzi’s Rare Basquiats Head to Auction for the First Time

Today, that building is a visual representation of the city at a cultural intersection. Until it was recently covered with pink paint, it was peppered from top to bottom with graffiti—including a giant Basquiat-style crown by artist Adrian Wilson—so if one were walking by and didn’t see the plaque Berman’s office affixed to its exterior announcing its historical stature, you might think it was just another dilapidated storefront. But despite the space’s shaggy nature, Angelina Jolie’s latest venture, Atelier Jolie, is set to open there this fall. (Before the pink-washing, she had promised to keep the graffiti as is).

“Without a doubt, the neighborhood has changed dramatically,” said Berman. “Some of those changes are for the worse, some are better and I won’t presume in any way what he or anyone else would think of those changes.”

 

The legend and mystique of Basquiat as a person has grown in tandem with the evolution of the neighborhood he inhabited, even in light of the fact that he was one of the highest-earning artists of his generation. In later years, four of his paintings have ranked among the most expensive sales the art world has ever seen; all of them occurring a generation after his death, with three of those sales in the past three years. In the interim, many brands have unleashed Basquiat-inspired projects: Tiffany, Reebok, Supreme, Louis Vuitton and even the phone accessory brand, Casetify—so many collaborations that their ubiquity inevitably sparked an ‘Are they necessary?’ discourse.

The newest is a salute to the artist that can be found in the former studio’s shadow, which I visit on a seemingly quiet Thursday night. Starting from brick-covered Bond Street, I walk past Zero Bond—no Taylor in sight, though several Escalades idle outside—then round the corner and saunter south down Broadway, stopping briefly to take in the night air. Across from me, in the manner of a movie from the 40s, I see a man getting bodily thrown out of a deli. The belligerent gentleman walks down the street before turning around, taking off his shirt and charging uptown as if he just heard the starting shot of the New York City marathon.

It seems like the right time to make my way into the lobby of my destination, Great Jones Distillery, where I have a reservation at the Basquiat Bar. It’s a speakeasy in the space’s cellar, which is a boozy shrine to the artist and his era. Inside around a handful of tables, the dimly lit room is hung with reprints of Basquiat’s art and photographs of the man himself, as well as various 80s-themed accoutrements, including boom boxes and stacks of cassette tapes. The menu, too, is Basquiat-themed, with graffiti doodles taken from his work. Even the coasters are inspired by his iconic Beat Bop record. And unsurprisingly, a capsule collection of limited edition bottles and apparel is here for sale.

Details from the interior of Basquiat Bar. Rob LeDonne

“We’re all about celebrating everything that’s 100 percent New York,” says Danielle Katz, Senior Brand Manager at Great Jones Distillery, which bills itself Manhattan’s first whiskey distillery since the days of Prohibition and is known for inventive pop-ups (including Whiskey Wonderland for the holidays). “We wanted to do something special to celebrate what’s so great about this neighborhood.”

From there, Basquiat Bar was a no-brainer. Besides the fact that their former neighbor is one of the most famous artists in the world, Great Jones Distillery had a relationship with the licensing company ArtStar. And the artist’s sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, guardians of the Basquiat legacy, were on board with the collaboration, which includes two branded whiskeys in three different bottles emblazoned with Basquiat’s art. They, in particular, have been instrumental in providing a link from his works to the modern landscape and the brands inhabiting it—for better or for worse.

“We don’t have any literature that says he made the painting for Tiffany,” said the company’s executive vice president, Alexandre Arnault, in an interview about a contentious marketing campaign starring Beyoncé, Jay-Z and a never-before-seen Basquiat painting with a light teal background, Equals Pi. “But we know a little bit about Basquiat. We know his family. We did an exhibition of his work at the Louis Vuitton Foundation a few years back. We know he loved New York, and that he loved luxury and he loved jewelry. My guess is that the is not by chance. The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage.”

But Stephen Torton, his one-time assistant, soon set the record straight: “The idea that this blue background, which I mixed and applied, was in any way related to Tiffany Blue is so absurd that at first I chose not to comment. But this very perverse appropriation of the artist’s inspiration is too much.”  In a mea culpa, Arnault told the Times: “The beauty of art is that it can be interpreted in a number of ways.”

The latter could also be true of Great Jones Distillery’s motives, but here at least the bar is honoring Basquiat’s complicated legacy by actively sparking new conversations about it. According to the distillery, he inspired them to think outside the box and experiment with new libations. “What we’re specifically doing here aligns well with his work, which challenged traditional notions of art and beauty,” Cellina Perez, the company’s Head Distiller, tells me. “We’re challenging the status quo of whiskey. We’re trying interesting things that are new and exciting, and that’s what Basquiat was doing back in the 80s.”

Berman can only speculate. “It was clear he was able to navigate different worlds, people and social strata, so all of this isn’t exactly foreign to his experience.” At the same time, it’s ironic that his former neighborhood has shifted from a place where a rising artist could have a space to an area that is the antithesis of affordability. “Certainly, one has to ask whether a young Basquiat today could create art on Great Jones Street,” he adds, “or if they’re doing it somewhere else. And almost undoubtedly the latter is the case.”

The new basement-level destination is a boozy shrine to the artist and the era he worked in. Courtesy Great Jones Distillery

As the 80s-era soundtrack blares and the last of Basquiat Bar’s patrons depart, I finish my cocktail and head back out into the night. On my way to the train, I pass by Basquiat’s studio. It’s pre-pink-washing, and the litany of graffiti pops on its white walls. The street is quiet except for a crowd leaving a nearby restaurant. Later, I read an article from the August 27, 1988 edition of the New York Times, published after Basquiat died here of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, which said his friends, art dealers and critics saw him as “ill-starred” and that he himself felt “that he was without honor in New York’s tight-knit art circles.”

“He really wanted his work to be seen for what it was, as important artwork,’’ Tony Shafrazi, a Manhattan gallery owner, told correspondent Michael Wines. “He was afraid his work wouldn’t be seen until he was dead.”

Rediscovering Basquiat On Great Jones Street