Before Jean-Michel Basquiat could afford studios and canvases, he painted all over his apartments — on walls, doors, refrigerators, and any other bare surface he could find. In 1979, the still unknown artist began transforming his girlfriend Alexis Adler’s East Village home into just such a living installation, covering one wall in a glyph-like mural that reads “Olive Oyl,” painting crowns and “Famous Negro Athletes” on a door, and the word “Milk" on a radiator. Although the couple broke up a year later, and Basquiat died in 1988, Adler, now an embryologist at New York University, bought the apartment they once shared and never painted over his work.
Obviously that turned out to be a wise decision — as was storing his notebooks, postcards, painted clothes, photographs, and drawings on yellow legal paper. Thirty years later, Adler has now begun to assemble a team of advisors to help sort through the material in preparation for a book on the collection and, in all likelihood, an exhibition and sale. “Part of the issue has been that I am a working biologist who has raised two kids on my own and have not had time or energy to deal with it,” Adler said. “Now is the time, however.”
That’s an understatement given Basquiat’s current superstardom. Thousands of attendees visit the 24th Street Gagosian Gallery each day to see the survey of Basquiat paintings that opened last month. In November, bidders topped out his auction record at $26.4 million. And, next year, an exhibition of Basquiat’s notebooks is scheduled to open at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne.
Adler has enlisted Basquiat’s former assistant, Stephen Torton, to represent her in future sales, and she already has interest from filmmaker Sara Driver and art critic Luc Sante, a college friend of Adler’s who's a good candidate to write an essay for the upcoming book. Fine Art Restoration's Lisa Rosen is refurbishing and removing the wall, and former Gracie Mansion gallery director Sur Rodney Sur has catalogued the 65 or so items in the collection.
“The thing that’s most interesting is the material she has to support the actual artwork,” Sur said. Apart from the paintings and drawings, Adler has a script for a play Basquiat wrote and some 50 rolls of 35mm film documenting the artist at work, modeling his painted clothes, and just going about everyday life (back when he still sported a shaved head). “A lot of the signage he used in his work over and over again, this was when he was developing it. The idea that it’s all together in one place makes it even more important.”
For instance, Sur credits Basquiat’s sometime depiction of scientific formulas and compounds to his time with Adler, who was a biology student in those days. He said Basquiat was fascinated by her textbooks and copied much of the imagery.
Adler has not confirmed any plans for a sale yet, but the endeavor would have interesting results. For one thing, the market for Basquiat's archival material remains largely untested. “Auctions typically like blue-chip work, not ephemera,” said art advisor Wendy Cromwell. While Christie’s has had success selling off a trove of minor works from the Andy Warhol Foundation, that collection bears the estate’s stamp of approval. The Basquiat Authentication Committee endorsed six of Adler's paintings and drawings before disbanding last year.
Private sales, however, seem to be opening up to certain kinds of nontraditional works from the era, like Keith Haring’s subway drawings, which were once impossible to authenticate but have been popping up on the market more frequently in recent times. Three years ago, a 1984 Basquiat door, also painted with crowns, sold at Phillips for a hefty $1.8 million.
Educational institutions present another viable opportunity for the collection. “I would think the Smithsonian would be all over this kind of thing, the archives of American art, where you would want a repository of photographs documenting the work,” said Cromwell.
This early work, after all, is most likely to attract serious Basquiat fans and scholars who are interested in the artist’s evolution. “When he was partnered with Alexis they were just a couple; no one then knew that Basquiat would become what he became. That's why this work is so important,” said Sur. “We tend to get trapped in what we know of his art production and think of everything as an extension to that model, which it’s not. These were very important explorative times for him, although his signature style was already formed.”
Regardless, Adler is in no hurry. She says she is financially secure and has already waited 30 years, after all. “I just want to show it,” she said. Her two children are now grown and she has a boyfriend who lives uptown, which means that these days her cats are the main witnesses to the mural. “And that’s a damn shame,” she said, “because it’s a beautiful piece of art.”