August 12th – We remember two unlikely-to-be-yoked-together heroes. Jean-Michel Basquiat and William Blake, both of whom died on this day,
From the account of Blake’s death by his contemporary, George Richmond (to fellow Blake acolyte, Samuel Palmer) – “He died on Sunday night at 6 o’clock in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to the Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ – Just before he died, His Countenance became fair, His eyes Brighten’d and He burst out into Singing of the things he saw in Heaven. In truth, He Died like a Saint as a person who was standing by Him Observed – He is to be buried on Friday at 12 in the morning…”
Also, perpetually “Standing by Him”, his wife, Catherine Blake, who corroborated this account (telling lawyer and critic Henry Crabb Robinson, who came to visit her the following year, that he had “died like an Angel”)
Hagiography is almost impossible to avoid. Alexander Gilchrist, Blake’s first official biographer, writing some thirty-six years later, cites Blake’s friend, John Thomas Smith:
“On the day of his death”, writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, “he composed and uttered songs to his Maker, so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said. “My beloved, they are not mine. No! they are not mine!”. He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her….. In that plain, back room [at 3 Fountain Court], so dear to the memory of his friends, and to them beautiful from association with him – with his serene cheerful converse, his high personal influence, so spiritual and rare – he lay chaunting Songs to Melodies, both the inspiration of the moment, but no longer as of old to be noted down. To the pious Songs followed,, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife, who sat by his side…”
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Not to contrast this with the sordid, appalling, tragic, death of the young and gifted artist (it is, after all, their lives and their genius and their considerable achievements that we are today celebrating), but the contrast is, undeniably, stark. Basquiat died Friday August 12, 1988 at his home in New York, at 57 Great Jones Street, (he was pronounced dead-on-arrival on delivery to the Cabrini Medical Center – the autopsy report produced later revealed he had died from “acute mixed drug intoxication (opiates-cocaine)”)
From Phoebe Hoban’s Basquiat – A Quick Killing in Art (1998 – revised edition, 2010)
“Kelle Inman, Basquiat’s twenty-two-year-old girlfriend, was downstairs writing in the journal that Basquiat had given her. He usually slept all day, but when he still hadn’t come down for breakfast by midafternoon, Inman got worried. When she looked into the bedroom to check up on him, the heat hit her full in the face, like a wave. But Basquiat seemed to be sleeping peacefully, so she went back downstairs. She and the housekeeper heard what sounded like loud snores, but thought nothing of it.
A few hours later, Basquiat’s friend Kevin Bray called. He and Basquiat and another friend, Victor Littlejohn, were supposed to go to a Run-D.M.C. concert that evening, and he wanted to make plans with Jean-Michel. Kelle climbed back up the stair’s to give Basquiat the message. This time, she found him stretched on the floor, his head Jean-Michael on his arm like a child’s, a small pool of vomit forming near his chin.
Inman panicked. She had never seen anyone die, although Basquiat’s drug binges had made the scenario a constant fear. Now it seemed like the worst had happened. She ran to the phone and called Bray, Littlejohn, and Vrej Baghoomian, Basquiat’s last art dealer.
“When I got there,” recalls Bray, “Kelle said she had called an ambulance. She took me upstairs. Jean-Michel looked like he was comfortably out cold. He was on the floor, lying against the wall, as if he had fallen down and didn’t have the strength to get up, and was just taking a nap. There was a lot of clear liquid coming out of his mouth. We picked him up and turned him over. We shook him, and we just kept trying to revive him. It took a long time for the ambulance to arrive. But for a while, after the guys from the Emergency Medical Service came, we thought he was going to be okay. They were giving him shocks and IV treatment. Victor had to hold Jean-Michel up like this so the IV’s would drain,” says Bray, stretching his arms out in a cruciform.
Bray couldn’t take it anymore. He went downstairs, where Inman, and two assistants from the Baghoomian gallery, Vera Calloway and Helen Traversi, were trying to stay calm. “We tried to take his pulse. His skin was so hot,” says Calloway. Baghoomian called the studio just as the paramedics arrived. He was in San Francisco and Helen was forced to act in his stead.
“It was almost like it was some sort of business transaction,” says Bray. “They put a tube in his throat and they brought him downstairs. They wouldn’t tell us whether he was dead or alive and they took him outside. He had this beautiful bubbling red-white foam coming out of his mouth.”
Basquiat was 27 years old, a little over four months shy of his 28th birthday.
For a full celebration (including video and links to significant articles) – see here
Allen’s photo of Basquiat (taken the previous December) is here
This past May, (2017) Jean-Michel ‘s 1982 painting, “Untitled” (a painting of a skull) sold at Sotheby’s for $110.5 million, the sixth most expensive work ever to be sold at auction.
Er… Is that a crossed-out “A.G” on the bottom left-hand corner?