I recently watched Tamra Davis’s excellent documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child (2010), and was struck at how the film (and also Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic) glossed over Madonna’s relationship with the renegade artist. Indeed, despite the use of a number of quotes littered throughout the film attributed to Madonna, the fact that she was his girlfriend for a short time is mentioned only fleetingly by Basquiat’s girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, who was seeing Basquiat at the time and dismisses the relationship as ‘an affair’. We also see a painting by Basquiat which depicts Mallouk and Madonna fighting each other. Madonna isn’t spoken about again and the film moves on to focus mainly on Basquiat’s relationship with Warhol, which in many cases was a more important and vital one in his life. But to not talk about Madonna seems both conspicuous and a missed opportunity. Perhaps she had been asked to participate in the film and refused, largely because she hates looking back over her past.
I think the relationship between the artist and the popstar was extremely interesting and if you look at black and white pictures taken of the two at the time, they appear rather sweet together. Basquiat was incredibly handsome and cool, and Madonna was gamine and striking and there is an obvious attraction between the two in the black and white photographs that exist of the pair. But what is really intriguing is how these two individuals met before instant fame would take them in very different directions and one wonders how the relationship shaped the two of them, especially in terms of the work they went on to produce. In those early days they were both unknown and one can only assume that they drew artistic strength from each other. Did Basquiat influence the music Madonna was making at the time? Did Madonna help to shape Basquiat’s ideas about himself? In 1982, his profile was quickly rising on the arts scene and Madonna had just released her debut single, Everybody.
What happened to these star-crossed lovers? Basquiat was purportedly still involved with Mallouk when he met Madonna and she was less than faithful to her many boyfriends at the time. Their relationship lasted well into 1983 but ultimately their way of life was so diametrically opposed that they separated. He was a night owl, a regular on the party scene who would drink all night, work until dawn, and sleep for much of the day. Madonna’s infamous work ethic meant that she would never be able to adapt to this kind of lifestyle and ultimately she moved on. Not long after, both would become iconic. By 1983, Basquiat had his second major show at the Gagosian Gallery and Madonna had her first top-five hit in the US with Lucky Star. By 1984, Basquiat was showing internationally and Madonna had released Like A Virgin (1984) and appeared infamously on the MTV awards for THAT performance of the song. There fame was completely assured.
There are obvious similarities between Madonna and Basquiat which clearly brought them together in the first place – they were both from strict, middle-class backgrounds and they left home young to live in New York to become famous. They both positioned themselves within one of the most exciting art scenes in the world. They were both competitive and ambitious. Their work would borrow from high art and popular culture to create something meaningful and specific about their own identities. And they both used the force of their personalities to create art – they turned themselves into art in the way Warhol so successfully did. But that’s where the similarities end. Basquiat was self-destructive and became addicted to heroin, dying in 1988 from a heroin overdoes age 27. Madonna has gone on to become the biggest global popstar in pop history. Both had incredible fame, but only one of them new how to control it and survive its pitfalls.
Acknowledging Madonna’s relationship with Basquiat is a timely reminder that Madonna came to prominence during one of the most exciting artistic and cultural moments in both New York’s history and the history of art. She was at the epicentre of one of the most creative sets of people ever assembled in downtown New York. Like Basquiat, she lived hand-to-mouth to survive in a city that was deprived and run down. She wanted to be an artist but didn’t know what form that would take (like many around her). She learned her craft from her peers and she was friends with Basquiat, Warhol, and Keith Haring. She outlived all of them (all died three within three years of each other) but their influence can be seen both on her gritty and authentic first album, Madonna (1983) and the imagery she has used throughout her career. The true nature of her relationship with Basquiat may never be revealed – indeed she has always spoken of him respectfully – but it cannot be doubted that their time together shaped their work for the better.