2017-02-13 17:37:09
The Jean-Michel Basquiat You Haven’t Seen

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a new exhibition on Jean-Michel Basquiat is a love letter of sorts — to the artist from a former girlfriend, and to a downtown New York art scene now long gone.

“Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, is the first museum show to focus on the work and life of the artist in the brief time he lived with Alexis Adler in a sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village of Manhattan. It was a period that the exhibition posits as a seminal year of multifaceted creative exploration in the artist’s life, before painting took precedence.

“Basquiat’s time with Alexis was an important transitional moment because he was still exploring many creative outlets with equal passion, including playing music, performance, drawing and writing,” said Nora Abrams, the show’s curator.

Ms. Adler, 60, saved more than 100 photos, art objects and ephemera from the era. “Our apartment overflowed with art and love,” she recalled on a wintry New York day, in the homey kitchen of the place they once shared. Among the treasures is a sculpture Basquiat made of the carapace of an old radiator he found on the street. In one of her more personal photos, he practices clarinet on the edge of the bathtub in their 400-square-foot squat.

“We were punk pioneers homesteading in this ever-evolving remnant of the neighborhood,” she writes in the exhibition catalog. “Art blossomed by feeding off the lawless decay.”

Ms. Adler, now an embryologist in a fertility lab, was “a Barnard biology grad with a strong hippie streak” in 1979, when she met a 19-year-old Basquiat. He was four years her junior, and she and her friends in the club scene had been admiring his street graffiti and SAMO© tag all over downtown. Soon, the two moved into a warren of four tiny rooms on East 12th Street. During the months they lived together, while Ms. Adler worked in a lab at Rockefeller University, he transformed the floors, walls, doors and furniture into raw materials for his creative explorations. In his sketches on view in Denver, he has copied diagrams of chemical compounds he borrowed from Ms. Adler’s science textbooks.

“This material was virgin territory,” said Adam Lerner, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, who in 2015 approached Ms. Adler about the collection: “drawings, collages, sculpture, notebooks, scripts and photos of Basquiat performing and creating during this time — about a year before his mature work — and yet all of it completely unstudied or even dated, titled or cataloged.”

Dieter Buchhart, a curator based in Vienna and New York who has organized Basquiat exhibitions around the world, including one opening on Sept. 21 at the Barbican gallery in London, said the public emergence of the Adler collection “definitely will add to the scholarship because it’s a window to this time and a missing link to the drawings from high school and the works in public spaces — the SAMO© and the graffiti — and then it’s his transition from work in public spaces to the gallery.”

Basquiat died at 27 of a heroin overdose, in 1988. “Most of what is known about him comes from art he made in less than a decade,” Mr. Lerner said.

The museum catalog, however, avoids the scholarly in favor of reminiscences from friends of Ms. Adler and Basquiat, including downtown denizens like Luc Sante, Darryl Pinckney and Sur Rodney Sur, who recall the era’s vibe and ethos.

On a rainy January day, before art handlers arrived to crate the objects in Ms. Adler’s apartment and send them to Denver, she darted about. With her frizzy red hair pulled back, and a radiator clanging against the chill, she stood in her kitchen to fold a careful pile of sweatshirts and other garments Basquiat had painted to sell on the streets of New York. He also painted clothing belonging to her, sometimes unbidden; the day after buying a gold lamé coat, she was irritated to discover he had painted all over it in the night. She modeled the now-treasured possession.

Then she donned white gloves to handle one of the artist’s notebooks: “They make me wear these now,” she said.

To illustrate how he used the apartment as a studio and a canvas, the Denver museum has built a partial recreation of the railroad-style flat as it looked when Basquiat lived there, and a reproduction of the building’s Basquiat-graffitied hallways and stairwells (long since painted over).

Although Ms. Adler said that she and Basquiat often shared her bed, the two weren’t exclusive. “We shared a lot of love and had an amazing intimacy that came with living together,” she said. “We had sex, but each of us had multiple sexual partners and our own room.”

Basquiat had a long list of lovers in his short life. And Ms. Adler is not the only one who has gone public about their relationship, or exhibited souvenirs from it: Suzanne Mallouk’s story is told in the book “Widow Basquiat”; Madonna, who was not yet famous, later spoke publicly about their relationship; and both Paige Powell and Kelle Inman have participated in exhibitions.

But “Basquiat Before Basquiat” illustrates what Mr. Lerner called “the weird and interesting stuff that no one knows about Basquiat,” especially the artist’s extensive exploration of theatrical performance that Ms. Adler’s photos chronicle. In one series, he plays with broken eyeglasses found on the street, and creates a horror-movie mask with Silly Putty. In another, he goofs around with a football helmet on his head as he tunes a TV that they have absurdly situated inside the refrigerator. And for a series of images of the artist after he shaved his hair to the middle of his scalp, he told Ms. Adler that he wanted to look as if he were “coming and going at the same time.”

By late 1981, when he moved out definitively, he had turned his artistic focus from the streets to a studio-based painting practice. (An untitled canvas he painted the next year sold last May at Christie’s for $57.3 million.)

But for Ms. Adler, why this show and why now? After attending a panel discussion about the artist at her son’s college in 2012, she said she started thinking seriously about how “ridiculous” it was that all this material was in her sole possession. “It was a packed room full of young people hungry for the tiniest morsel of information about Jean,” she recalled.

Days later, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, flooding swaths of downtown. Ms. Adler anxiously checked the basement-level safe deposit box in her bank where she stored many objects from her collection decades earlier. No damage. “But I knew I needed them to find a home where they could be taken care of properly,” she recalled.

In 2014, Ms. Adler put much of her collection up for auction at Christie’s. Two objects excavated from her apartment, a wall mural and a door, sold. But the Basquiat estate, run by the artist’s sisters, filed suit, accusing Christie’s of false advertising and false endorsement claims. According to court papers, they argued that Christie’s catalog suggested the estate had authenticated objects “that had never been submitted to them for review” — and noting that it had not had an authentication committee since 2012. Christie’s canceled the more extensive online auction of items. Ultimately, the case was dismissed, and the subtle difference between “never authenticated” versus “not authentic” became lost in the headlines. (The Basquiat estate did not respond to telephone and email queries for this article.) “Mostly, I was very disappointed to have to bring these objects back home,” she said. “Because I’d looked forward to them being out in the world for people to see.”

That is partly why Ms. Adler said she was excited to see her trove on view for the first time in a museum, and the Denver museum is planning a national tour.

The cover of the catalog is a close-up photograph Ms. Adler said she took one day just as Basquiat awoke. He is sleepy-faced, squinting in the sun. She looked at it and thought for a moment. “It feels almost too intimate to show in public,” she said.