'I'm shocked he lived that long': Jean-Michel Basquiat's teenage lover on the tragic fate of art's $100m man

‘Sometimes we fell on the street we were laughing so hard’: Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club in New York in 1979, the year he met Jennifer Vonholstein
‘Sometimes we fell on the street we were laughing so hard’: Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club in New York in 1979, the year he met Jennifer Vonholstein Credit: Nicholas Taylor

‘When you meet someone and they smile at you like that,” says Jennifer Vonholstein, recalling the first time she met Jean-Michel Basquiat, the princeling of New York’s art world during the Eighties, “you can’t help your face cracking into the biggest smile in the world.” She laughs. “It was inescapable: Jean was a star from day one. I mean, you could not look away.”

Later this month, the first British retrospective of Basquiat’s work will open at the Barbican Art Gallery in London – just four months after his painting Untitled (1982) sold in New York for $110.5 million (£85 million), the most ever paid at auction for an American artist’s work. 

“That sale was shocking,” says Vonholstein now. “It was outrageous. Afterwards, people on the internet were saying, ‘Oh, he would have been so proud.’ But actually, he was very against that, the spirit of that money. The money isn’t what’s important.”

Vonholstein, an artist herself, is speaking to me by phone from her farm in Washington State, near Seattle. It is her 60th birthday, and she is casting her mind back to a very different time and place: Lower Manhattan in 1979, when the city was, she says, “grungy, dirty, and kind of apocalyptic”.

Anti-Baseball Card Product, 1979, by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein Credit: Courtesy Jennifer Von Holstein. ©Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

At that point, Vonholstein – or Stein, as her surname was then – was 21, a native New Yorker from the Upper East Side, living in a loft in Canal Street, on the southern edge of SoHo. She’d been given a room for free, in exchange for working as an apprentice to a British artist, Stan Peskett, who was renting the property. Peskett was deeply involved in the city’s graffiti scene. That April, he staged an event in his loft in honour of New York’s most exciting graffiti artists, such as Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quinones. “It was truly wild,” recalls Vonholstein, “the beginning of the age of street art.” Known as the Canal Zone Party, Peskett’s bash will be the focus of an entire room in the Barbican’s exhibition.

In the run-up to the Canal Zone Party, one graffiti writer had caught Vonholstein’s attention: SAMO. The work wasn’t like the other graffiti that was appearing in the city, “an explosion of art in a time of utter black and white,” as Vonholstein recalls. Rather, it was more conceptual, characterised by verbal dexterity. Commenting provocatively on society, SAMO’s cryptic sayings, witticisms and aperçus started appearing across Lower Manhattan in 1977. “They were pieces of profound poetry,” says Vonholstein.

What she didn’t know at the time was that SAMO was, in fact, the nom de guerre of two high-school classmates, shorthand for a phrase they often used: “Same Old S---”. One of them, Al Diaz, hailed from a housing project on New York’s Lower East Side. The other was Basquiat, a middle-class kid from Brooklyn, with a Haitian accountant for a father and a mother who was, herself, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. 

It was at the Canal Zone Party that Basquiat – who had left home for good the previous summer, when he was still only 17 – decided to reveal himself as one half of SAMO, by spraying one of their signature multiple-choice questions on to a sheet tacked to a wall. Vonholstein recalls the striking impression he made: “Physically, he was absolutely gorgeous. He also had a Mohawk, which was very odd, and he dressed in rags. So, he looked outrageous. I ran across the room, and said to him, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been looking for you!’ And that was the beginning of our friendship.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, 1983 Credit: Roland Hagenberg

Over the next six months, and during the eventful years that followed, Vonholstein would become a kind of lodestar for Basquiat as he tried to navigate the maelstrom of his brief life. His success was rapid – his first solo exhibition of paintings in America, held at the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York in 1982, sold out on its opening night, apparently earning him hundreds of thousands of dollars in one evening. But so, too, was his downfall – he spiralled into drug addiction, and ended up with a $500-a-day heroin habit. On that more innocent night, though, at the Canal Zone Party, Vonholstein invited Basquiat to her room, where they found a shared love for The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, which the pop artist had published in 1975. “That book was like our Bible,” Vonholstein says.

For a short period, says Vonholstein, who has never spoken publicly about her relationship with Basquiat, they were romantically involved. At the time, though, she never considered him her “boyfriend” as such. “We had a relationship that went beyond friendship, yes, of course. But, in those days, we didn’t have ‘boyfriends’ and ‘girlfriends’. It was freewheeling, let me tell you.”

Rather, Vonholstein stresses the closeness of their friendship, which was founded on, among other things, a love of art. “We would tell each other about paintings we admired,” she says. “He was very intelligent, well-read and well-spoken, and we made each other laugh. Sometimes we would fall on the street, because we were laughing so hard.” She pauses. “We were like two typical wildling teenagers, trying to figure out their way in the world.”

They were also two young artists, and, very quickly, they began collaborating. On the night of the Canal Zone Party, Vonholstein had shown Basquiat some of her own art, which included American baseball cards that she’d altered by blanking out the players’ faces with white correction fluid.

“He was completely excited,” she recalls, “and took my baseball cards and started writing names on them.” The following day, Basquiat proposed a plan: together, they should produce postcards, which they could sell on New York’s streets. Their motivation, says Vonholstein, was simple: “to make money and survive.”

