Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, Jennifer Clement: Book Review

A stunning biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s muse.

widow basquiat jennifer clement book review
Widow Basquiat Book Cover Widow Basquiat
Jennifer Clement
Biography & Autobiography
Broadway Books
2014
Paperback
186

Suzanne Mallouk, the longtime partner of art superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat, blazes to life in this biography of a modern-day muse. After meeting Basquiat, a street-art savant, Mallouk joins him on a roller coaster ride through the booze, sex, and drug-soaked world of the 1980s art scene in New York City.

Along the way, she hones her own artistic talent and cares for the deeply troubled Basquiat as he struggles with the heroin addiction that will eventually kill him. Written by award-winning poet Jennifer Clements, the book weaves lyrical prose with excerpts from Mallouk’s own diaries to create an electrifying collage of memory and madness.

 

When someone gushes about how much they loved a book, so much so that they “couldn’t put it down,” it’s almost always hyperbole—they definitely had to at least grab a sandwich, or go to the bathroom, or feed their cat somewhere in the process of reading, right?

But it’s really not an exaggeration when I say that I could not put down Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiather 2015 biography of artist Suzanne Malloukuntil I turned the last page. I sat in the atrium of the museum where I bought it and devoured all 180 pages in one sitting. If you have the time, I would highly recommend doing the same. It’s a fiery and exhilarating read, like doing a shot of liquor spiked with Tabasco. Clement’s writing is lush and inviting, but make no mistake—it has a bite.

It’s clear from the outset of the biography/memoir hybrid that Suzanne was never destined for a normal existence. Born to a British mother and Palestinian father, Suzanne grows up in an abusive household in which she is routinely tossed against walls, slapped, and scarred. Her only wish in life is to leave. 

“Don’t worry, sweetie,” her mother tells her.“One day you’ll set the world on fire.”

— excerpt from Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat

She moves from Ontario, Canada to New York City on Valentine’s Day, 1980. Formidably beautiful and wielding a smoldering intellect and ambition, Suzanne quickly becomes a well-known cigarette girl and bartender in seedy New York clubs. A few months later, she meets a boy named Jean-Michel in the bar where she works. He is slender, almost skeletal, wears a long gray coat, and orders the most expensive drinks.

She calls him “Jean.” He calls her “Venus.” The famed art historian Rene Ricard calls her Basquiat’s “widow,” long before the artist’s death from a heroin overdose at 27, and despite the fact that the two never married.

Suzanne lives and works by Basquiat’s side throughout his meteoric rise to fame in the 1980s, indulging in the excesses of the era while resolutely carving out her own distinct place within the New York artistic community. She is his lover, his muse, his punching bag, his caretaker. He is simultaneously possessive and neglectful; childish and world-weary; utterly thrilling and wholly exhausting. Though Suzanne is capable and independent, Jean-Michel proves as addictive as the drugs he injects—a beautiful boy genius with a demented, self-destructive bent. 

Someone less radiant may have been easily extinguished by the smothering nature of Basquiat’s love and celebrity, but Suzanne somehow remains steadfast in the face of her partner’s mercurial and often abusive behavior. Similarly, though the book provides a fascinating, complex look into the life and work of Basquiat himself, his mythology never eclipses Suzanne’s story. Her personality, drive, and fabled beauty shine through the text—a result of both Clement’s rich, wrenching characterization and the inclusion of excerpts from Suzanne’s personal journals in every chapter.

Widow Basquiat is an extraordinary read for many reasons. To begin with, Clement is a celebrated poet, a fact that is evident on every page. Her dexterity with language is on full display in even the smallest fragments of text, and there is something syrupy and sweet, though never overly saccharine, about her prose. In her writing there are textures that envelop your senses, ushering you into the heightened and heady world of her protagonists.

Clement artfully traces the complex, tortuous arcs of Basquiat and Mallouk’s relationship from decadence to decay and back again. The couple pushes and pulls each other like tides, as Jean-Michel flirts with any man, woman, or addictive substance that crosses his path, leaving Suzanne to literally pick up the pieces of artwork and debris he leaves behind in their squalid apartments.

“Jean-Michel is made for the night, like a mole. The day­light hurts, the sun hurts, but at night he is transformed into a magician, a Merlin with everything wound up tight and sparkling. Nights are for drugs. Drugs are for nights. In daylight, he looks for his shadow and crawls up inside it.

Jean-Michel stands at her doorstep. Suzanne says, ‘No, no, no, you can’t come back.’ He is disheveled. One of the soles of his shoes flaps open and she can see his toes. He is unshaven. He brings no belongings with him. He does not expect her to take him in. Like all stray animals, he knows he will not be taken in.”

— excerpt from Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat

The book also provides unparalleled insights into Basquiat’s creative process and reveals rich histories behind the creation of specific artworks. Anyone with an interest in modern art history will be enraptured by Clement’s description of the real-life scene Basquiat captured in “Arroz Con Pollo” (1981), and riveted and disturbed by the origins of “Bombero” (1983).

However, although it careens into some of the deepest and most intimate corners of his life, this is by no means a book about Basquiat. It is through Suzanne’s experiences that we are granted a front row seat to his terrors and his triumphs, and it is through her eyes that we begin to understand him as man and artist.

Another reason the book proves particularly riveting and timely is the way it organically addresses issues of race and identity, and the institutions of white supremacy that exist both in the art world and world at large.

In the chapter “No Black Men in Museums,” Jean-Michel sprinkles water around the halls of MoMA, performing what Suzanne calls a “voodoo trick” in protest of the museum’s lack of representation — still a hot button issue decades after Basquiat’s prime.

“There are no black men in museums,” he says. “Try counting…”

Suzanne cannot find even one.

“This is another white man’s cotton plantation,” he explains.

— excerpt from Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat

The topic of police brutality arises later on in the book after Suzanne befriends Michael Stewart, a busboy at the Pyramid Club who is later violently beaten to death by police officers. Together with Stewart’s family, Suzanne collects 4,000 signatures demanding a formal investigation into his death, delivering it to Mayor Ed Koch’s lawyer on the steps of City Hall. His parents are eventually given a settlement, but the officers walk free. This section of the book is told largely through first-person accounts from Suzanne’s diary, in plain, vulnerable language, serving as a stark reminder of historic and continued police violence against black men and women in the U.S.

Mallouk eventually became an acclaimed artist in her own right and is now a practicing psychiatrist in New York City. I’m grateful to her dear friend Jennifer Clements for crafting such an elegant and complex portrait of this relatively unknown artist and arbiter of culture, a portrait of a muse that is in no way objectifying or reductive. Suzanne Mallouk is alive and well, and we should be so lucky to bear witness to wherever life takes her next.

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Written by Justine Goode

LA-born reader. English major. Liberal with em-dashes.