Sunglasses 3, 1979, by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein  Credit: Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

Basquiat demonstrated how, on a single sheet of paper, they could create four separate postcard designs, which could be reproduced in a copy shop, on colour Xerox copier machines. Mounted on card, the copies could then be flogged as “postcards” for a dollar apiece. Selling five would raise enough to buy them a simple dinner. “One day, we sold 20,” Vonholstein recalls, so they treated themselves to a “huge lunch” of rice and beans at an inexpensive Puerto Rican restaurant called Comidas Criollas. “We were so happy, we had a feast.”

At the Barbican, more than 40 of their postcards, alongside what Vonholstein calls the “postcard masters” (i.e. the original artworks, divided into quarters), will be exhibited for the first time. Art historians already knew that, at this early stage in his career, Basquiat was producing postcards. But only one has ever been exhibited, at New York’s Brooklyn Museum in 2015. Moreover, the extent of what he created, as well as the fact that he collaborated with Vonholstein, has never been known previously. In many postcards, Vonholstein and Basquiat appear side by side, in photo strips taken in a booth on Canal Street.

Most of the “postcard masters” are collages, combining ephemera and detritus, such as scraps of newspaper and actual cigarette butts, with gestural, painterly marks, reminiscent of the work of Franz Kline and Cy Twombly. Flip and full of optimism, they crackle with a punk energy. One postcard screams the word “Madge”, a reference to Margaret Thatcher, with whom the pair were familiar via the music of the Sex Pistols.

“When I look at the postcards now,” says Vonholstein, “they are exactly what we were. They’re like a joke, a laugh on a piece of paper, [capturing] how much fun we had.” 

According to Eleanor Nairne, a curator of the Barbican show, they also anticipate Basquiat’s mature work. “At this point, Basquiat still didn’t have materials for paintings,” Nairne explains. “These tiny and incredibly lively pictures, full of different fragments, are a precursor to what he goes on to explore on a much bigger scale.” Thanks to the postcards, Basquiat also met his hero, Andy Warhol, with whom he later collaborated extensively. One day, while selling postcards in SoHo, Vonholstein and Basquiat spotted Warhol through the window of a restaurant, dining with the influential curator and critic Henry Geldzahler.

Rammellzee vs. K-Rob, produced and with cover artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Beat Bop’ vinyl record, 1983 Credit: Courtesy Jennifer Von Holstein.© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar,New York. Photo: Justin Piperger

Basquiat approached them and sold Warhol two postcards – including one remarkably Warholian image of a pair of sunglasses that he and Vonholstein had placed directly on a Xerox machine.

Vonholstein’s early memories of Basquiat evoke an innocent, carefree period of his life, before he was feted by New York’s smartest art dealers, and before the drugs took hold. The closest phase of their friendship ended, though, when Vonholstein became pregnant by another man. “Jean was so infuriated,” she says, “he wouldn’t speak to me.”

After having her baby, Vonholstein moved to the Hamptons for a year. Late in 1981, she returned to Manhattan, to an apartment in Lafayette Street. Soon afterwards, she bumped into Basquiat and discovered that he was living just down the block, on Crosby Street. By this point, she says, he had gone “up into the sky like a rocket, and become a superstar. He was the toast of the town, he really was.” 

They became friends again, but the terms of their relationship had changed. Vonholstein started looking after Basquiat, cooking meals and running errands on his behalf, such as buying books. Basquiat entrusted her with the keys to his apartment. He also gave her drawings, and bought her a television. Together they would watch reruns of Mission: Impossible in the middle of the night. “Both of us were night owls,” she says. “With my one year old, we were like a little family.” They never took drugs together, she adds: “Of anyone, I probably had the most time with him sober.”

In the early Eighties, Basquiat was in his pomp as a painter – Vonholstein describes the work he created between 1981 and 1983 as “sublime”. “To go over to his place and watch him make it was something else. It flowed out of him like a fast-moving waterfall. It was amazing to watch.”

King Zulu, 1986 by Jean-Michel Basquiat Credit: Courtesy Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Gasull Fotografia

In 1985, Basquiat appeared, barefoot, on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. By then, he was dressing in paint-splattered Armani suits and hanging out with a very glamorous set – “the Warhol crowd”, as Vonholstein describes it: “It was rarefied, but debauched.” Did success change him? “What changed was the fact that he had money to do drugs,” Vonholstein replies. “He was always high. At a certain point, I had to give his keys back, because I did not want to find his dead body. I’m shocked he lived that long. He was a monster drug addict.” 

She pauses. “And you know why? Because no child can face the entire art world, no matter how much of a genius he is. Emotionally, he was not ready.”

Vonholstein saw Basquiat for the last time in February 1987 when she was working as a waitress at Indochine, a restaurant in Lafayette Street. At that time it was “at the epicentre of New York’s art world”, as she puts it, and “Jean came in sobbing, in the middle of the dining room, because Andy [Warhol] had died. He was despondent, hysterical, out of his mind.”

She tried to comfort him, but, when he implored her to leave with him, she said she couldn’t. “I told him I’d come over after work, but when I got there, he wasn’t home. I still feel guilty.”

In August 1988, Basquiat died of a drug overdose, aged just 27, in his loft in Great Jones Street. Vonholstein heard the news by telephone, in Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, shortly after giving birth to the second of her three children. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81.  Credit: ©New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.Photo: Edo Bertoglio

“His death was awful,” she says. “I really believe that he was cannibalised by the art world, just eaten up by the money.”

Were they all hangers-on and sharks? Vonholstein sighs. 

“Well,” she replies, “they wanted to be in the ray of sunshine of the king, and they did whatever it took. Jean was really magnetic. People were attracted to him like crazy. He was just a very special person.”

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), from Sept 21